December rains fall on pines while I sit watching, contemplating—wondering if I've overlooked anyone. There are gifts under the tree, wrapped all neat— each one bowed and eager to be opened like a chrysalis waiting on April. Christmas is a day away; am I wrong to be relieved? Is it so bad that I wish for nothing more than its passing? It's a bittersweet season for so many, like cough syrup and juice. I'm older now; I should be over such childish things. But I revert every time December rains fall on pines. Dec. 24, 2022 ***
The art of revision
is not one of the writerly skills I would say I’ve mastered quite yet, let alone done an even halfway decent job at. If fact, this past quarter, one of my professors told me that I suck at it (though not in those words). He said I’m a talented writer and storyteller, but then qualified that statement by telling me that revision is the one skill that distinguishes professional writers from hobbyists.
If that’s true, then that would make me a hobbyist who’s spent 2 years getting an education on my hobby. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
Well, maybe I do know. I definitely do want to pursue writing as a career, and don’t want to be considered an amateur writer. So I guess I’ll just have to learn how to revise my work, and not be so attached to my first and second drafts. The whole “kill your darlings” thing.
My professor compares the act of revision to making a sandwich. Once you’ve completed a draft, you have all the makings of a sandwich right there in front of you—the bread, the tomatoes, mayo, mustard, deli meat, etc., etc.
Revision is simply the act of putting the sandwich together.
Sometimes, though, there’s an ingredient that just doesn’t make sense, like say, whipped cream. In that case you throw it out, regardless of how much you love whipped cream. It’s sweet and silky, yeah, but it doesn’t add to the sandwich, and, in fact, detracts from it. To the trash with you, whipped cream!
But sometimes, maybe you discover a beautifully ripe avocado off to the side of your sandwich-making station, just sitting there looking all pretty and delicious. So you throw in a few slices and take the sandwich in a deliciously new direction. I personally prefer the direction of some crisp cucumbers, but that’s another topic.
I also like what George Saunders has to say about revision. His is more intuitive and less likely to leave you hungry just talking about it. He likens the process to sitting down and reading your draft with a meter in your head. The meter has polar opposites situated at each end—a “P” on one end and an “N” on the other. The “P,” of course, refers to Positive, while the “N” refers to… you guessed it, Negative.
With this metaphysical tool in place, we then read through our drafts and intuitively make what he terms “micro-decisions,” which involves things as small as replacing a word to moving a whole section to a different part of the story.
And of course, if you’re familiar with George Saunders, this means going over your draft hundreds, even thousands of times. He’s known as a ruthless editor of his own work, and famously took almost a decade revising and editing a single short story. I forget where I heard (or read) that last part, but I was floored when I heard it (or read it).
Check out George’s substack to read more. Genius, that guy.
So I think, as a goal for 2023, I’d like to become as ruthless as George in my editing and revising. It’ll be a long and hard process, I know, but to get to where I’m going (becoming a professional writer), I’m gonna have to bite down and do whatever it takes. I’ve made it this far. Sure would be a waste to sit on my hands and not give my stories every opportunity to reach their full potential.
Which is to say that next year I will be trading in my tweezers and small scissors for a machete and a chainsaw—and it’s gonna get real messy when I start killing my darlings.
And with that image in mind, happy early Christmas, everyone!
P.S. Sandwiches are great, am I right?
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