Teaching basic composition over the last couple of years, I have noticed that editing and revising are not necessarily built into students’ timeframes. The rough draft is the thing that needs to be done, and if the rough draft is the final draft, then so be it. Revision seems to be the luxury of far less busy folks. Revision is for students who have nothing better to do than scour their essays for errant commas, whilst eating bonbons beneath a lazily turning fan (I’m getting all kinds of Tennessee Williams images here). Or so I imagine. Why else would some of my students’ work be riddled with grammatical errors, sense errors, spelling mistakes, and a deluge of vying fonts?
Revision is a strange process. I would hazard to say that each writer’s revision process is as unique as his/her writing style itself. While for some revision might seem like the enjoyable, last step (once all the heavy lifting of the rough draft is done), this is not the way many other writers feel. In fact, revision generates some pretty passionate, and even volatile, reactions.
Tiffany Madison, journalist and fiction writer, says “While writing is like a joyful release, editing is a prison where the bars are my former intentions and the abusive warden my own neuroticism.”
Stephen King tells us, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
Don Roff, author and filmmaker, says, “I’ve found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living shit out of it.”
And finally, Nick Hornby, novelist, suggests this: “Anyone and everyone taking a writing class knows that the secret of good writing is to cut it back, pare it down, winnow, chop, hack, prune, and trim, remove every superfluous word, compress, compress, compress…”
Let’s take a moment and think about the diction used in these quotes to describe editing/revising: prison, abusive, kill, rip, chop, hack, prune. All incredibly violent words. All incredibly invasive. For these writers, the first draft was the joy, and the subsequent drafts were varying versions of suffering.
My mother used to say to me that I was a perfect rose garden, but I just needed to be pruned; by which she meant, I had flaws, and she would root them out. Of course I was resistant to this metaphor. Might this be the way writers feel about having their work edited by an external editor? Might this be the way we feel about ourselves when we self-edit?
In thinking about revising my own work, I find that I vacillate between being petulant about the revision process and excited that my poetry is improving before my eyes with each additional read-through. The petulance emerges, I think, because I think about those writers who either reject editing altogether (Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought” approach or Anne Rice’s emphatic rejection of outside editors: “I have no intention of allowing any editor ever to distort, cut or otherwise mutilate sentences that I have edited and re-edited, and organized and polished myself . . .”) or those who seemed to reject editing (in this case, I’m thinking about some famous poets whose recent works seemed less edited, less tightly constructed, and yet as equally praised as earlier works). Either way, it’s an unhelpful petulance, because what I’m doing then is comparing my work with work that I don’t particularly like. Why should that be my yardstick?
In returning to my earlier question about my students and their seeming lack of revision, maybe I should consider that they, too, might feel somewhat petulant. And not only that, but somewhat exposed and nervous. No one wants to “rip,” “kill,” “hack” their work. In teaching my students, maybe what I should be focusing on is getting them over this hump of whatever it is: petulance, nervousness, frustration . . . pride.
Maybe pride has more to do with revision than I originally thought. Don’t we all want to create something perfectly birthed from our minds, with no need for pruning? And if we don’t, does that say something about our own abilities?
Maybe we think it does, but it shouldn’t. I think the only way over this hump for any of us, whether for my students, or for myself, is to get beyond the pride and the petulance a few times, and to see the other side of a well-edited poem, essay, short story. Experiencing the satisfaction of a polished piece of writing enough times might make us more inclined to embrace the self- or external editor.
I am reminded of a part in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (one of the seven books in the Chronicles of Narnia series by C. S. Lewis), in which Eustace, a particularly petulant and sulky boy, is turned into a dragon. Of course, he can’t stay a dragon, but he doesn’t know how to unchange himself. Eventually, Aslan (a great lion and Christ-like figure), painfully and slowly peels off Eustace’s dragon flesh, until Eustace is himself again, but fresh and new. Less sulky. Less petulant.
We must learn to embrace this change in our writing from something clunky, rough, awkward to something tighter, more polished, more graceful. The process may still be painful, but on the other side is better writing, plain and simple.