Revising, from the top

Belle the Revision Dog supervises all edits. Shown: typical summer habitus.

Last summer, in Italy, I stood gaping before Michelangelo’s David and reflexively took a photo—no flash, but forgetting that all tourists’ photos of him are banned—and got chastised. Supposedly Michelangelo said he made the immortal statue by just chipping away what didn’t look like David. I’ve thought of writing as having to first create a block of marble, then pounding it into a narrative. Which must be an evident metaphor, because Bill Roorbach mentioned it in his blog’s recent advice post in trying to answer my question about how to cut my book.

Standing amidst the slag I’ve already jettisoned, I am too close now to the shaped narrative to see what else should go. And I don’t want to put the book in a drawer for ten years. I’m long-winded, as readers of this blog know, but in theory I understand the power of concision.

My impulsive forbidden photo

One of the reasons To Kill a Mockingbird is a perfect movie—aside from brilliant casting, score, and narration—is that Horton Foote compressed the novel’s three years into one, focusing on Boo Radley, the racial incident, and the trial. The novel drags a bit for me, and I read it most successfully as an atmospheric memoir, which it appears to be, except for Harper Lee’s inspired fictionalized use of a real racial incident for the dramatic core of her book. When the movie was edited Gregory Peck insisted the children be trimmed further, and the director excised the thread of Jem’s and Scout’s relationship with Mrs. Dubose. She ends up just a mean old lady on a porch, and the spotlight shines more strongly on Peck and the trial. I think Peck was right, whatever his motives, but of course today we’d watch every outtake if we could. (I’m an instant expert from reading the recent biography of Lee, Mockingbird, plus watching the DVD’s commentaries.)

As I try to cut my memoir, at least I’ve seen a new way in, thanks to a friend’s reading. She showed me that while I’ve written a rather chronological story, my memoir may need to open with something out of sequence. This is common, of course. Recently I saw Lidia Yuknavitch do it in her edgy memoir The Chronology of Water. For Yuknavitch, a competitive swimmer, water is a metaphor for the flowing, non-chronological nature of memory. Actually hers is a chronological unfolding overall, too, beginning with her traumatic girlhood in her dysfunctional family, but it opens with the stillbirth of her daughter. Yet the way she writes, what she focuses on and how she tells it, her very syntax, de-emphasizes her story’s chronological spine. (Thanks to Cynthia Newberry Martin at Catching Days for calling attention to The Chronology of Water.)

Several weeks ago I lugged my manuscript to my friend Candyce Canzoneri for feedback. It had grown in my latest rewrite by 220 pages, to 520. Candy is a writer with a wonderful sense of humor, and reading my doorstopper took someone with a blithe spirit. She gave me her response to the first act right away: pretty good, except the first chapter’s opening is all wrong. It was about the fifth or so version of  that chapter.

But I knew she was right. The entire chapter wasn’t bad, she said, but the first five or so pages describing me and my family finding a farm in Appalachia didn’t work. I got readers imprinted on that farm, and we didn’t end up with it. Readers are like goslings: they imprint on first things. What appears and moves out first.

Yuknavitch's edgy memoir

The opening had virtues I hated to lose: it was a long, vivid, rolling scene—therefore inherently dramatic and engaging and experiential—and smoothly introduced the cast of characters and a smidgen of background. But Candy said, “I’m not sure yet where it should start, but not there.” She found what she sought in chapter seven. “That Bromfield stuff,” she said. “Start with that.”

She was right again, though reworking the passage has been a challenge. The Bromfield stuff, about the influence on me as a kid of Ohio novelist and agrarian writer Louis Bromfield, was interlocked with references to material readers had learned about earlier. And yet I saw that leading with Bromfield solved so many more problems than it caused. It’s a passage with a lot of heat—though it’s mostly expository—and shows why a child of the suburbs wanted to farm. In short, a teenager growing up in a Florida beach town, pining for the loss of his family’s Georgia farm when he was six, stumbles across reprints of postwar Malabar Farm and Pleasant Valley, two of the most romantic books ever written about agriculture. It was like pouring gasoline on a pile of parched driftwood and striking a match. And I realize only now how much Bromfield’s romantic prose underlies my own attempts at describing the lovely Appalachian landscape of southeastern Ohio.

Pleasant Valley is a memoir about Bromfield’s return to northeastern Ohio from France in 1938. Having fled the Nazis, the writer, by then a famous and Pulitzer-winning novelist, sought refuge in the purchase of farms totaling about 1,000 acres. The book opens with a scene of Bromfield, his wife, and his literary manager driving into a hushed snowy valley, where the writer imagines the dreamy summer landscape he’d known as a child:

What I saw was a spring stream in summer, flowing through pastures of bluegrass and white clover and bordered by willows. Here and there in the meanderings of the stream there were deep holes where in the clear water you see the shiners and the bluegills, the sunfish and the big red horse-suckers and now and then a fine small-mouthed bass. On a hot day you could strip off your clothes and slip into one of those deep holes and lie there in the cool water among the bluegills and crawfish, letting the cool water pour over you while the minnows nibbled at your toes. And when you climbed out to dry in the hot sun and dress yourself, you trampled on mint and its cool fragrance scented all the warm air about you. . . .

And I saw the old mills, high, unpainted, silver-gray with the weathering of a hundred years, the big lofts smelling of wheat and corn and outside the churning millrace where fat, big carp and suckers lay in the deep water to feed on the spilled grain and mash.

In such broad brushstrokes Bromfield painted the lost world of his boyhood. I was his perfect reader. Curled up in an overstuffed chair in our house a block from the beach, I learned of America’s true paradise: Ohio. Oh, the irony. Well, here I am in Ohio today. Without him I wouldn’t have accepted a fellowship to Ohio State—just so I could visit Malabar Farm, now a state park—and wouldn’t have met my future wife without him.

Bromfield’s work occasioned some memorable, if terse, talks with my depressive father, who in the wake of his farming dreams was making his way as an executive at Kennedy Space Center. When I showed Dad those cheap mass market paperbacks I’d found in the mall bookstore—color covers of dewy pastures and freshly turned loamy soil— he pointed out the originals in his library. His hardcover versions, bound in black cloth, were embossed with a red Harper & Brothers logo showing a torch being passed from one hand to another.

Revising is hard work

I’m not happy that two thirds of my first chapter is now expository rather than scenic. Yet I know I went overboard with scenes in the last rewrite—one of the reasons the book is so long; scenes take more pages than summary. I was in good voice when I started writing almost six years ago, and the Bromfield passages, generated early, retain some of that sunny spirit. I was unselfconsciously expository, and very confident, having nary a clue about the depth of my ignorance about writing a book. Thank goodness.

And now, thanks to Candy’s keen eye, I’ve found a new opening and knocked the book back to 450 pages. And counting . . .


Filed under editing, memoir, MY LIFE, revision, scene, structure, working method

10 responses to “Revising, from the top

  1. Linda Lancione

    What a great dog!

  2. Thanks! I agree. Still getting to know her, a six year old animal shelter rescue. She’s smart and funny.

  3. richard moore

    Thanks for another excellent commentary. Couple of my own comments and questions.
    >I liked the focus on getting a narrative’s structure and focus right. Never easy, of course. However, I didn’t follow the linkage between the structure & focus of To Kill a Mockingbird, and what comes later about your own efforts in this/these areas.
    >Interested in how you were influenced by the Yuknavitch book and by Ms Canzoneri. Which one influenced you most and how regarding your opening?
    >I kept wondering (did I miss it?) what the theme of your memoir is: what about what its about? (I think I am copping from Judith Barrington here). I have a chronic hang-up about what each narrative is REALLY trying to communicate. Is that clear here?
    >Finally: there is a lot of back and forth in your commentary about what appears to be a tension (in your mind) between exposition/summary versus scenes. This seems a stylistic issue: that is, what works best for what aspect of the narrative? I realize that there can be no formulas, but: any tips on which narrative approaches work best for which kinds of situations or material?
    Sorry to be prolix. Hope you keep sending your welcome and instructive ice reflections and insights into la vie litteraire.

  4. Wow, you are a careful reader. I noticed after I rambled through it that this is really about two separate things—beginnings and how that relates to overall structure; and cutting—but I was lazy and let it go. I hate the criticism that a writer is “self indulgent,” because a writer is usually trying to show or explain and is unaware s/he’s annoying the reader—BUT I do admit to being self indulgent in my blog posts.

    I was impressed by The Chronology of Water and by how she opened it, but it really was Candy seeing something in Chapter Seven of my ms. that got me to change it. I was just struck by the parallel.

    My memoir is about a guy who dreamed of farming, pursued the dream at great emotional and physical cost, became a farmer, learned he was temperamentally unsuited to doing it and shouldn’t have—and didn’t regret it for one moment. That is why the Bromfield stuff did so much work, saving lots of backing and filling and build up. It encapsulates a lot.

    I was very expository and late to see the power of scene, not just in dramatic terms but in the way it conveys experience, vital for memoir. So I went kind of wild and now am trying to find the right balance. Scenes are just dramatized action and almost always contain a fair bit of exposition too, of course.

    • Thanks to Richard Moore, we get a succinct summary of Richard Gilbert’s memoir-in-progress! I am fascinated by both the content, as a farmer’s daughter who only wanted to escape the farm, especially on hot summer days like we are having now. I can also identify completely with the struggle to balance scenes with reflection and exposition.

      Your blog posts are always so dense, Richard. I love that, but sometimes if I am in a rush, I don’t get to savor them the way I would like. My problem. Not yours. Thanks for offering so much from mind, heart, and spirit.

  5. Hi, Richard,

    My heart goes out to you! The first chapter is the HARDEST! Getting the voice right, and launching the book in a way that works. All I can say is I hope it all becomes clear. It will sound glib to say I’m sure it will, but I do think it will! I appreciate your sharing your thoughts with us in such an honest, open way as you go through all this process. You’re always interesting to read on your blog. And I love the summer picture with Belle! Burning up here in Minneapolis. best, Paulette

  6. Revising is such hard work…and cutting can be too. One thing I was taught about book structure is that your first chapter should in some way link to the most climactic chapter later in the book. Let’s say there are 12 chapters ( a common number for memoirs), the climax would fall around 8-9 ish. Without having read your book it’s hard to say but it sounds like your friend might have been on to something when she directed you to Ch. 7 …
    You mentioned page counts, but out of curiosity how many chapters does your book have?
    Unrelated, I love your dog! She looks like she could be related to mine:

    • Elizabeth,

      Our dogs could be identical twins! Belle is supposed to be a Jack Russell or “JR mix” as the shelter said. She has the same look and coat as yours.

      Your sense of structure for twelve chapters makes a lot of sense per the classic three-act structure: three chapters in first act, ending in a climax of some sort; six chapters in the second act ending in a bigger climax–at chapter nine, yes; and three chapters in the final act in which the story is resolved and tied up.

      Mine, alas, has 20 chapters, plus an Epilogue, so you can see that if each chapter is just over 20 pages how my ms. can end up 450 pages or more.

  7. Beginnings are so difficult. I’m glad The Chronology of Water was helpful. I’ve been working on my graduating lecture and was taking a close look at Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years–she had to have written her opening chapters after she finished writing the rest of the book. Something to think about.