Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Art of Revision

Revision is perhaps the most difficult part of writing. Not long ago, I head author James McBride talk about crafting his memoir The Color of Water, and he said it rather eloquently: "Writing is rewriting." It is not necessarily getting the ideas first onto the blank white page, although there are days that I struggle with that as well, but the letting go of words, phrases, and images. Revising is a process of not simply refining one's ideas, but also letting some ideas go.

The process of writing is different for everyone. With the blank page staring me down, daring me to write, I usually find it very easy to get my initial ideas onto the page. It is a sort of purging. But once that momentum slows to a molasses drip, I deliberate over every word, the placement of every piece of punctuation. I start the process of revision midway through my writing as a way to figure out what it is that I am trying to say. My poetry course a few weeks ago highlighted how painful the revision process can be.

Each day we were given a prompt and about an hour and a half to craft a poem. There were mornings when the ideas came spilling out. On the first day when we were told to write a piece about family, my pen was to the paper before the teacher had finished explaining the prompt. As I scribbled my ideas on the blank page, I would periodically stop to scratch out unnecessary prepositions and articles, draw arrows to move lines to different stanzas. Each time I got to what I thought was the end of the poem, I would start over by recopying the poem onto a clean page, beginning the process all over again, scratching out and moving some more. I went through about eight revisions before I got the poem to a working first draft. Each line scratched out of the poem about a family member, my grandma, was hard to let go. Especially in poetry, where each word counts, revision can be a painful process of letting go.

As my professor conferenced with me over my poetry, suggesting revision ideas and lines to get rid of, I was able to empathize with my students. For emerging writers, especially when they are writing about something personally significant, it can be difficult to revise and scratch out clunky sentences and phrases if those words have emotional weight for the student. Students are much more comfortable, as all writers are, with editing their work. Editing the misplaced commas and misspelled words is easy. If we think of writing like building a house, when we edit the mechanical and grammatical problems of a piece, we change the curtains to make sure they match the d├ęcor. When we revise, we change the foundation, a much more labor intensive project. Editing is not the real work of writing. As James McBride said, “Writing is rewriting.” So I must find better ways to engage my students in the work of writing.
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