Revision as Understanding

When squatters can finally feel like residents.


April 17, 2015

The Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference took place last week in Minneapolis, where I was on a panel with Sarah Dohrmann, Philip Graham, LeAnne Howe, and Michele Morano. The topic was revision in fiction versus nonfiction. Below are some early thoughts as place marker.


Not only is there sometimes no clear demarcation of genre boundaries—the autobiographical novel versus the speculative essay, eg—but the revision process feels similar to me anyway. Norman Mailer explains his process as “mumbl[ing] about technical matters like an old mechanic.” “Let’s put the thingamajig before the whoosits here is how I usually state the deepest literary problems to myself,” he says. At the line level we probably all do this, so what I want to try to describe is how revision leads to understanding I can’t see at the start.

I tend to draft in both genres by accretion, gathering ideas and images and shiny bits of narrative, like a pack rat. Then I sit in my precious junk, expanding, looking for connections, revising toward coherence, regretfully throwing things away only when it becomes evident they’re not useful to the project at hand. Ffor me revision starts about 10 minutes in, when the first brief list has been noted or memorized, and I’ve started to add to it, informed by what’s on it and what I sense isn’t.

Or, to mix metaphors, I squat a piece of land like a claim jumper and in the process of exploring it find myself going over certain paths again and again, trying to see what I’ve missed, deepening, widening, and generally improving those paths to some settling I can only intuit. I’ve read of landscape architects watching foot traffic before they lay sidewalks, waiting for natural paths to appear in the campus quad, like deer trails, before literally concretizing their understanding of how the space is used. So, for me, trying to understand what I’m looking at is key, whatever the genre. Once seen, the thing can be fixed and set. 

Chekhov says, To see is not to have answers but to raise questions. My published novel came from a mystery in my own life: Why did the good people of my hometown torture and murder outsiders in a mine war in 1922, which led to the region being condemned and then shunned by the outside world? A main part of the mystery came from my mother, who lionized her father but never explained to me that he, as politician and labor leader, was complicit in those events. 

As I started drafting I tried to use a frame tale of my elderly mother in a nursing home, casting back in memory and imagination to explain and justify those events to her puzzled attendants. But with enough research and revision I unearthed more historical-emotional complexity than her voice could contain, so I dropped the frame for a more direct We voice of the guilty, which could contain contradictions of guilt, pride, anger, shame, love and hate. Using some of the historical record, and that voice, I worked up scenes and chapters that began to echo each other and reveal fictional consequences, which led to yet more understanding and possible narrative solutions. In its published form the novel doesn’t reveal the breaking of its trail, just the trail, which I suppose is how most books do it.

My essay collection, Pirates You Don't Know, has discovery as its overarching theme, and it’s pretty upfront about that search. I didn’t know it, but I was working on that theme a long time, writing individual pieces, eg, about finding and developing a relationship with my father, whom I’d never known; about becoming a teacher; about revisiting Vietnam in 1995, where I was born at the start of our war. Much of that writing was drafted here at the blog, since 2006. I feel now everything has been one long revision of the same draft, in which I try to understand my place in a world not of my own making, as I put it, which of course is a task that won’t end until I do. 

What I found surprising in putting the essay collection together was how much there was to be discovered, since many of the pieces had been revised countless times already. 

First, there was the work of selection and ordering, trying to hold different combinations in my mind to see what sort of book each version might be, and that was a global revision in itself. 

Second, I was still revising published pieces, such as “I Didn’t Know,” in which I try to puzzle out the mystery of who my mother was, in her fall from privilege to the underclass, by contemplating a marble Buddha she had bought in Saigon. It was originally published as a poem in War, Literature & the Arts, and it was only as I was revising it into prose, in the last months before my book deadline, that I realized “I Didn’t Know” could have been an alternate title for the book. It also struck me how much of the book was about my mom, about the mystery of who she was and what had happened between us. With that new understanding, which was probably apparent to everyone but me, I was able to spin the pirate conceit into the final essay I wrote for the book, maybe the hardest piece of writing I’ve done, and which leads off the book.

So I’d describe my revision process as similar in both genres—going over and over the same ground—and the goals similar: complexity in understanding, more purity of line in communicating it, and (I hope) more emotion. But I do think the impulses toward meaning in different kinds of writing are worth considering, when deciding whether to stop working or to keep at it. 

Here’s a quick example: I had an undergrad In Lake Charles who was doing an immersive writing project—service learning at a local soup kitchen—and reported back something odd: One day, a woman in a wedding dress came to eat at the soup kitchen. Note that the student didn’t even call her a bride, and I didn’t think to ask at first—it’s the surreal image that’s of chief interest, its perverse, ghostly quality, which might make a poem or a micro on its power alone.

With a little digging I learned the courthouse is a couple of blocks away. And that’s a different kind of story—still weirdness, but a marriage at least possible, and the loneliness of the bride, poor dear; the awful fiance either failed to show or dumped her at the courthouse, and she with not even a pocket in her gown to hold money for a burger at the Wendy’s downtown. What, did the guy go to the men’s room and flee through a window? Was there an argument before or after the ceremony? Where are her people? What will mom say about the money spent on the gown?

Then, with some prodding, I discovered the groom did indeed show, along with a few friends or family on each side, but he had warrants. After the judge married them he arrested the happy new husband on the spot. So there’s the tragedy or comedy of that, depending on the tone of a given writer. (Think how Daniel Woodrell would handle it versus, say, Tatyana Tolstaya.) 

With further research it turns out the bride had had to use the soup kitchen in the distant past, but she’s been doing fine. After her husband’s arrest she went down to share the joy of her marriage with her former benefactor-friends, and the women insisted she have a bite as long as she was visiting. 

Think where else all this might go with more interviews and research, a broadening of view to the town or even the struggling nation. That enters John McPhee or John Hersey territory, which contains more understanding, and a sympathy that’s neither comic nor tragic.

In some ways, revision is revision for me—getting the words right, the music right to convey meaning, the images and tone, the transitions, the pacing, etc. But revision is also like traversing a new country and being shown, eventually, where to stop.

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