The Joy and Pain of Revision: Strong Body, Strong Mind

from Flickr user robinsbox. What do you see? Look again, do you see something different?
from Flickr user robinsbox. What do you see? Look again, do you see something different?

Most of you know I’ve been working on a memoir.  If you missed it, you can read up here and here and here. In the early days, I was blogging little bits of the drafting. Most of that writing is not recognizable now.

I have the draft. I have a goal of twelve, 3K-to-5K (or 6K or 7K) word revised, muscular, working essays by October 4.

The memoir is why I’ve been neglecting this blog and you dear readers.

I’m going to make it. I’ll make it or something drastic.

It is sloooow going.  It hurts, physically. I cry a lot in the writing hours, I get in funks in my head. I have two finished essays needing polish, and one rough revision that is going to be the longest essay in the collection. I have another twenty-ish essays and essay starts and scenes to cobble together. Some of these are a lot more evolved than others. My strategy has been to work on the least well-developed ones first.

I’m no diva about revising. I have always been merciless about hacking out chunks, removing beautiful phrases, scenes, or characters that make me feel like a gifted writer. I have been blessed along the way by careful, whip-smart readers who make brilliant suggestions. I have also been blessed with a fair amount of chutzpah and determination. I have developed the ability to shut off my ego.

In the current work, I’ve compiled characters for the story’s sake. I have not shied away from the hard, emotional truths, but turning one’s life into a story worth telling is tricky, even if there are dramatic or extreme bits that beg for telling.

Which is why this particular revision is so, so painful.

It is much easier to slash and burn people and events I’ve invented than it is to be a mercenary toward events that have been pivotal or important or shaping to the person I become a little more every day.

Lucky Me.

I love revising.  I love re-reading an essay or story after thirty-six hours or a week and thinking, “I wrote that?! Me?!” I have the memory of a moth when it comes to my own words.

But there’s another sort of writer that I kind of forgot about since undergrad workshops: The writer who argues. My graduate workshops have been a touch belligerent in spots.

In my undergrad workshops, we were strictly forbidden to argue. We were instructed to hold all of our words inside our faces until the last minutes of the critique. We could only speak if someone asked a question that was immediately pertinent to the discussion.

Resultantly, nothing bugs me more than writers who argue with people who give them solid, constructive notes.

Arguing countermands the process, and it is insulting to the reader. It comes off as ungrateful to a person who has taken no small time and effort to read your work and comment thoughtfully. It also makes the person offering critique wonder why she took the time. It makes the writer sound like she thinks the people with whom she’s trusted her darlings are stupid.

Here are some tips if you get belligerent (or even if you don’t) when you get workshopped, critiqued, or when your friends/teachers/family members/beta readers return your draft with notes:

1. Take it in. Even if you bristle initially, as you endure more critique, you will probably stop bristling or bristle less. Listen with your whole brain. Do not plan what you’re going to say next. Some deep breathing or meditation before a critique session can help. Take notes. Sometimes, people will say lovely, poetic things about your work, or notice something you didn’t intend, but that can really work in revision.

2. Take a little break. Nothing is better for revision than the space of time. Go back to the work with the notes in hand (in a separate window on screen, printed, whatever strikes your fancy) and read with fresh eyes.

3. If you’re worried about slashing words that you like for one reason or another, stop. Take them out of the draft and put them in a text file or print them and put them in a folder or whatever works for you. I use a folder in my Scrivener workbook called “Dead Childs.” I have all manner of file names on my hard drive: Dead babies, slaughtered darlings, abortions. There’s nothing wrong with amusing yourself in this endeavor. Laughter, as they say, is the best medicine.

4. Use a journal or a smart phone app or a dicta-phone to capture ideas. As you revise, your characters and scenes will be on your mind. You won’t always be able to leap to your keyboard to tweak, so make notes to jog your memory later. And who knows? Maybe those notes will turn into more complicated revision or show you that your first idea was best after all (though don’t count on the latter).

5. Get some fucking exercise. No joke. I’ve been on this little break from the gym as a get my body used to restaurant work again, and I have been a depressive weirdo. Sweat is therapeutic. And it eddies into every single area of your life. It motivates you to eat well, makes your rest more efficient, and trust me when I tell you it will make your writing time easier to achieve, your goals seem more reachable, and revision will suck a lot less. Strong body = strong mind.