[ l e s s o n s i n r e v i s i o n ]
All the news I have today revolves around the great web publication Necessary Fiction.
I have a story, "The Emperor's Malady" there on the frontpage for a week.
Also, my good friend Matthew Salesses (author of The Last Repatriate and fiction editor at The Good Men Project) is doing a writer-in-residence over there. He's posting about revision all month, and Wednesday's post is a roundup of thoughts on revision from several awesome writers, including myself. [Also check out his own twenty tips on revision, which are really really great. Or just follow his posts from tons of writers all month.]
If you're looking for something to read this weekend, take a look.
This story was a small, but valuable lesson in revision for me.
It's a short short story, one I wrote in a couple of hours late one night, then handed over to both my thesis advisor and workshop teacher. Like a lot of stories I write these days, I had no real preconceived notion of what it was about or where it was going. The first paragraph was the one that came to me: a list of absurd maladies.
There the story unraveled, becoming a fable I wasn't sure about. I arrived at an ending, one that made the story apparent to me, one that came off as a "reveal", and yet everyone who read the story, while they liked it, also felt the ending reduced the story into its ending, as opposed to complicating it. As one editor said, it was as if the story existed only for the ending, instead of existing in its own right.
So I spent months trying to revise the piece. I tried excising entire paragraphs, I tried to write new endings. I kept cutting things and putting them back, but no matter what, nothing felt right. I knew I was so close, and yet I couldn't hit upon anything that felt right.
I asked my teachers for advice. I had friends read the piece. People gave me all sorts of suggestions, including ones that made sense but I couldn't make work. My advisor David Hollander asked me if maybe I couldn't think about what happens to the world after the emperor's death. What does it mean for them? My other teacher, Nelly Reifler, suggested perhaps I end with a final image of a trusted advisor staring over the lands. I felt that these ideas were close, that inherent in these were the complications I was looking for, but I still couldn't find the right words or strategy to do so.
It was only until I was revising the piece for my thesis, and Patrick Rosal, a poet with keen musical sensibility, was reading over the story, that he gave me a strategy to think about. He asked me to trust the musicality of the story. He looked over at the first half of the story, of the litany of the language that was the basis of its existence, and pointed out to me that the ending ran away from that. "Return to that," he suggested. "Give us those musical images."
As soon as he said it, I knew he was right. I went back and revised the story in an hour. When I was done, I knew I had struck gold.
The lesson I learned here is something I'm still trying to put into words. There's something here about trusting the instinct of what the story wants to be. In this case, I didn't choose the initial form or language -- it came. And once I paid attention to the language and what the story was meant to be, I was pointed to how the story must end. In doing so, I also allowed the story's ending to open up instead of closing in. The other ending was my writer's hand trying to force an understanding, a reduction, a moral, a simplification. But the answer shouldn't be to close; it should be to open. In some ways, I'm beginning to think a good story leaves more open than it does close. Here, listening to craft points, and following instinct on craft ultimately also allowed the story to be better. To the place where, when I was done, I thought, Of course. How could it be anything else?
In my thoughts I wrote for Matt, I mentioned that revision is trying to get to the heart of the story, to understand what it is about, but also to allow it to remain somewhat mysterious. The first version of the story was too much the writer trying to learn what the story was about and forcing that upon the audience; the revision allowed me to hold on to that, but to also remain open and mysterious to me. At the end of the day, do I know what that ending means for the people in that story? No. But how could I? It could never be that simple.
It's a short story, around 800 words. But one that gave me a lot of heartache. And ultimately, taught me a really important lesson about what to listen to and what to trust as I go about revising future pieces.
Thank you to Steve Himmer over at Necessary Fiction for believing in this story and allowing me to return to it.