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6 posts categorized "Revision"

June 03, 2007

So What is Revision? And Why Might it Be Important to Writing and Healing?

Here, by way of beginning, are 10 synonyms for the word revision, all found in my desktop thesaurus:


When I look at the list I see a pattern:





From looking again to reappraisal to rethinking—to transformation.

This, I think, is what can come, ultimately, out of the process of revision: transformation--a literal change in form.

And it has always seemed to me that going through this revision process in writing—and perhaps going through it over and over again—can point to what’s possible in healing.

One can look again---at the body itself---at an illness—at a loss---at a particular moment from one’s life. One can see what one perhaps couldn’t see when one was smack in the middle of it. One can, perhaps, see the value of something in a new way. And then----something can change-----

The facts themselves may not change—they usually don’t. What changes, I think, is the way the facts get put together—and the meaning that gets attached to those facts.

E.M. Forster, in his book, Aspects of the Novel, describes the difference between a story and a plot.
A story: “The king died and then the queen died.”
A plot: “The king died, and then the queen died of grief.”

The facts don’t change in the second rendition. The king and queen still die. Those points—those events—remain unchanged. But the dots are now connected in a particular way. A particular meaning is attached. A theory. A hypothesis. (I mean no one but the queen really knows for sure, right? And she might not even know.)

Maybe that’s one of the key things that changes when we practice revision, and maybe that’s what makes the practice of revision especially important to healing: we can reconsider the plot. And we can change it.

June 07, 2007

Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story”: A Radical Revision

When I think about revision—when it comes to writing or healing—I tend to think about it in radical ways. I’m not thinking so much here about rereading a paper or a story and fixing a few grammar or spelling mistakes. Those kinds of surface changes are important in late stages of the writing process, but I tend to think of those kinds of changes as editing or proofreading. When I think about revision I think of something that goes beneath the surface—and nearer to the root.

Looking again—and seeing something that one has never seen before.
Looking again—and seeing where the gaps are----
Looking again—and changing the plot.

The story that comes to mind when I think about this kind of radical revision is Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story,” in his incomparable collection, The Things They Carried.

This is one of those stories better read in its entirety than described, but here is an excerpt to give some sense of it if you’ve not before come across it:

In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed. When a booby trap explodes, you close your eyes and duck and float outside yourself. When a guy dies, like Curt Lemon, you look away and then back for a moment and then look away again. The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.

The story is, at one level, about the death of Curt Lemon. It’s a story about a soldier, home from the war, trying to tell, among other things, about the death of his friend, Curt Lemon. The story is told in fragments—pieces—and at the center is Curt Lemon stepping on a booby-trapped 105 round and the explosion blowing him up into a tree. Curt Lemon’s best friend, Rat Kiley, another soldier, goes mad with grief, after. He shoots at a baby water buffalo in his grief. Over and over. And then he writes Curt Lemon’s sister and he tells her that Curt Lemon was a tremendous human being, that he loved him, the guy was his best friend in the world, his soulmate. And the sister never writes back.

The story continues.

The speaker of the story is home from the war, he’s telling the story, it’s twenty years later, he’s still telling this story, and then he’s telling what it’s like to try and tell it—and that too is all part of the story:

Now and then, when I tell this story, someone will come up afterward and say she liked it. It’s always a woman. Usually it’s an older woman of a kindly temperament and humane politics. She’ll explain that as a rule she hates war stories; she can’t understand why people want to wallow in all the blood and gore. But this one she liked. The poor baby buffalo, it made her sad. Sometimes, even, there are little tears. What I should do, she’ll say, is put it all behind me. Find new stories to tell.

And then---it happens -----that point of radical revision:

. . . she wasn’t listening. It wasn’t a war story. It was a love story. . .

(She wasn’t listening. She didn’t understand why this was such an important story to tell—and why the teller needs to tell it over and over. She wants him to stop telling the story—find new stories—different stories.)

(Maybe---just maybe----he’s telling the story over and over so that he can change the plot. Maybe that’s what needs to happen. He needs to change the plot----and he needs someone to hear that the plot has been changed.)

It wasn’t a war story. It was a love story. . .

The plot has changed.

And then----the final paragraph of the story. It’s been twenty years and the teller has told the story over and over and now it’s a written story. The plot points are the same—Curt Lemon still steps on the booby-trapped round. The baby water buffalo still dies. The sister still doesn’t write back. But at the same time, this deep and radical revision has taken place:

And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.

June 14, 2007

What Piece of Writing in All the World Do You Most Want to Read?

When I think about practicing revision and creation—the thread for this month—I think of it as having 2 parts---

1. Revision: Looking again at some pages you’ve already written
2. Creation: Deciding what you want to create out of what you’ve already written. (For instance: A poem? A letter? A short story? A story for your grandchildren? A journal that you can look back at later? Something else?)

The following passage speaks to the second task: Creation.
(And, paradoxically, sometimes it’s helpful to have some idea about the second task—some image for what you want to create—before you take on the first task of looking again.)

Back in February, I wrote a bit about a memo that Seymour Glass, the central character in Salinger’s Seymour, An Introduction, writes to his brother Buddy. Here is more advice from that same memo.

If only you’d remember before you ever sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world [you] would most want to read if [you] had [your] heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself.

June 17, 2007

Writing a Revision in Ten Steps

I started earlier this month by writing about a couple of early possible steps to revision—gathering a clean copy of your work----and figuring out what you really want to write. I thought it might be helpful now to offer an overview—a kind of template for revision. This template could work, I suppose, for revising any piece of written work, but I’m thinking of it here, and in particular, for some pages you may have done in the context of writing and healing.

You may want to try the steps in the order in which I’ve outlined them. You may want to do a step a day—or a step a week. You may also want to rearrange the steps a bit, revise them. Of course, feel free.

So, A Template for Revision----Ten Steps:
1. Create a clean copy of your work. Put it away. And wait. At least a week.

2. Read something you love.

3. Figure out what you long to write.

4. Gather supplies for revision: the clean, printed copy of your work; a pencil; a few pens in different colors; a pad of paper.

5. Go for a walk. Become, if possible, a stranger in the streets.

6. Become a stranger to your own pages. In order to do this, schedule for yourself at least thirty minutes of quiet, uninterrupted time. Sixty minutes would be even better. Begin to read your pages as if you are a stranger to them—preferably a kind stranger. And, this first time through, read the pages straight through without making any marks. Read for the big picture—the forest rather than the trees. Or, to use a slightly different metaphor, think of this stage like doing landscape design before you begin to fuss with any individual plant. Try, if possible, to resist the urge to edit. If you do find a need to make notes or marks of any sort, make them on a separate sheet of paper.

7. Read for words that resonate. This second time reading through your pages, begin to make boxes around words and lines that resonate with you now for some reason. Use different colors if you like. Draw boxes around words and lines that surprise you—or that hit the right note—or that seem to you now to be of some importance.

8. Write a response to your pages. Take out a clean sheet of paper and write in response to what you’ve just read, responding in particular to those words that are now inside the boxes. Write as if you are that kind stranger--or perhaps a kind teacher.

Dear ---------, I have just finished reading the pages you gave me, and I find that I am moved (—puzzled—delighted—) by several parts of this . . . . There is one line in particular, out of all of them, that strikes me now . . . . And too, one of the things I began to notice as I read was a certain pattern in what you’re doing. It’s as if . . .

9. Decide on a form that feels right for expressing some or much of what you’ve written. You may find it helpful at this point to go back and look again at step 3: What is it that you long to write? And what might be a good form for doing so? A poem? A short story? A journal? A letter? An essay? A dialogue? A fairy tale? A list? A written collage?

10. Write something new that emerges out of the pages that you’ve written.

June 24, 2007

I write because. . .

For me, part of the process of revision—in this case, looking again at One Year of Writing and Healing—has been going back to the basics and beginning (again) to ask myself some very basic questions: Now, why again am I doing this site? What have I done so far? What do I want it to become? What might I want a second year of writing and healing to look like?

And, in the middle of this process, I was inspired by Sharon Bray to ask an even more basic question: Why do I write?

Her question inspired me to do a search on “I write because. . .” and then to make a page of quotes of writers who have responded to that question. I made the page and brought it into a writing workshop at Cancer Services that is just forming, and I can tell you that the words carry even more resonance when read aloud. That’s what we did. We just went around the circle and took turns reading the lines aloud: I write because. . .

It was a bit like reading poetry aloud. For me the words became more powerful and clearer as I heard them read. They became more alive. Hearing them aloud—particularly in different voices—it became easier to hear which lines carried a particular resonance--which lines struck a chord.

Here are the lines we read. (Can you hear us reading them?):

I am going to write because I cannot help it.
---Charlotte Bronte

I write only because
There is a voice within me
That will not be still.
----Sylvia Plath

I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means, what I want, and what I fear.
----Joan Didion

I write because I want more than one life.
---Anne Tyler

I write because it gives me the greatest possible artistic pleasure to write.
---Oscar Wilde

I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.
---Flannery O’Connor

And, from Orhan Pamuk's Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

I write because I have an innate need to write.

I write because I want to read books like the ones I write.

I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing.

I write because I want others, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey.

I write because I love the smell of paper, pen, and ink.

I write because it is a habit, a passion.

I write because I am afraid of being forgotten.

I write to be alone.

I write because I like to be read.

I write because once I have begun a novel, an essay, a page I want to finish it.

I write because it is exciting to turn all life’s beauties and riches into words.

I write to be happy.

June 26, 2007

One Year of Writing and Healing: A Retrospective: Nine Metaphors

Well, I took some of my own advice and made a clean copy of some pages from my site. What I ended up doing was printing out the pages under the category of Healing Images. The first surprise—more pages there than I realized—it printed out to 38 pages—which makes me wonder if the site isn’t getting a bit too bulky. Not sure what to do with that observation yet. So what I decided to do instead is attend to those images that seem now to resonate. And when I did, what emerged was nine images—nine images which could also, I suppose, be called metaphors.

Nine Metaphors for Writing as Healing
Each offered with a link to its post—and to some of the poems that were a source of these images:

Writing as a café. Or as any clean well-lighted place that stays open and is there when you need it. In the story by Hemingway, an old man sits on the terrace of a café at closing time. It is late, but the old man, the last customer of the night, is reluctant to leave. A young waiter wipes off the old man’s table with a towel and tries to shoo him out. But a second waiter, older than the first, understands the old man’s need to linger. “Each night,” he says, “I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the café.”

Writing offering a sense of possibility. Like the pumpkin in Cinderella. That moment in the story when all seems lost—the stepsisters have torn Cinderella’s dress, they’ve gone on to the ball without her. Cinderella’s heart is breaking. And then the godmother comes. The pumpkin becomes a carriage. It maintains the lines and shape of a pumpkin, but now it has wheels—and a door. Cinderella climbs inside. The carriage begins to move. . . . Something there—that moment. The godmother comes. The pumpkin becomes a carriage. Writing is like that—or it can be like that—that possibility of transformation—the pumpkin becoming a carriage—and the carriage beginning to move---

Writing as a way to sweep out the guest house that is the self. From the poem by Rumi. The Guest House. If being human is a kind of guest house, and if every morning we can expect a new arrival—including, sometimes, those more difficult guests—sorrow and so forth—and if those guests are capable of sweeping out the house of the self—preparing us—for something (who knows what?)—then maybe, just maybe, writing can facilitate all of this. A way to name the visitors and help them sweep. Writing as a broom.

Writing as a kind of map to the healing quest. It’s there in Adrienne Rich’s poem. Diving into the Wreck. “The words are maps.” First, you gather the resources you’ll need for your quest. In this particular poem, this involves a book of myths, a camera, flippers, a mask. A ladder appears and you begin to climb down. To explore the wreck or to search for treasure—or both. Writing offers the map. A way perhaps to keep track of where you’re going—or where you’ve been—or where you’d like to be going. “I came to see the damage that was done/ And the treasures that prevail.” Writing as a way to record the damage and begin to discover, in the process, what remains—what has been born out of (or borne out of) the wreck. The treasures that prevail. Writing as a way to recognize the treasure.

Writing as a container. From Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The stone basin filled with a silvery vapory substance that Harry Potter discovers in Dumbledore’s office. And then Dumbledore explains: “One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them in the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.”

Writing as a vehicle. From Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher. Healing as a process—a quest—toward some kind of North Star—and writing as the small beautiful boat—the vehicle—that can help carry one there.

Writing as a way to remember the sky. From Mary Oliver’s poem by the same name. The speaker of the poem invites us, the reader, to tell of despair and she will tell hers—and then---reminding us----“Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,/ are heading home again . . . . ” This poem as a kind of template—the way the word meanwhile can always enter the writing—and perhaps transform it.

Writing as refuge. Writing as a way to conjure the old woman in the cottage who might take you in. She recognizes the need for refuge. And she also seems to understand the most basic elements of refuge. She invites you to come back with her to her cottage. She leads you back, ushers you inside. She shows you where you can take a hot bath. She lays out towels. A clean robe. When you come out of the bath she’s laid a place at the table for you— a bowl of soup, a basket of bread, a pitcher of water. She shows you to a bedroom with a clean soft bed. You sleep and sleep, and she lets you sleep. When you wake you find her out in the kitchen. She offers you a cup of tea, or perhaps a mug of coffee. She asks you to sit at the table. And it’s only then, after you are warm and fed and rested, that she asks you to tell her all about it. About all that has happened and what your hopes were at the beginning and how those hopes have been dashed. She has, she tells you, plenty of time.

Writing as conversation. Like the conversation on the porch in Michelle Huneven’s novel, Jamesland: “Now that she had a willing ear, Alice’s story of the deer unwound like a ball of string rolling down a street. This was the first time she’d been able to tell it all the way through, without interruption, and nothing she said seemed to invite dismay or contradiction. Helen nodded and sometimes narrowed her eyes as if listening to a familiar piano sonata or poem . . . .” Writing as one way to conjure that willing ear. And then, in the presence of that willing ear, the ball of string beginning to unwind-- down through one layer, and the next, and then the next.