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Mind and matter: on revision, humility, and litfestiness

I know. We all know!  Intellectually, we understand that we must let go of those early drafts in order to achieve all we can with a story, a poem, a novel, an essay. We have to let go the initial structures, images, even characters that got us to the draft in the first place. We feel ungrateful. We feel a bit lost, frankly, but we know it must happen.

So why is it, after getting responses from two of my most trusted readers (you might know ’em: Mike Henry and Tom McNeely) about two stories I’ve worked on, off and on, for years, I had such a forehead slapping realization: my stories were suffering from my inability to truly see them again (c.f., re-vision: to see again).

For those of you who have first readers or who act as such for others, you know how this goes: you mark up manuscripts, you ask questions in the margins, you award underlines, checkmarks, or stars to particularly potent phrases. But it’s usually one very basic thing that gives us true insight. When Mike read a story I drafted over three years ago (and have been revising off and on since then, never satisfied), he said: “It’s about pain. He was afraid of it before, and by the end he’s willing to feel it.” Well, color me stupefied. What an elementary observation! And how true. And, yes, it had eluded me for years.

The story Tom read is much newer (but still over a year old—to me, that’s “new”).  He wrote me today and said, “I think you should turn the chronology of the story inside out.”  Again with the brilliant, basic truth!  It does need to be turned inside out—the interesting stuff comes too late—and yet it never would have occured to me.  Would it have? And is it a problem that it didn’t or might not have? You’ve probably asked this question of yourself before: Shouldn’t we, at a certain point in our writing lives, be able to see a story’s problems and solutions all on our own? 

But there’s a reason writers come together and read each other’s work. Sometimes we are blind to our work’s possibilities, and that blindness comes from a place that means no harm—a place that looks at our own rooms and can’t imagine how to rearrange the furniture. Sometimes all it takes is showing it to someone who doesn’t have a preconceived idea of what your rooms even look like.

One of Jennifer Davis's excellent collections

All of this is a prelude to why I was so excited to hear from Jennifer Davis, a crackerjack story writer at CU, whip smart, and a warm person to boot. (Here’s an interview with her that One Story did when she appeared on their pages. Also, check out her collections Her Kind of Want and Our Former Lives in Art–fabulous stuff.) She (and Teague Bohlen, an award-winning fiction writer himself) came up with a course in revision designed to help you take something that’s drafted but still “not right” and bring it to the next level. (You know it’s not right in your gut, or you know this because you’ve gotten form rejection after form rejection—not that those should always be heeded!) and bring it to the next level. 

Weekend Intensive: Revising the Short Story
Do you have a drawer filled with aborted short stories, narratives that started with a bang only to fizzle out on the page? Join fiction authors Jennifer S. Davis and Teague Bohlen in reviving your short fiction on life support. Although the initial energy we experience when writing a new short story is seductive, most of the hard work in writing fiction takes place during revision. In this workshop we will spend the first weekend exploring why your short story is not working in its current form, brainstorming alternative approaches, and discussing and practicing a variety of revision techniques. During the week you will relentlessly revise a story you have written, and then we will come together the following weekend to workshop and discuss your revision. Here’s the goal: by the end of the two-weekend workshop, you will leave with a polished, successful short fiction. Register here.

Please note: This class meets on two consecutive Saturdays and Sundays–June 5 & 6, and June 12 & 13, 9 AM to noon.

For those of you who are interested, we do have our handy dandy Lit Fest brochure available now. The premise of Lit Fest is that sometimes writers need to get together, for weeks or days or hours at a time. Call it a furniture-moving party. Hope to see y’all there, where we can break through our own “re-vision” problems together.


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This entry was posted on May 19, 2010 by in LitFest, The Scoop, The Write Idea.

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