When I was thirteen, I spent Christmas with my aunt and uncle in SoCal. My uncle had devoted a large hall closet exclusively to movies–the kind that consisted of black plastic and tape (after all, we’re talking the nineties). I’d never seen so many movies anywhere but the video rental store. The closet was filled with hundreds, many of them with their Costco stickers still attached, ranging from Disney classics to suspense. Because my parents didn’t let me have many movies, all I wanted to do during my visit was work through those VHS stacks. I shared a guest room with Rebekah, the twelve-year-old daughter of my aunt and uncle’s friends, also there for the holiday, and since our room had a TV and VCR, we watched multiple movies every day. She liked horror, so one night she picked Scream 2. We watched it well past dark, and, since this was my first slasher flick, I was terrified well past those two hours. Although fifteen years have elapsed, I remember the character Phil getting stabbed in the face through the bathroom stall’s wall and later his wife Maureen crawling in front of a projector screen, a knife protruding from her back. A complete slasher film lightweight, I’ve never watched another. And Rebekah didn’t have much of a chance to suggest any more because the next day her dad walked in on us cuing I Know What You Did Last Summer, which was rated R, and he said she couldn’t watch movies for the rest of their visit.
Despite my dislike for slasher flicks, I recently took to slashing my drafts. A few weeks ago I was revising an unwieldy, twenty-something-page essay (I’ve written about it before here and here); its many sections hadn’t found the right order yet, and after scrolling through them over and over on my computer, I couldn’t see them clearly–they’d blurred together into a confusing, unattractive lump. So I decided to make “cut and paste” literal. I took scissors, tape, clean paper, and a printed copy of my draft to a local coffee shop. With a cup of hot spiced chai as fuel, I sliced my essay into pieces and started moving them around as if solving a puzzle, which in reality I was. Once a sequence was right, I taped its parts together. On the plain paper, I handwrote new material–transition sentences, paragraphs that suddenly felt necessary. Mostly, though, I just worked with what I had. For more than two hours, I unscrambled my puzzle, and by the time I called it quits, the draft, while still imperfect, sang with fresh clarity. Other coffee shop patrons probably wondered why a grown woman was happily waving scissors about and stirring scraps of paper on a table. And if they had asked, I’d have replied, “Re-imagining.”
That’s really what I was doing: Most of the blocks were in front of me, and all I had to do was assemble them into a structure that held strong and pleased the senses. I had to re-envision what I had, like a dream that features real-life characters and locales but an element of the fantastic so that when you wake up, you see these people and places a little differently than you did before.
Usually I write fifteen-to-thirty page essays and stories. Somewhere between drafts three and seven, my subject and most of its development have been found, but they haven’t evolved into the right form yet. Until my “cut and paste” fest at the coffee shop, I’d muddled through that stage on my computer, but even my decent-sized monitor couldn’t truly show the scope of a draft; the most I could see at once was two pixelated pages. As a self-righteous proponent of printed, three-dimensional books over Kindles and their ilk, I hadn’t even bothered to consider that I could re-form my prose with the weight of actual paper and toner in my hands. But now that I’ve tried it, I’ll keep at it. Sometimes seeing your words isn’t enough to believe in them–you have to feel them too.
SLASHING AS REVISION
Whether you’re working with stubborn poetry or prose, print out your draft and cut it into sensible units. Then play with them. Start with a different line or paragraph. Swap a couple images or sections around. Let the old stuff surprise you. A hot beverage doesn’t hurt either. But a slasher film might.