Writing As A Process
On the dangers of revision
Revision appears to be the in word about improving writing. Like all good things, though, it must be done in moderation. One also has to recognize when something is good enough, so that to revise again is to invite disaster. What if Keats had revised Ozymandias one more time, so that it read
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings! Look on my works ye mighty, and be inspired."
Now right here the whole point is gone. Instead of being a poem about the futility of wealth, power, and fame, it becomes an advertisement for the Republican Party.
Or how about
A rose is a rose is a gift? or
A rose is a gift is a rose? or
A rose is a gift is a gift?
There are seven permutations of gift and rose here, and each one pales in comparison to the original version. Yet I'm sure we all can see how close Gertrude Stein could have come to any one of them. Each has its own subtle appeal, but finally the original is surely best.
Can you imagine?
"Shout if you must this old gray head,
But be obedient to your country's flag she said"?
Obedience to a cause can be very important, especially if it's your own revolution. The temptation to use obedient must been nearly overwhelming, yet Longfellow resisted this one last revision.
"I think that I shall never see a picture of a felicitous tree."
This is just silly. Kilmer would have been laughed out of the poet's society for this one, and for good reason. Yet it is very likely he never saw either a felicitous tree or a picture of one.
Other examples must surely abound, but I think it is clear from these that revision is a tricky business that should be left only to the amateurs.
on the dangers of revision
reflections on a college paper
reflections on our conference
friends and fellow sufferers
who sometimes share my
frustrations or understand the
joy of my occasional successes.
In the spring of 1969, three months before I left graduate school to enter the U.S. Army, I submitted a 20-page paper as my final project for a seminar in literary theory. My subject was on the nature of time in literary works, trying to discuss how time is experienced as we read a literary text. It was not a subject I was remotely prepared to discuss in any insightful manner, and the paper was little more than a string of ill-conceived, ill-understood observations based on a haphazard series of readings.
A week after the end of the term, I went by Dr. Towne's office to pick up my paper and learn my grade for the course. The paper received a B+, which meant that I would receive a B+ for a course grade. When I opened the paper, I discovered that Dr. Towne had gone through my manuscript and meticulously corrected my infelicities in usage and awkward sentence constructions. On each page were dozens of insertions, deletions, and suggestions for improving the flow and precision of my language. It was apparent that all these corrections, carefully written in black ink, would have taken an hour or longer. My response was to glance at 2 or 3 pages, and then I put the manuscript in my book bag. Eventually the paper was transferred to a box of papers in my apartment. Shortly before my departure for Fort Lewis, the box was thrown away.
When I retrieved my paper from Dr. Towne's office, the grade was all that concerned me. The paper was done. The professor's efforts to improve my language skills meant nothing to me. There was so much I could have learned from his comments, but I was blind to the value of his gift. Thinking back on this experience, I am struck by the dedication of Dr. Towne to his students. Perhaps he was naive, but I remain impressed by the example of this professor, nearing the end of a long teaching career, carefully attending to the minutest details in each student's paper. How is it possible that after years of reading so many poorly written compositions, he could still believe that students–even graduate students–could care about their writing, could imagine they really wanted to improve? How often was he ever thanked for his efforts? How many students appreciated this wonderful favor he was granting them?
Over thirty years later, I still feel guilty for my failure to learn from him--and to thank him. How I wish I could go back in time and rescue that paper from its oblivion. Unfortunately, at that moment in my life, I was unprepared for appreciating his concern that I become a better writer, a better thinker. Now, ironically, I find myself in a situation not unlike Dr. Towne's: reading student papers and wondering who would care what I might write on their papers. Lacking Dr. Towne's erudition and skill as an editor, what can I offer students that they might find beneficial?
Pleased to rediscover the following quote from Nancy Sommer's article "Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers."
"Student writers constantly struggle to bring their essays into congruence with a predefined meaning. The experienced writers do the opposite: they seek to discover (to create) meaning in the engagement with their writing, in revision."
Sommer's description of the maturation of the writing process fits with the writing and revision techniques with which I have felt most successful and productive. Interestingly enough, the meaning discovered in the revision is analogous to the gradual sculpting process I described in an earlier essay. The discovery process also requires that something be written down, in order that it might be revised, another topic from an earlier essay.
Perhaps the best reason for selecting this quote to respond to is the fact that this delineation between student writing and mature writing describes the change that took place in my writing during the Berryman paper discussed in an earlier essay. I have always felt that there was something special about that paper, but never really understood what I learned from writing it. Through this series of essays, my perspective on the process of writing has continued to develop, so that now, when coming back to Sommers' quote, I see it in a different light, and, through it, see the Berryman paper in a different light. That is what happens, though, when the same topic is revisited multiple times.
I propose the addition of one more distinction between student revision and the revision of experienced writers (and this is just a different way of saying something that Sommers does discuss in her article):
Student writers revise for the sake of the reader--to make things clear. Experienced writers revise for the sake of the material, to discover its inner meaning.
Long live revision!
A Vivid Memory, A College Paper Forgotten
The only memory I have of any college paper is really a memory of the revision process, not the paper at all. This may be because the professor, who worked so diligently and patiently with me to revise my senior Art History Thesis, was one of the most intimidating professors at the college. And yet, he was the only one who ever took time with me to sit down and comb through that writing, sentence-by-sentence, word-by-word, asking me to explain my choices and rethink my wording. We met in his office for an hour at a time each week for several weeks. It was frightening, intimidating, and painful but at the same time it was what I needed and craved--someone to take the time and care enough to address my writing weaknesses directly. When the process was over I thanked him for his time and attention and explained that I wished I had has his kind of help in my first semester, instead of my last. I had discovered that behind his gruff facade was a teddy bear of a man who was devoted to every student. It is the revision process that did me the most good--the paper is only a vague recollection. My memory of Prof. Soth's dedication to helping me become a stronger writer inspires me to use the same approach with my students.
A Letter to the Wichita Beacon
My father did not do much writing in the last 45 years of his life. Perhaps he would send me 2-3 letters per year after I left home, usually letters of one paragraph: a sentence on the weather, a sentence on Kansas State football or basketball, a sentence saying there wasn't much hometown news, and a sentence hoping we were doing well. Despite his lack of interest in personal correspondence, I know that in the 1930s, while living with his mother on the farm, he wrote a novel that he later burned. And once a year, when the pastor of our church was on vacation, my father would deliver a Sunday sermon to a congregation earnestly fighting the August heat with their hand-held fans from Moon's Funeral Home. Although my father delivered these sermons without notes, I knew long passages were written out in careful detail, always based on my father's unique exegesis of some obscure passage in the Old Testament, a passage never previously noticed by other members of this small Methodist church in Kansas. I never talked with my father about these sermons, but I knew he would spend months thinking about the text for these annual August sermons, intent on tackling some profound spiritual problem.
The only time I talked with my father about his writing came fairly late in his life when I saw a handwritten "draft" of a letter he intended to send to the Beacon, a daily newspaper published in Wichita. The letter was a defense of Richard Nixon, written some years after the President had been driven from office. As I was reading this letter left unguarded in our living room, I encountered a sentence that I did not think was easily interpreted. Anxious to save my father from any public embarrassment, I questioned him about the sentence, suggesting that he might consider an alternate wording. Dad informed me that he was quite satisfied with the sentence: "I have no plans to do any more revising. The letter's done and ready to mail." He then volunteered the information that he did all his revising in his head prior to writing his first and final draft. Before setting anything down on paper, he memorized the complete text, word for word. Once it was written, it was as good as printed, which indeed was the case when the Beacon printed my dad's letter with the sentence I had found prime for revision.
My dad was no more likely to revise that sentence than he was to reconsider his evaluation of Richard Nixon. Although my dad was not always an easy man to deal with, I have always admired his independence and insistence on seeing things his own way. Once he made a commitment, there were no compromises. And probably he was right about the sentence--I disliked the wording because I found it hard to appreciate his defense of Nixon. I was not the best person to be telling my father how to amend either his politics or his prose.
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