I revise and revise and revise and revise and revise and revise… You get the drift. And if you’re mathematically inclined, just add an exponent and use the alef.
When do I stop revising? When I look at the thing and feel like vomiting. Seriously.
But I have had the luck of teaching a half a dozen arts majors last semester and it made me think of something that a former colleague of mine, Angela Crow, said she learned from taking pottery classes: in pottery, you don’t redo. You just make one piece and then another and another and another until you finally make one that doesn’t suck. My husband, Joel Caplan, did the same thing when he did his MFA in photography. He often says the art is into accepting that you must discard about 90% of your work.
In other words, sometimes, the best way to revise, is to throw away the piece entirely.
I asked an art major in my class what her art workshops were like. She said, “It’s the same thing. You show your piece to the class, and then the instructor and your peers talk about what works and what doesn’t work. Only, in a writing class you have the chance to change it.” I asked her what she did with a painting after it was criticized. She shrugged. “You throw it away?” I asked. She shrugged again, looked away, “Yeah, you put it away. You think about what you learned. You move on.”
So. It reminds me of the very first “mature” short story I have ever written. It was titled The Kind of Things Saints Do and it became the title story of my first collection. It’s about a high school girl who represses her feelings for her (female) best friend by cutting herself and being overall promiscuous with boys who are of interest to her friend. I remember that years before I was able to write that story I had written a story with the same characters: they were loosely based on a group of girls who were my friends in high school.
The first story was about these four promiscuous girls trying to figure themselves out by hanging out with all sort of seedy characters and working themselves into situations hard to get out of. The first draft rambled on and went nowhere. I revised, revised, revised, revised, revised, and finally thought, ok, I can’t write this story.
I picked up the same characters and themes in at least two other stories later at different points in time. It wasn’t the same story, but there was something at the heart of all those rambling words, something I knew I had to say that wasn’t coming out in those stories. Again, I put the multiple drafts of that second abortion away and forgot about it.
Then, in the second year of my first MFA, I picked up those characters again, caught the voice of my friends from high school more accurately, and the story practically wrote itself.
It wasn’t the same story as the first two attempts, but there was a feeling there in those two other stories that had been pulsing in there, wanting to come out, waiting for the right time.
So now I’m asking myself, both as a teacher and as a writer, if rather than revising the same piece to death it would be better to just write another one. And another one, and then another one. Different pieces, but each borrowing and developing on something that we got right the first time, dropping what we didn’t. Like art students.
What do you think?