Posts Tagged ‘revision’

Another Creative Writing Myth Debunked

Stories and Poems Were Written the Way We Read Them

This isn’t a myth we teach, which is one reason I didn’t included it with my previous post: 5 Creative Writing Myths Debunked. Instead, it is one I find a lot of students have when they come to my class. Maybe we all have it, but it’s one we constantly need to remind ourselves doesn’t have to be so.

Stories and poems usually aren’t written from the first sentence to the last in the order we read them. Yes, sometimes that happens, but often the first sentence of a story or the first line of a poem may be moved or discarded before a draft is finalized. The conclusion may be written first, or the first written paragraph may end up somewhere in the middle of the final piece.

Writers don’t sit down with a poem or a story in mind. We sit down to write. We write some things on the page, and we find the story or poem in it. Revision is about more than  ‘fixing the problems’ in a draft. It is about re-envisioning that draft and finding the best way to write what we discover.

It’s probably easier to write down a poem in the order you want it because it’s easier to carry a poem around with you in your head for awhile before you ever write a draft. Many poets work this way, and they may have a pretty good sense of the final poem before they ever commit it to paper. That doesn’t make that the best strategy! Sometimes it’s better to just write words on paper and not worry about how to start a poem. Many poets don’t even think about line breaks or stanzas in their first draft. They just write the words and worry about the form later.

Many times, writers block seems to come because people don’t know how to get started, but if you start in the middle or if you start before the beginning, then the pressure is off. Of course, we want a great opening line to a poem or first paragraph to a story! But the pressure to start with that great opening makes it nearly impossible to write. So just start writing, and worry about what the opening will be later.

In the same way, we want to keep writing until we get to the end of a piece. But often I talk to students who are stuck at a given point in a story, and I encourage them to take a scene they do think they know and write it. Don’t worry about how to get from point B to point G. Just write what you know you want to include and connect the dots later, if you need to.

A poem is the same way. It might be written in perfectly reasonable stanzas and lines, yet lack energy. Taking those lines, rearranging them, changing the line breaks, cutting out the dead wood, finding new connections between images or just allowing the images to resonate without any explanation, putting the poem through the blender, in other words, and then sorting out the pieces, all can lead to a better final draft.

But the myth comes from the fact that we tend to read finished stories and poems. We don’t see the messy process that led to the final product. We think that the writer had an idea, wrote it, then refined it, and ended up with the final draft. What often happens is that a writer has a vague idea of what he wants to write, stumbles towards it, gets lost, finds another path, discovers something worth pursuing, then comes back later and tries to make sense of all the mess. What we see when we read the final draft is the sense that was made. We don’t see the messy process that led the writer there. So when we sit down to write, we criticize ourselves for the mess we produce, rather than digging in, rearranging, sorting and sifting to find the meaning and the form that will reveal it, and obstinately stumbling forward to that final product.

Revision: Taking My Own Advice

If you follow this blog, you may know that I’m publishing a creative writing textbook next year, titled A Writer’s Craft:Multi-Genre Creative Writing. The contract has been signed on both sides of the Atlantic, and this fall I’ve been working on revisions. Since I’ve taught with the notes that became this book for a few years, the manuscript has already been revised several times and is pretty clean. But the publisher wanted me to broaden the focus from my class to a more general audience, something I’d already been doing, so there were only a few places that still had to be changed and some exercises that had to be revised to work in other contexts. Since my publisher, Palgrave/MacMillan, is based in the UK, they also wanted me to try to address an international market.

These were all fairly straightforward revisions that a careful read-through and some tinkering with the language ought to address. I knew I also wanted to add a glossary and bibliography, and I had some introductory material for instructors and students and an appendix I wanted to include.

What I hadn’t anticipated was needing to follow my own advice on revision. I read through the book a chapter at a time, making my corrections and revisions, and everything was pretty much finished for that stage. Yet I had a nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right with the chapter on Creative Nonfiction.

My advice for revision includes rethinking what you’ve done and being willing to make major changes if necessary. It also involves looking at your work in terms of balance. Are any of the parts less developed than the others and should they be equally developed.

When I went back over the chapter on Creative Nonfiction, I realized it was significantly shorter than the other chapters on genre. I knew the reason for this, of course. Initially, my course in creative writing had included only poetry and fiction. Eventually, I added nonfiction and then drama. For awhile, I still gave more emphasis to fiction and poetry, but in recent years I’ve found ways to manage teaching all four genres equally. This is reflected in my syllabus and in the number of days I devote to each chapter.

A couple of years ago when I started thinking of the notes as a textbook, I had added a fair amount to the chapter on drama because there are so many technical aspects to the form. But Creative Nonfiction didn’t seem to have as many issues to cover, especially since it is the first genre we get to and we rely heavily on material that has already been covered in previous lessons, so it felt like there was less to say.

I knew all these reasons why there were fewer pages, yet it still felt like I was giving Creative Nonfiction short shrift, and I knew that wasn’t the case when I covered it in class. So I went back to my notes, and went over the chapter again. Ultimately, I decided to spend more time on each of the types of Creative Nonfiction, adding more detail on memoir and personal essay and whole new passages about the lyric essay, true crime, travel writing, and flash nonfiction. In the process, I had to develop new content, research more about forms of nonfiction, and rethink the strategy of the chapter. This also helped me bring out more of the content that often comes up in class discussion.

It was more work than anticipated, but I wasn’t ever sorry that I needed to do it. It made the book stronger, and inspired me to write another short chapter on other genres that serves as a conclusion to the book. Now I just have the appendix to finish and the glossary and bibliography to format. I should make my Nov. 30 deadline, and it looks like I’ll even come in just under the 70,000 word limit that my editor and I agreed on for the revised manuscript. More on that soon! And if I don’t post a lot on this blog in the next couple of weeks (as I haven’t the past few weeks), you’ll know why!

Haiku Revisited

Awhile back, I wote a post on judging a haiku contest and mentioned that I had written a few haiku. It’s not my main form of poetry to work with, so I’ve always felt a little like a fish out of water with haiku, yet it was a form I wanted to explore for awhile. The problem was, when I submitted to haiku journals, the response was always negative. I’m used to that with regular literary magazines, but there aren’t that many haiku journals and I didn’t want to keep getting turned down by the same places, so I gave up submitting.

Then last year I let John Z. look at a few of them. He also said my haiku weren’t quite haiku by a strict definition, but at least he tried to explain. And he offered some revisions. Naturally, his revisions didn’t match my vision and for awhile I decided to give up on the form, at least for these poems. I rewrote them as two to four line stanzas, but still didn’t feel satisfied. I called them “meditations” but that didn’t really fit the tone. To me, they were haiku, after all. Or if they didn’t quite master the form, they were at least haiku attempts.

This weekend, I decided to give them another look. My plan in revising the first time was to get them away from the form they had been in and let them sit. Enough time had gone past that I could look at them fresh. I got out my friend’s comments and reviewed the changes and suggestions he’d made. I paid closest attention to the one poem he had said was a haiku. If one got it right, then the others couldn’t be that far off, so I wanted to figure out what was missing.

I read some more about the “cutting word.” In a Japanese haiku, there is a word, sometimes described as an exclamation that marks the turning point in the haiku. It comes at the end of the first or second line in English, though in Japanese a haiku is written in one line with three parts or 5, 7, and 5 syllables (which are different than English syllables, so English language haiku don’t count them). I knew all of this. But in reading, what really sunk in this time was that the cutting word in English is often accomplished with punctuation.

What I realized was that my previous haiku, though they had all of the elements of haiku that I knew about, were too grammatically correct. Or I might say, too complete. What I’m realizing now is that the successful haiku has a silence in it in place of the cutting word. Think of a rap haiku where the cutting word was ‘yo.’ To translate that into non-rap and still try to replace ‘yo’ with a word like ‘ah!’ every time would sound ludicrous. Leave it out, but in such a way that the feeling of a revelation is still there.

With this in mind, I revised my haiku by rearranging and restating things so that the two states or two perceptions are disconnected grammatically. Or connected with a colon or dash. Both perceptions are their own statement. One is not dependent on the other syntactically. I also looked for balance, to make that break after the first or second line, and I tried to keep the weighting of lines at about 5, 7, 5 (so the first and last lines are even and shorter than the middle one without counting syllables), though I didn’t stick to that religiously.

I was happy with these revisions to poems I thought I was done with –either they were haiku or they weren’t, but I didn’t think I could take them any further. In the process, I do think the poems improved. It was more than just rearranging syntax and syllables, in other words. It was an exploration of new linguistic possibilities. Now we’ll see what the haiku journals think. They may still be full of other people’s haiku or opt to choose ones from the haiku writers they recognize, but I hope they are more encouraging.

Who knows, I may feel like adding a few more poems to this sequence of haiku or starting another.

Yet I should add that not all of the original sequence worked as haiku. Four of them were too interconnected, and I felt they really needed to be seen together. I gave them a different title, rearranged a bit more, and wrote them as a four-stanza poem (at least for now). If I decide I don’t like the poem in its current form, I’ve also thought of trying it as haibun, using prose to form the connections and provide the context that I felt was necessary to understand the individual haiku stanzas.