GRETCHEN HAERTSCH: ON REVISION OR “SEEING AGAIN”
Most professional writers know that the difference between a quality piece of writing and a more mundane – or pretty terrible – piece of work lies in the revision process. College writing handbooks sometimes illustrate this by providing a marked up early draft of a (“real”) writer’s work with all its inconsistencies and awkward spots, next to the final version of the same work. It becomes very easy to see how applying the polish of revision has led to the brilliance of the final work. What happens in between the first draft and the final version can be pretty remarkable. Really, the brilliance is mostly in the quality of the revision.
This is true both in consideration of the big-picture issues of plotting and composition and in the sentence-level ones. The novelist E. M. Forster (Howards End) believed that we don’t know what we know until we write it down. The longer I write, the more I believe this to be true. Writing evolves our thinking. We learn what remarkable ideas are really spinning around up there in our brains. In other words, there is a certain magic that takes place in the transference from thought to written page. After returning to an earlier finished work, the writer may ask, “Did I really write this? Where did these ideas come from?” Just as our nighttime dreams can pierce our daylight consciousness, our innermost thoughts can see the light of day, but usually only if we write them down. Otherwise they can be like the dream that we remember only upon first waking in the morning. Then we’ve lost it forever. It’s a pity to have our ideas suffer the same fleeting lifespan. Of course, even when down on paper those brilliant ideas still need a bit of spit and polish to make them shine, especially when we’re talking about the complications of writing the novel. Sometimes this process can literally take years.
I know this in a profound way right now, for this has been the summer of my revision of Grace Rising, my young adult historical novel set during the influenza epidemic of 1918. As family members and friends hound me with “Isn’t-that- novel-done-yet?” questions, I remind myself to stay on the straight and narrow of revision, both with big-picture consideration and tiny sentence-level ones. It will be done when it’s done and I have to be content with that.
This has also been my Mark Twain summer. There isn’t a better season for reading his work and studying his ideas on revision. Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), Twain’s comic yet biting novel on race, is often published with an earlier version of the work, a lesser novel titled Those Extraordinary Twins. Within the latter’s pages is the kernel of the idea for the second, much more successful novel. Twain had the thought of writing a novel about Siamese twins and penned Those Extraordinary Twins. Twain says “the tale kept spreading along and spreading along, and other people got to intruding themselves and taking up more and more room with their talk and their affairs.” In Pudd’nhead Wilson those Siamese twins morph into the more common variety of twins and are no longer the main characters of the novel.
We are very lucky that Twain included both versions in the first American edition of Pudd’nhead Wilson because it helps us understand the evolution of his idea. In a sort of preface to Those Extraordinary Twins, Twain writes: “A man who is not born with the novel-writing gift has a troublesome time of it when he tries to build a novel. I know this from experience. He has no clear idea of his story; in fact he has no story. He merely has some people in his mind, and an incident or two, also a locality . . . To write a novel? No – that is a thought which comes later; in the beginning he is only proposing to tell a little tale; a very little tale; a six-page tale. But as it is a tale which he is not acquainted with, and can only find out what it is by listening as it goes along telling itself, it is more than apt to go on and on and on till it spreads itself into a book.”
“Spreading itself into a book” is the thing we want to do. Writing and revision and more writing and more revision is the way we get there.