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Technique for Revision

As you may already know, I’m revising the first draft of a memoir. Since my return home from a three-week writer’s residency, because of the intensity and largesse of time afforded by that residency, I’ve come up with a new technique to help me through the revision process.

 

Thanks to Elizabeth

 

I remember taking a five-day workshop in the latter 1990s with the marvelous author and teacher Elizabeth Strout. She said two things I’ve always remembered. One was to read a poem each night so that fine language—and the art of compression—was the last thing we put into our heads before sleep. That’s a marvelous idea and some day I’ll manage to follow what can only be excellent advice.

Facial portrait of Elizabeth Strout from her website

The second thing she said, in the context of editing and revising a short story or longer piece, was to leave it lying casually around because looking at it from a different angle, say on a coffee table in the living room, would give us a different perspective. Our eyes would become that much sharper when it came to wielding the literary shears needed for optimal pruning.

I haven’t done that either.

 

Two-Column Wonder

 

What I have done is a variation on that theme, however, though I came to it purely by accident and in search of something else, the way we humans discover so many things.

When I had my freshly revised Chapter 2, a hybrid of new writing and some paragraphs leveraged from various places in my first draft, I copied the whole of it and pasted it into the fat column of a two-column table where the left column was skinny and the right one wide.

My intention was to put in the blank skinny column opposite every paragraph of text a summary, using only a few words, of what the point of the paragraph was, its raison d’etre. If it didn’t have one that moved the story forward or inward or backward, as memoir must, then out the paragraph should come.

This is a very handy technique if I do say so myself. At least, it works for me. I cut out some very pretty paragraphs that had blinded me to their lack of purpose, just as I’d hoped I’d be able to.

2 pages showing my revision technique

But I also discovered a much better way to organize several sections. By moving things around, voila! Suddenly I had a much stronger ending and a chapter that had the shape of a chapter. I had not expected the two-column technique to be so helpful structurally and that was a marvelous second benefit.

 

Another surprise came when I noticed that this process took much longer than expected. I kept getting distracted by line-editing the text on the right, the text I’d already edited before pasting it into the column. Because it looked different, I saw it differently. Just as Elizabeth Strout, more than ten years ago, suggested I would .

 

Four-By-Two Review

 

The fourth by-product of the two-column review took me two chapters’ worth of using it to notice. When I had to summarize each chapter in a pithy phrase like narrator’s sister was brave at one time, sometimes I had a reaction to the summary which I hadn’t had before. In this case, I’d never thought of my sister as brave, but there was the evidence in black-and-white right in front of me. Fascinating! And where might I go with this?

In other words, the summary paragraph statements clarified not only the paragraph but the story for me, the writer of the story. Here’s another example: narrator uses myths to survive. At one level, of course, I knew that. But I never would have said it that way, with such broad implications that I could then apply backward and forward in the book.

Try my Four-By-Two Review yourself. Let me know if it works for you, either to help you prune sections that don’t enhance the story; improve the structure of your chapter;  line-edit your text; and/or create fresh insight into your own material .

If you have a technique that works well for you that I could try, please share it.

Meantime, happy revising.

 

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Just Past Mid-Way

I’ve chopped off the Prologue from my first draft and chucked the beginning of the book. I’ve begun the first chapter in a new place in the narrative, rewriting it almost entirely. I’ve allowed a few paragraphs here or there to remain, but mostly, I’ve chipped them away. I think it’s starting to be a better book. I hope so.

I’m a little too mired to be sure. I’ve spent the last few days in a writing trance, trying to remember where bits of sentences or images were that I might already have carved and be able to use, trying to hear if when I read over the words I’ve written they sound pungent and tasty or merely banal.

It takes time to tell, but I don’t have time. I have only one full week left here in the luxury of this mania called a writer’s residency. I must forge on, plying my chisel to my old manuscript with, if not abandon, at least boldness.

Taking Time and Getting Into It Again

Don’t tell anyone, but I took the weekend off. Yes, all of Saturday and Sunday. Larry covered walkway in Stowe, VT February 2011My husband drove four hours to see me and we holed up in a B&B, walked all over Stowe, VT, through woods and shops and the Trapp Family Lodge. We ate dinner out and he brought me champagne and flowers and wheat-free cupcakes for Valentine’s Day. It was wonderfully romantic and I didn’t miss working on my book for a minute.

Trapp Family Lodge in snow, Stowe VT February 2011Ice sculpture at Trapp Family Lodge in snow, Stowe VT February 2011

It was hard to leave him and come back. I allowed myself Sunday night off, though I was back on campus, as it were. Went to bed early and slept later than usual Monday morning. I drifted to my studio and wondered how to pick up the trail to the vision of the book I had so clearly in mind on Friday afternoon.

I finished noting on my wall what Parts II and III of the book should accomplish. I thought I was remembering it all, but who knew? I dutifully started to outline the chapters for Part I of the book, staring at my wall of scribbled pages, but I couldn’t get past Chapter 1.

I decided to just start writing Chapter 1 and see what happened, hoping that, with the themes held in my hand and my eyes fixed on the principal symbols, something would emerge.

I thought back to Mt Tripyramid, the hike that launched me on my quest for all 48 of the 4000 Footers. I downloaded Google Earth and studied the mountain’s contours, turning it east and west. I zoomed in and helicopter-ed out. I wasn’t sure if I was wasting time or finding my way to something.

Then I started to write what I felt and saw and remembered about that amazing mountain. I thought it was good. It was only a page and half, but I was proud. I took the pages to our informal writer’s workshop after dinner Monday night. Their response was encouraging. And they had good suggestions, too.

Tuesday floated by in a dream as I immersed myself.

Building Muscle

At home, if I put in two solid hours writing, it’s a good day. If I manage to find four hours in which to work, it’s a damned fine day. When I first came here to the Vermont Studios Center, working 4-5 hours several days in a row exhausted me as much as if I’d been working in a quarry. I couldn’t do anything by 9:00 p.m. except read a book. Somebody else’s book.

But after my weekend off, or maybe because I’ve put in two weeks straight of 4-5 hour days, my writing muscles have grown stronger. I’ve done two 7-hour days in a row. I expected to do the same today, the third day, but I confess I wrote in my journal for awhile first to warm up—which I hadn’t bothered to do the prior two days—and I wasn’t sure where to dig in.

I was reluctant to read my new Chapter 1, the chapter I thought might be finished. Okay, I was afraid to read Chapter 1. If it wasn’t as good as I hoped, I didn’t want to know because I wasn’t sure what I could do instead.

Changing Tactics

I tried to go back to the outline. At least now I could fill in what should happen in the first chapter since I’d just written it, a kind of backwards approach, but, hey, any port in a  storm. I tried to think my way forward into Chapter 2 but I couldn’t get past the fact that I needed to introduce a main character.

So I did something totally different. I did a free-write about this character, reminding myself what she was like, seeing what popped up out my unconscious when there wasn’t any pressure. I found myself writing parts of what will probably go in Chapter 2. Very sneaky.

View from Weisner Woods, Stowe VT February 2011

Other Techniques

Because time feels even more precious now, I’m not going to do laundry again. I’ve started turning the shirts and turtlenecks I’ve already worn once inside out and putting them back in the drawer. That way I can wear all the tops I brought before going back to the used ones. I’m sticking dirty socks in the laundry bag to air out in hopes I can get by with putting them on again next week.

It’s the underwear that may be my downfall. If you’ve got any tips, besides hand-washing in the sink, which takes too much time, please advise.

Right now I’m going to try forcing my rebellious self to tackle the chapter outline again.

I’m afraid I’m in that scene in the movie “Julia” where Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda) asks Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards)to read her first play. He reads it and when she asks him what he thinks, he says, “Do you want really want to know what I think?” She says, “Yes, I really do.”

He tells her to throw it away and start all over again.

If I knew that was what I was going to have to do, I’d quit right now. Probably. I don’t know. I seem to be hooked. I’m still telling myself that some o f those 1100 pages I’ve already got can, please Goddess, find their way into the new, improved book.

Valentine flowers from Larry, VSC VT February 2011

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Take Me Away

I recently started a book—I won’t tell you yet which one—chosen by a book group. The work was non-fiction, a history/biography kind of book and it was fat with small print. Generally, I prefer fiction, so I came to this tome with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. But as I read the introduction, the author made me believe I was in such capable hands that I continued on to Chapter 1, no longer dutiful but eager.

What I want to discuss is: how did she do that? As a writer, I want to do it, too. I want my readers to settle back, kick off their suspicions and wariness like old shoes, let go their outer world and travel off with me into the written world.

The Words

To put it briefly, I liked the writing. After a dozen pages, of it, I’d been delighted by its clarity—despite its complexity—and surprised, too, by nice turn of phrases. Here’s a sentence in the Preface that pleased me:

We must, and will, pay attention to them,
but they were only part of a much larger family story.

It was the “and will” that made me smile, especially after such a strong verb as “must.” Not only did the sentence sound strong, it sounded like a promise: we will do what is needful in this book; we will do what is right. I felt as if I could hear the author’s voice in my ear, a voice I began to trust with that one felicitous sentence.

Another sentence appealed to me, this one in the Introduction:

The numbers told a story, but in the detached
and steely way that numbers tend to do.

The phrase “detached and steely” caught my fancy. I stopped for a fraction of a moment to run the word “steely” over my tongue and to picture steely blue-silver numbers.

Frankly, this is the kind of word-tasting I hope readers of my own book will one day do.

Voice and Style

I’m not sure I can separate the choice of words and the sentence structure from the “voice,” nor am I sure that the former aren’t part of the latter. What I can say is that the writing, via the sentence about numbers, spoke directly to me the reader and I listened.

Despite the fact that my two samples are relatively short and straightforward, the sentences throughout the Preface and Introduction varied in length and structural complexity, forming a rhythm that was neither too staccato (too many short sentences together) nor too legato (too many lengthy sentences with clauses and sub-clauses.)

Furthermore, she mixed ideas that were relatively obvious with some that required thought on my part. I stopped to consider several times as I read along: did I agree with her? Had she omitted a piece of the analytical puzzle? None of the thinking was terribly heavy lifting, but my mind was engaged. And where the mind goes, so goes the reader.

Okay, I (subconsciously) said to myself. This author knows what she’s doing; she knows how to write. Good. I’ll keep reading.

The Tone

Some historical treatises sound academic, even preachy or, worse yet, full of themselves and how brilliant they are for knowing all the facts they know.

Not so this book. Right away, in the Preface, the author tells us that as she finally holds in her hands the original 18th century source document whose passages she already knows by heart, she is, nonetheless, “completely overwhelmed. For a time I simply could not continue.”

Her words made me imagine her in a library chair, little old book in hand, maybe crying, utterly still. I related to her on a human level. This was an author with emotions. Showing her emotion to me made me trust her more, since I, along with every other reader, know that authors who pretend to have no feelings about what they write are frauds.

black woman strong face looking to right

On the same page she talks about reading this source material that documents which slaves got food or clothing and how much of each and how she thought of the man writing and making these decisions: “Just who do you think you are?

That was another place I stopped to ponder, this time about the author herself. As an African-American woman, how much more deeply might she feel this sense of outrage than I, a white woman,  on reading the same passage. I thought about how hard it might have been for her, emotionally, to do the research this book required and how she must have labored to bring all her work to light. And how important she had to think it was to do so.

By this point in the book, still subconsciously, I’m fully on the author’s side. She has become a sympathetic figure to me. She’s working hard at something that can’t be easy for her because she thinks it’s important work to do. She’s got a personal stake in this book, it means something to her, all of which brings me to invest myself in the book, too.

Authorial Attitude

The book explores the lives of a family of African slaves brought to America and, as I’ve said, it’s written by a black woman. Without even realizing it, I’m a little hesitant. I expect to hear a lot about white supremacy in a righteously angry voice and I expect to feel both an outsider, one of them, and guilty as charged.

The author disarms me in the Introduction by acknowledging that more is known about one family of slaves than “the vast majority of freeborn white Virginians of the time,” simply because this family was related to a famous white man. Huh.

Later on, she discusses how white folks of the time tended to believe that slaves with some white blood (as if blood came in different colors) were more worthy of help because they were “naturally” smarter and looked more like white people. “That is one way prejudice works,” the author writes and another part of my inner tension lets go. This author doesn’t take the opportunity to grind an axe. No matter what she may feel upon occasion, when she sets her final words on the page, they are balanced, educational in tone and fair-minded.

On the first page of Chapter 1, she demonstrates again that she takes a wide view of history by including the effects of sexism upon her female characters:

Most Americans today admit the existence of racism and sexism, even as we often disagree about examples of them.

I am, by now, completely at ease. She has avoided a trap that I see so many fall into these days—setting racism and sexism in opposition to each other, as if they do not spring from the same source, patriarchal attitudes in which white men reside at the top of the cultural pyramid.

This is an author, I decide, who is knowledgeable, diligent, and fair. This is an author I can learn from, whom I trust to tell me the truth as she’s discovered it. And that, dear readers, is how she caught me in her capable hands and took me away on her private flight of writing.

Pile of stones with "trust" written on top one

Can you and I do the same? With some of Annette Gordon Reed’s tools in mind as they appear in her National Book Award winning book, The Hemingses of Monticello , I surely hope we will.

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