In two weeks my students will hand their portfolios in to me and I will sit down and grade them. It is my least favorite thing about teaching. I love working with my students, I love discussing literature and essays and how to craft sentences and paragraphs and finally, ideas. I love working with them one to one, listening to them suddenly see what exactly it is that they mean to write about. But grading sucks. I get museum head when I read so many papers. I stop being able to look at things objectively - was that really a run on sentence or did she actually have the right amount of commas? Is his argument incomplete, or am I missing something? I doubt myself when I have to judge - thank goodness we grade our gen-ed writing class though a grading committee. It provides me the checks and balances wiped out after a day of reading on my own.
Sadly, though, I feel just as judgy and lost when I go to revise my own writing. Recently I wrote this nifty little flash fiction, that I then proceeded to edit the crap out of until it was nothing but a shell of it's former self. Now I can't seem to get it back. I liked it, but I became enamored with my red pen. The problem is that I am in love with eliminating the excess, with paring my stories to the point where it is more like the scaffolding of a really elaborate house. I kinda want my reader to figure things out on their own, to bring their own floorboards and wallpaper to the story, to, when they are reading, live in two places at once: my reality and the reader's reality. Unfortunately this desire also leads to unnecessary editing.
I don't know if this scaffolding idea is weird, and also impossible. I've read writers like this. I think Virginia Woolf did this in novels like The Waves - where it's all stream of consciousness and shifty from one narrator to the next, and you cannot find your footing in it at all, rather it sweeps you along just like a big wave with a big undertow. And a lot of Eudora Welty stories are the kind you get to the end of and say, did she write what I think she wrote? And then you have to go back to page one.
But I will say, revision can be exciting and kind of fun, maybe a little bit transcendental - in the way a worksheet that you know the answers to or a set of math problems you really completely understand and so have fun working on - can be a little transcendental. Even if one (i.e.:me) tends to get a little carried away -
There's an art to it, I tell my students.
Step one, you need to divorce yourself from your work. Have someone else read it to you. Pretend to yourself that you didn't write it - that in fact that person who lives down the street from you, who you don't really like all that much, and who has been claiming to write the next great American novel for the last ten years, wrote it. Prejudice yourself against your work. That sentence you thought was so gorgeous, is it really just pretentious? Or is it as lovely as you thought? While you are listening to your work, listen for sour transitions, or the places where you need to reiterate your argument (even fiction has an argument, a thesis, in my opinion - I'll write more on that theory later) so that your thought drives the work. My students often repeat themselves because they know they have to have a certain number of pages - and because they are either completely overwhelmed by how much work they have to do for the final weeks of the semester, or because they are sick of writing or because they are just not feeling it - I get this way about my own work, so I listen for that. I listen for those moments when the scene has gone on too long - like an awkward, beery, conversation when you should have left the bar an hour ago. Take notes on all these things.
Step two: fix the easy things. By easy things, I mean the grammar, the spelling, the run-ons. This is busy work, and it is very satisfying.
Step three: go over your notes and fix the difficult things. Take the bad stuff out. That's actually pretty fun - it's like cleaning your closet of the clothes you wore when you were 20 lbs lighter and young enough to wear them. It feels good to have space in that closet. Then, move things. Nine times out of ten your beginning is at the end of your paper, or you need to switch a couple of paragraphs for things to make sense. Review your argument - is it moving forward? If it isn't, then make it so. Yes I did invoke Captain Picard there. He is sitting on the deck of your work in that big captain's chair and he is looking through the window screen thingy at the stars before him and he is saying, "Make It So" and pointing toward the the rest of space with a little forward motion of his arm. If he did not do this, nothing on that starship would get done. They'd all just be hanging out in space, static, waiting for the Borg to come assimilate them. Which is why I could never get behind Deep Space 9, despite how much I liked Captain Sisto.
Anyway, I'm getting away from things here, which is exactly the kind of stuff I tell my students to take out of their papers.
Your next to last step - look it over again. Read it to yourself, I say to my students. Out loud. Don't feel weird about this, although you probably will. Listen again. If you stumble over something, then it needs fixing.
Finally - let it go. I have students who are still revising as they hand the paper in. I've heard stories, probably apocryphal, about authors who have found their books on the shelves of Barnes and Noble and edited them even after they are in print. At some point, you just gotta let go. Send it out into the ether - not to get all '70s on you, but if you love it set it free. Only in writing, if it comes back, it might actually be crap.
I received 3 rejections today. But who's counting...