Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Revision Anxiety

Tuesdays with Amy

I don’t revise the way every other writer does. I don’t write that $#*@ first draft Annie Lamott recommends in Bird by Bird. I don’t let the ideas flow, the characters develop, allow the language to spin freely onto the page. I am not so carefree.

Instead, I revise each sentence as I write it. After a paragraph, I go back and revise that. A page, and I revise again. Chaos and uncertainty leave me anxious, and that’s what a very rough draft represents to me. I need to build a sturdy foundation before I can begin to layer a story.

It scares me to work this way. I once heard an interview on NPR with John Irving’s assistant who said Irving often wrote 13 or 14 drafts. Of course he does, how else to explain A Prayer for Owen Meany?

Debating each word choice (how many times have I used “curve” throughout the manuscript?), each comma (or should it be a semicolon? new sentence?), each paragraph (is this the natural break?) is laborious. Going back over yesterday’s work and revising for several hours before moving forward on today’s is discouraged by nearly every how-to book on writing. Progress and then revise.

But I couldn’t when writing my manuscript. It didn’t work for me. In early November when I was preparing to give my writers’ group my completed manuscript to critique, I worried that I was asking too much. It wasn’t fair that I was giving them this copy that hadn’t been duly revised. I should do several more drafts, I thought, but I don’t know how. That’s what every real writer does, right?

And then William Styron died. One of the greatest writers of the 20th century, his obituary graced the pages of every major newspaper. I read them all, but it was this gem in the Boston Globe’s version that reached out to me:

“Mr. Styron wrote in longhand on yellow legal pads, striving for 500 words a day. He preferred to write just one draft of a book, getting each page just right before proceeding to the next, rather than revising a completed draft. His own harshest critic, Mr. Styron had a self-described "neurotic need to be perfect each paragraph -- each sentence, even -- as I go along."

No, I was not deluded into thinking I was a William Styron. What I did take away from learning about his process, however, is that each writer has her/his own way of writing, revising, creating. There are guidelines with craft to be certain, but there are no rules.

My writers’ group did give me their critique of my book in late November, and yes, there were revisions to be done. But they weren’t overwhelming and in the end, I was assured my process worked for me.


Patry Francis said...

Great post, Amy. Truly, we each have to find what works for us. I like giving myself permission to write a sh#*#y first draft. But then, I tend to polish it along the way.

Anonymous said...

It happens two ways. Sometimes, when I'm writing, part of my brain is taunting me. Telling me what I'm supposed to be doing. Don't fret over that word, it says. He "claims," he "insists," he "says,"--they're all pretty much the same. Pick one for now, my brain says, and just go on.

So I do, I pick one. And I go on. And then about a paragraph later, hunting and pecking and knowing what's bound to happen, I find I can't type one more word without going back and changing whatever word it was I picked. To whatever I didn't pick. Then I slowly trudge through that scene, word by careful word.

Then other times--my fingers just fly along the keyboard, I don't even care about spelling. The scene is there, it just emerges by itself onto the page. The Word spell check can't even keep up, drawing red lines as soon as the letters hit.I can't even type fast enought to get it down. When that happens, I just go with it. Then later, I go back and tweak.

I love both ways.

ANd I love to hear how you do it, too.