Tag Archives: Chapter After Chapter

Revise, then polish

“The writer who writes for revision does not wait for a final draft but works through a series of discovery, Sellersdevelopment, and clarification drafts until a significant meaning is found and made clear to the reader.”—Donald M. Murray, The Craft of Revision (Fifth Edition)

Not many years ago, I was having dinner with a writer I admired, and when she mentioned having multiple versions of an essay I said, “You do? That surprises me.”

“I’m surprised that you’re surprised,” she said.

At the time, I was still polishing and calling that rewriting or editing. I didn’t even know what revision is or that it makes new versions—sometimes two, sometimes four. Sometimes six. Keep them all!

Our cuts, restructuring, and additions we make in trying to make a piece work might not work themselves. Or parts of them might work and some parts won’t. We find this out down the road as a manuscript jells. (Note to MFA students: This why even the best teacher’s review early in the process can be unhelpful.)

Right now, I am adding a chapter that was dropped from my memoir a couple of years ago. That old limbo chapter—which existed in three separate versions—now fits the narrative. In picking and choosing from the previous three versions, I now have two or three more of “What Freckles Taught Me.”

(Freckles was a sheep—pictured in my last post—and today’s photo shows her last two lambs on my lap.)

As Heather Sellers says of revision in her excellent Chapter After Chapter, “It’s not a process of improvement; it’s a Richard,Lambsprocess of learning. Revision means you ‘re-see’ your piece. You see it again and again, in a slightly different light each time. Some lights are more useful, more flattering, more interesting. Some aren’t. Revision is information gathering. It’s not a slow and steady always-forward moving march toward perfection. Revision means making a mess, not straightening up. (Editing is straightening up.)”

Most of writers’ time is spent not writing but revising, she says. And I have to agree, since it took me a year and a half to write the 500 pages I’ve been reworking now for two and a half. Now the book is 200 pages leaner, and I remember what a former teacher, a veteran editor, correctly told me when it was still 100 pages longer and I said I was polishing: “Stop polishing and start cutting.”

What I tell my students about their rewrites of short essays is this: don’t just clean up the copy, make the suggested edits. Do a “save as” and submit a whole new piece. You may not like it as well, and you may be right, but you’ll have two versions of your masterpiece.

Sellers again: “Every time I work on a piece, I make some parts better and some parts worse. When I am sick of making versions, I choose the one I think is best, polish it to the best of my ability, and submit it to publication.”

When it gets rejected, she produces a new version, or maybe restores an earlier one: “With each new version, I learn more about the truth of the piece, so I know which one to pick, which one is right, even if it’s an early draft. Learning is a series of little improvements punctuated by many, many, many terrible disasters.”

But this is why everyone says writing is rewriting, which isn’t what I used to think; it’s not editing or polishing one perfect copy. There always are many ways to tell something and no one right way. But there may be an optimum version that’s discovered through revision. As Don Murray’s quote above indicates, what often happens is that it takes true revision, and many versions, for a writer to discover his structure and what he’s really writing about, his theme or deeper meaning.


Filed under discovery, editing, memoir, MFA, revision, structure, theme, working method

Discovery and structure

Whether they’re brooders or plungers, all writers suffer the same problem, how to discover and recognize their good stuff or even to find their true subjects. Writers lament how much material they must produce and then cut. Writing can seem so wasteful, and that’s painful: the useless work! Art seems to rely on having lots to select from, but getting bogged down in the swamp in the middle of the pathless forest can dishearten: Where is this thing going?

For writer Heather Sellers, the key to strong content and to reader and writer interest is structural: she advocates Sellersinterweaving multiple stories. As she points out in “Use Braiding to Layer Your Story Line,” in the current issue (July/August 2009) of Writer’s Digest magazine, this works because it fosters discovery and juxtapositions. And it mimics the way people discuss several topics with each other at the same time.

It also reflects how we think. I realized the other day, while taking a long walk on the bike path with my terrier, that I was thinking about at least three different things. Sellers says she judged an essay contest in which ninety percent of the pieces failed because they concerned one predetermined topic. “No room to wiggle around . . . discover the interesting, previously unnoticed thing,” she writes. “Art relies on surprise. In order to engage the reader (and yourself as a writer), you have to braid. You can’t be confusing, but you can’t spell it all out, either. The human mind, when it reads, needs something to figure out.”

In her current project, a memoir about her neurological disorder that impairs her ability to remember faces, she’s interweaving three narratives with images that refract off each other: childhood, problems from her condition, and her marriage and divorce. “When I tell the story of my Florida childhood, divorce will be in some of the images,” she writes. “Marriage is about recognizing another person, deeply, profoundly.”

Her structure works to discover her material: “[T]he book teaches me what it is about as I write it. That’s the best way to write a book: to follow a structure that allows you to discover wise insights, images, and a natural organization as you go along.” She adds for emphasis: “You need more than one thing going on at a time. And you don’t need to know how everything will work out. When you braid, happy accidents occur . . .”

I intuitively braided my essay “Remembering Paul,” which was a breakthrough for me. I’d been worrying, as I drafted my memoir of farming in Appalachia, how to write about the death of my hired hand. I feared it would feel arbitrary and heavy-handed to just launch into it. One day when I was cleaning out the barn, Paul’s image came to me—it was the first time I’d done that chore without him—and I got a notebook and recorded such memories as they arose throughout the day. My essay was embedded in the present, in the scene of me and my feisty terrier in the barn (he was killing rats) but was intercut with stories of Paul. The main barn setting resonated with loss of its own—my energy, animals’ deaths, disorder and entropy—that was deepened by Paul’s loss and by my seeing what he had meant.

A more instructive essay, and a better one because its past thread is shown so vividly as an unfolding parallel story, rather than told in expository anecdotes, is Sellers’s own “Tell Me Again Who Are You?” collected in The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. I, edited by Lee Gutkind. Her story of undergoing face-recognition testing in a scanner at MIT is intercut with a narrative in the past of going away to college and finally breaking away from her crazed parents. There’s a lot going on in the essay but it’s always clear where she is physically and in time. A sad motif arises as she calls her husband nightly to report her ordeal at MIT and he can’t remember she’s not still there for a writing meeting. He’s not impaired, just doesn’t care.

Sellers says she uses braiding as a revision strategy, too, believing that simple pieces won’t come to life until they’re “spark fed” complexity with two more braids. And she uses braiding in teaching. She has students take three unrelated topics to construct an essay. Since undergraduates can struggle with one story, this sounds like a recipe for disaster, but I think the key is her instruction that the elements must “mean a lot” to them. Thematic connections will surprise and delight. Even so, such essays will tend to be segmented—three discrete chunks—and as a reader I prefer stories like Sellers’s memoir essay where one thread is a through-line that provides cohesion in a layered narrative. Her MIT adventure in the story’s present is related to her trials shown in the flashback narrative as an odd little girl with “criminally insane” parents and her poignant first experiences at college, including failing to recognize her date after she returns from the restroom.

Her Writers Digest essay was excerpted from her book on writing, Chapter After Chapter, which is about how to live the writer’s life, in the vein of Bird by Bird and Writing Down the Bones. But in the middle of Sellers’s encouragement and her rules and her tough-love advice (she’s made all the mistakes herself—has faded away on books and has dud books under her bed), is that amazing chapter about her favored construction.

Braiding is just a term some now use—call it flashbacks, story lines, backstory—but words for the same technique have different implications and can inspire. Someone else’s nomenclature and her examples can help a writer see his true task.


Filed under braids, threads, craft, technique, creative nonfiction, discovery, essay-narrative, memoir, structure, teaching, education, theme