I’m in the final stretch–completing my MFA in creative writing, with an emphasis in creative non-fiction. That means I have to complete a book-length project, turn it into a committee of advisers (by the end of March) that I have selected, and defend it in a public meeting (on April 13). I don’t want to go into details on what THAT means to me, suffice it to say it sounds like a special kind of hell.
When I entered the MFA program at the University of New Mexico I had 180 plus pages of a manuscript, Reconstructing my Mother. I thought I was ahead of the game: I knew what I was writing about, and I knew the story. I’d lived the story. I thought I’d take some classes, write a couple more chapters, clean up the ones I’d already written and I’d be done.
I had a lot of revising to do.
I used to think that revising meant line editing: changing a word here and there, re-arranging sentences, correcting typos… That kind of revising had worked well for me in the past when I wrote press releases and marketing content. It still works well for me in those arenas. But in writing creatively, there’s a lot going on with the story under the surface, and sometimes to get at what that story is entails more than just polishing the prose.
As I’ve worked through this program and seen other writers develop their stories, essays and poems in workshop, I’ve discovered a few things about revising that I now apply (sometimes painfully) to my own work. I’ve seen fellow writers submit the messiest drafts I’ve ever seen: disjointed story lines, essays that go off on tangents, poems that wander in the ether. And I’ve seen those same writers cut whole scenes, add new scenes, focus the theme, and follow the tangent to another story altogether, creating something beautiful. I’ve seen them revise those messy drafts, and sometimes even polished drafts into something entirely different than what they started with, sometimes only a whisper of the original piece remains.
Over the course of the month, for Fridays with Jenn, I’ll share with you some of the insights on revising that I’ve learned, because writing is revising.
Revising is Re-VISIONING the work.
I started out writing my memoir, Reconstructing My Mother thinking it was about, well, my mother, who died when I was 13. That I, as the main character, was on a journey to discover who she was “as a person” not just as my mommy.
Then, I began volunteering at the Children’s Grief Center as a bereavement group facilitator. During the training I learned about grief, and more specifically about grief responses in children. Then I took a course from Professor/ Writer Daniel Mueller on Trauma in Literature and we read the book Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman. I became enamored with the idea of grief as trauma.
Herman writes: “Traumatic memories lack verbal narrative and context; rather, they are rendered in the form of vivid sensations and images” (Herman 38). And so, healing occurs in rendering the trauma into a cohesive narrative, into a story. THIS is how I would tell my story, I thought to myself. And I even got all artsy about it. I was going to start with a poem I’d written to reflect the imagistic nature of traumatic memory, and through the course of the book the images would take form. The structure of the narrative would actually mimic the healing journey. (Even now that idea sounds appealing.)
During this past year of “dissertation hours” over and over again as I submitted pages to my committee chair, Professor/Writer Greg Martin, he would ask for the same thing over and over: “What was it like in your house after your mom died?”
And I would say, “It sucked,” and leave it at that. I did not want to write about that time. I didn’t want to go there emotionally. Besides, it was so long ago–what did it matter? I thought. I appeased him sprinkling in details here and there, a scene here and there…. I would weave these stories from the past, these interludes, into the overarching arc of the story: the story of the hero (me) who goes on a journey to reconstruct her mother.
Then I wrote an essay about volunteering at the Children’s Grief Center. “That is the narrator who needs to tell this story,” Greg said, a comment I had to put on the back burner for a while until I figured out what he meant.
I struggled to figure out what went where, which pieces matched. At one point I even cut up pages and sections and laid them in piles all over the floor of my writing cave. As I tried to wrestle all my scenes and scribbles into one giant thing, I realized that only way to see what I still needed to write, was to tell the story from beginning to end. I would see what was missing, and what fit together with what.
And lo and behold, the voice, the person that began re-writing was the same narrator who volunteered at the Grief Center. That narrator had a different perspective on things. That narrator was a bit wiser than the girl who came into the MFA program clutching her 180 pages. I saw the pieces in a new way. And oh, yeah. I was missing this big chunk of writing about the time right after my mom died.
Most of the writing from those initial 180 pages is now unrecognizable. I’ve gutted those long passages of what I call “logistics” writing, the “I stood up, took seven steps to the table, set my cup down, then I sat down and …” kind of writing. I’ve worked on getting to the action sooner, and reflecting more deeply. I’m a better writer now, I hope.
And the writer, the person I am today has a better understanding of how losing my mother has affected me.
And now the book, Reconstructing My Mother, is as much about me reconstructing myself as it is about my mother. And for now, it’s not in some artsy fartsy form–it follows a basic, linear timeline. Which for now, for THIS draft, works.
My advice to you: don’t be so rigid in the way you think your poem, your essay, your short story is going to be told. Be willing to explore all the possibilities. You may end up writing a story different than what you thought you would write and you may learn something about yourself. And even if you end up telling the story as you had originally imagined it, my bet is that it’s better rendered than had you not gone off on the journey of re-VISIONING the work.