Thursday, July 02, 2015

My 3 R's

I don't do much arithmetic. When called to do it, I derisively jest that I am a writer and writing teacher for a person - a classic artist, uninclined to physics except for metaphors and definitely not good with numbers. For me, the third R - a real R - that rounds out reading and writing is equally tricky, strangling even. But it's related to the writing process in a way that mathematics isn't.


This word used to turn my stomach, make me want to throw all the other words out the window. When in junior high and first learning to write poetry - getting support from my English teacher, even, I indignently justified my work by saying it was right the first time.

I blush now to think of that. I encountered, in a few years worth of stints teaching gifted and talented creative writing programs, plenty of that on the other end. I get it. It feels wrong, undignified, even. I've had students tell me that editors have ruined their work, totally changed the voice. I've had bad experiences myself with feeling overwhelm and sadness at "killing my darlings" - the parts of a project I love most but that simply don't fit with the overall piece. However, the fact is that revising - which is actually not the same as editing - can be really joyful and powerful. And it's absolutely essential.

Revision, or as Natalie Goldberg calls it, "re-envisioning", is the process of taking a written out piece of work and re-working it. This is a step that comes long before fixing periods and commas, adding quote marks and checking sources, if needed. This is the part where entire paragraphs can move over pages or get cut entirely.

I fear I have actually created a bit of a vaccum for my students who have studied writing as a practice with me for over a decade now. They are under the impression that everything they write is powerful - which is better than the counter belief most came in with, that everything they write is crap. The thing is - everything we write pretty much is powerful, but it must be harnessed. When people ask me, "Do you really think my writing is worthwhile?" or "Should I keep going?" or even insinuate that I am only supporting them because they pay me, I cringe. These are not the right questions to be asking.

The answer, always, is tenacity. Are you willing to work, rework, rework it again and again and again until it comes out clean and really works? No one writes perfectly the first time. No one. With practice, we can cut out some of the stages of confusion and drafts, but the fact is, our minds don't operate like readable writing. They operate like minds. We need to get them out on page, familiarize ourselves with them, then harness them the best way possible.

This harnessing involves cutting, shifting, dramatic changes, questioning the reasons we wrote it in the first place. It's a tough process, one that takes forgiveness, being willing to leap, stretch out over the gap of expectations between what we wrote, what we wanted to write (if we had an expectation there, which we nearly always do) and where we can take that writing to next.

I post this because recently I've been doing a lot of summer work on people's manuscripts. One thing I find is that people spend a LOT of time editing - doing the fine, final, word-choice and grammar-level work - before revising. Revising needs to happen first. Don't polish sentences you may not even use. Be willing to re-envision. Don't skip the middle step.

In this case, the 3 R's could actually rotate: writing, reading, revising. We have to be able to read our own work - and let others we trust read it.

And, of course, the best way to learn is by reading others' work - finished or not - friends or famous. Reading reading reading. Not a lot, not every book, but select stuff. The good stuff. First on the list, middle on the list, last on the list - read, read, read. If you don't like to read, why are you writing?
It doesn't matter if you are slow at it, need to listen to books instead of reading them. Read, in whatever form that takes for you. Show your commitment full-circle - read others and they will read you. Keep the inspiration going, on a personal and global level.

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