‘Revision is its own reward’
– Marianne Moore
I have two interests – people and stories – and three skills: observation, empathy and words, with which to serve those two interests. I am interested (a stronger word could be used) in the real people central to my life (my family and friends) and I am even interested in the stories, the oddities and exposures, of people I don’t know very well, or at all – just because they are people. When I hear the man sitting in front of me on the train say to his wiggly, cherubic toddler, in the low frantic voice of a cornered criminal, If you do that – or anything like that – again, I WILL tell your mother, I want to stay seated behind them and miss my station. A friend said of her father (as you could have said of mine), Often rude, rarely wrong. That line will find its way into a story, even if I have to shape an entire wedding party-scene for it. Eavesdropping is an important part of my writing life, as is staring out the window. I once got hit in the face with a tennis ball because I was so busy listening to the woman on the next court verbally skin her husband, I forgot to put up my racquet. Sometimes, I take notes. Always, I wish I had stopped and taken notes.
There is a discipline to listening and observing the world around you, and in observing and knowing oneself. I want to see, and then convey, the maple leaf in its floppy green unfurling. All I have to do is observe, maybe from a few different angles. To write it, I have to find the right word (verdant, emerald, peridot, verdigris . . ., also, nothing wrong with green) and, for the purposes of my prose, I have to understand who is observing. Is it me, is it God, is it the tired postman quickly looking up, is it the lonely woman in the second floor apartment whose window sill almost touches the tree? When I want to see and know a human, I have to see their body, their clothes, their stance, their posture, their features, the way they take up space and I have to try to see them as fully as possible, from as many angles with my own limited lens (middle-aged white woman) but then push myself even a little more. How might it be to be them, how might it feel to wear those shoes, that robe, that wet jacket, that knit cap? I see a young woman, tall, white-blue like fat-free milk, in a white jumpsuit, smiling dreamily and her phone rings and I hear the ping of a text coming through and I see her eyes go the phone, then the phone to her ear and the soft smile tightens and shrinks to a tight line and my first thought is, You bastard.
For me, after the pleasure of observing, and the work of imagining, after becoming someone else and returning home to myself, after the picking and choosing, hearing the rhythm of the words and the lilt or grind of other voices, I get to the better part: revising. Revision for me is relief. It is reassurance; the garbage on the page can and will be replaced; the awkward will be smoothed, the embarrassing will be cleaned up and if that’s still not good enough, the embarrassing will be murdered. (Revision is not for the faint of heart.) I may not be able to see the other side of the mountain, but I know it’s there and if I keep plodding (kill that sentence, save that phrase), I will get there. Sometimes, the right paragraph just rises out of me and I am always grateful. (Hell, I’m grateful when it’s a good sentence.) The rest of the time, I get to revising, sometimes after a day, often, after an hour.
Revising is giving the work its due and, as a writer, if I had to choose between coffee and revision, I’d choose revision. (Don’t make me choose.)
Photograph © Old Photo Profile