Tuesday, February 8, 2011


The late John Gardner, my writing mentor more than thirty years ago, once told a story about revision that has stuck with me. He said he gave a reading, and during the Q&A a woman raised her hand, and said, "You know, I think I like your writing, but I don't think I like you." His reply was memorable. "That's all right," he said, "because I'm a better person when I'm writing. Standing here, talking to you now, I can't revise my words. If I say something wrong or not quite right, or maybe offensive and it hurts someone, the words are out there, public, and I can't take them back. I have to rely on you to revise or fix them for me. But when I'm writing, I can go over and over what I think and say until it's right."
I think Gardner captured the heart of the creative process. We often hear that 90% of good writing is re-writing. We also know that writing well is the same thing as thinking well, and that means we want our final literary product---story, novel, or essay to exhibit our best thought, best feeling, and best technique.
When I compose a first draft I just let everything I feel and think spill out raw and chaotically on the page. I let it be a mess. I trust my instincts. I just let my ideas and feelings flow until I run out of words. I don’t censor myself. When I have this raw copy, I can then decide if this idea is worth putting more effort into. If so, then with the second draft, I clean up spelling and grammar. I add anything I forgot to include in the first draft and take out whatever isn’t working. 
Then the real fun begins with the third draft. There, I can begin to polish sentences and paragraphs for style. I always need a minimum of three drafts before I have anything worthy of showing to others, and that's only if I'm lucky. Sometimes my ratio of throwaway to keep pages is 20 to 1. From the third draft forward, I work at varying sentence length (long, short) in every paragraph, and also varying sentence forms (simple sentence, compound sentence, complex sentence, loose sentence, periodic sentence). I see each sentence as being a unit of energy. The music and meaning of the last sentence in every paragraph should propel the reader into the first sentence of the paragraph that follows.
I try to make sure each paragraph can justify its being on the page. That is, each paragraph should have at least one good idea in it. I work to amplify a strong narrative voice. I rewrite and edit until the piece has no waste or unnecessary sentences whatsoever. Any sentence that can come out should come out. ("Kill your babies," as the saying goes, unless, of course you absolutely love that sentence.) I work to get music---rhythm, meter---between sentences and paragraphs, as if the prose composition is actually a musical work, one pleasing to the ear. The way to test this is to read it out loud. If I stumble when reading the piece, I know those sentences that tripped me up (that were hard to say or recite) need to be rewritten.  Also, I try to be generous with concrete language, and to write always with specificity. (The Devil is always in the details.)

 So for me, revision is a combination of cutting away (like sculpting the sentence from stone) and also a constant layering of the language (like working with the sentence as you would clay.) The palimpsestic layering part of the process often leads to sudden surprises---puns, oracles and revelations---that I'm always looking for. Back and forth, adding and subtracting, like that.You know when a piece is finished because you can't pull out a single sentence or change a word or syllable. If you do extract that heavily polished sentence, you create a hole in the space between the sentence before and after it since you have altered not only the sense but the sound that links those sentences. (It's like ripping an arm off a human body, an act that affects everything else in the organism you're creating.) Achieving this requires (for me) lots of thrown away pages: 1,200 for Faith and the Good Thing, 2,400 for Oxherding Tale, 3,000 for Middle Passage, and more than 3,000 for Dreamer. I use this same method for short stories. I love the sustained focus it requires, for it is so like the first stage in formal meditation, called dharana (or concentration).

 I started keeping a diary when I was 12; my mother suggested the idea. In college the diary transformed into a journal in which I wrote poetry, brief essays to myself, and (as with a diary) tried to make sense of daily events. (These old journals fill up one filing cabinet in my study.) When I started writing fiction, the journals moved in the direction of being a writing tool and memory aide. I use cheap, unlined, spiral notebooks, each page like a blank canvas. Into them go notes on everything I experience; I jot down images, phrases used by my friends, fragments of thoughts, overheard dialogue, anything I flag in something I've read that strikes me for its sentence form or memorable qualities, its beauty or truth. These writing notebooks since 1972 sit on one of my bookshelves 20-inches deep, along with notebooks I kept from college classes. (I save everything, it's shameless.) After 39 years of accumulation, the notebooks contain notes on every subject under the sun.

When I have a decent third draft, I begin going carefully through my notebooks, page after page, hunting for thoughts, images I've had, or ideas about characters (observations I've made of people around me). Although it takes five days (eight hours a day), sometimes even two weeks now to go through all these notebooks and folders (since I add something new to the current one every day), I can always count on finding some sentence, phrase, or idea I had, say, 20 or 30 years ago that is perfect for a novel or story in progress. The literary journal Zyzzyva used to publish a feature called "The Writer's Notebook." If you look at the Fall, 1992 issue (pages 124-143), you'll see reproductions of my revised pages and an early outline for Middle Passage, as well as character notes for Capt. Ebenezer Falcon that I wrote on hotel stationary (The Sheraton-Palace Hotel in San Francisco) when I was on the road.

When I tell students the anecdote about Gardner, I emphasize his feeling that the result of this painstaking revision process is that for at least once in their lives, here on the page, they can achieve perfection or something close to that, if they are willing to revise and re-envision their work long enough. And then I say: Where else in life do we get the chance---the privilege and blessing---to lovingly, selflessly go over something again and again until it finally embodies exactly what we think and feel, our best expression, our vision at its most clearest, and our best techne?

1 comment:

  1. Amen, Mr. Johnson. Amen. Thank you. I have to thank you for introducing me to the work of Mr. Gardner, too, as I came to that fine man through your own work and the crediting of him you so often include.

    I hope that in this age where publishing has become so easy, people will continue to learn the art of editing, both other people's work and their own. I fear if they don't we will see a vanished generation where great writing is concerned -- like the missing generation a country can experience after a war.