The spirit of revision

“Works of art are of an infinite solitariness, and nothing is less likely to bring us near to them than criticism. Only love can apprehend and hold them, and can be just towards them.”—Rainer Maria Rilke

Whether composing a poem, struggling with a memoir’s narrative structure, or trying to depict a city’s homelessness problem through one family’s struggle, a writer can be trying to offer a gift to the world. Therefore it’s fitting that an insightful essay on revision in The Writer’s Chronicle (March-April 2008) is by Catherine M. Wallace, who has explored spiritual themes in books such as For Fidelity and Selling Ourselves Short.

In “Care & Feeding of the Work in Progress” Wallace says fault-finding (from what she calls Harpies) doesn’t work. This runs counter to the notion that self-editing and feedback from others must be tough. A writer who is really trying, however, needs to know what’s working so she can focus there, Wallace says. “We need re-vision because our very best work comes from such deep levels of the psyche that we are never fully conscious of what we are doing. . . . To protect your work from Harpies, you have to be willing to imagine that there is more to reality than logical . . . processes. That’s a spiritual issue.”

Her first advice to writers is to be explicit about what they want from readers, which keeps them from dispensing general praise or engaging in egotistical fault-finding that often attacks a work’s most original aspect. I keep relearning that lesson myself, even as I have students write cover letters asking their peers to address specific concerns. I do tell them my rule of thirds: a third of suggestions are great, a third “maybe,” and a third crazy—this range often from the same reader.

Students, knowing how vulnerable classmates feel, do try to praise what they appreciate. But, after Wallace, I’ll give future classes two primary guidelines for workshopping:

• Underline words, phrases, sentences, passages that you love. Try to explain why.
• Tell us what you want to know more about. And put question marks at boring or confusing places, perhaps with a brief explanation.

Focusing on what works creates energy, says Wallace. “In such underlining, two souls can meet at an intensely creative level. The spark of the sacred in me can connect to the spark of the sacred in you. As we read, something profound in us, something deeply holy, can stir to life.”

I feel my role as teacher is to point out as well how ultimately every word choice, punctuation mark, line break, and paragraph return must extend and support the essay’s focus. At the conceptual level, however, Wallace believes that fixing things is a mistake: “muddled passages are usually growing edges,” and helping there stops growth only the writer can make.

Eventually a writer learns he must work until his story grows past being an ego extension to become a promising but frustrating external object. He can then begin to see it for what it is and what it might be. And he asks himself and a few trusted muses How can I make this better? How can I nudge this misshapen clay into something more beautiful?

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