Tough Cookies

Last week’s post on revision reminded me, again, of how infrequently we talk about how we work with our work in the writing community. Scratch that. How often do any of us discuss any kind daily grind with anything approaching the integrity it deserves? We are rarely ever at a total conclusion or an absolute beginning. And yet we persist on avoiding open discussions of our less glamorous and far more essential endeavors. So, for this week, let’s talk a little more about revision.

It took me many years to realize that one of the biggest challenges of shaping a writer’s work has to do with the odd nature of our chosen medium: words. Words, in fact, are really weird. They’re both abstract and concrete nouns, their meanings are both defined and subject to context, and we can move them around but not actually touch them. It’s no wonder we want to stick our heads in the oven when we sit down alone at our computers to try to make them do our bidding. But that, I think, might be our first mistake: as I suggested last week, the key isn’t to try to fix our writing, to work on or at it, but to work with it. Because the other thing about words that we tend to overlook in our culture is that they have organic properties: what is said and read in text is virtually meaningless until it is interpreted by the mind and its often marginalized but inseparable brother, the heart. In other words, words are primarily representations of our thoughts and experiences, and to treat them differently is to underestimate both us and them.

Over the years, through trial and error, I’ve found that I work best with words when I allow for their organic qualities. Thus, the gardening metaphors (see last week’s log). And, though my students roll their eyes when I make them, the cooking ones I’ve mostly saved you from until now. But like plants and other essential foods that emerge from natural systems, words evolve best when we occasionally give them a little room to grow. This is really hard for many busy beavers to understand (myself included; I need regular, sometimes daily, reminders), but sometimes giving your work your all is not at all what it needs. I’ll give you a minute to digest that tangle of a sentence. I know you’re on Facebook. Slow down anyway.

The point is, writing works best when you pay attention to what your words are telling you, not just what you want them to say. Even those words you’ve already typed up, after all, aren’t inert materials. Language is a social system, a contract we’ve made to try to wrangle our intangible thoughts into comprehension, not a flat medium we can pin down on a page. And if you really listen to it, your work is already telling you this. Some novels do need to sit it drawers for a while. That reluctance you have to follow through on that amazing idea you had might stem from the fact that it knows you’re tempted to nail it to the wall rather than let it unravel in its own good time. Conversely, sometimes the writing might seem to be come together too quickly. You might suspect you’re drafting off someone else’s work, or it’s not as good as it seems. Usually this is not so much divine inspiration as it is the result of you putting the right kind of care and attention into something meaningful for some time, but all the same, it might result in a few hours of flurried typing and a decent piece at the end. You’ve got to learn to trust that, too.

It takes some practice to get this right, and you will occasionally neglect things that need your direct attention and overwork those that don’t, but as is the case when we work with the earth and its organic substances, you get the feel for it after a while. You develop a way to trust yourself and the work simultaneously, and while this doesn’t mean that you’ll never stumble or misstep, it will maximize your ability to grow – both on and off the page.

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