Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Caught in the Act: Revision

86º ~ feels like 93º ~ dew point 73º ~ scuba gear weather, summer in the mid-south

So, I've been drafting poems for several weeks now, and I did draft another new one this morning (wahooooza). This means that I've been stacking up dated, printed copies of new drafts in my "in progress" folder that I keep on my desk, just beneath the printer. On the cover of this folder, by way of inspiration, is a printed list of my most recent acceptances, which are few and far between at this point, since I haven't had much to submit this past year. As the drafts stack up, the folder gains both a physical and mental weight. The folder grows before my eyes and maintains a presence just below the surface of my working brain throughout the day, leading to times like this morning's hour of revisions.

It's important to note that I see two major types of revision at the level of the individual poem.

The first type of revision is done when a poem draft is not "complete." This might happen because you've drafted the first few stanzas and gotten bogged down, or it might happen if writing time is interrupted by family/emergencies. In any case, this first type of revision is global; it involves being willing to tear up the structure of a poem in an attempt to recapture the energy of the draft and expand the draft to "completeness." I put these particular words in quotation marks because people always want to know when a poem is "complete" or "finished," and there is no black & white answer to that. It's gray and mostly based on intuition.

Here are some techniques for this global revision:

1. Save a new version of the draft and delete every second line (or third or whatever). Now write new lines to go in their spaces.

2. Save a new version of the draft and delete all of the line breaks and stanza breaks. Re-form the poem.

3. Re-write the draft in a different tense or different point-of-view.

4. Take two "incomplete" poems and braid the lines together.

There are many more such techniques designed to revise half-fledged poems, but somehow, I've drifted from this practice. I no longer even really save those half-born darlings. Oh, they might be in a file on the computer somewhere, and they are surely in my journal in scratches, but I don't print out what I've done. If I can't sustain my interest in the poem during my initial drafting of it, then I don't go back to it. This has happened over time, and may be a result of my having the luxury of uninterrupted writing time.

So, I am mainly focused on the second type of revision, the local revising that takes place when a poem is "complete" but not "finished."

Here's the procedure for my local revisions. I keep that "in progress" folder on my desk for a reason. Once the drafts gain a bit of heft, I find myself thumbing through them after I've finished drafting for the day. I read the drafts slantwise, barely opening the folder wide enough for me to see the whole page. I read quickly, almost skimming, but still taking in every word. From time to time, I might spy a serious slip of the fingers and stop to mark a grievous typo, but otherwise, I read on. I do this for several days until the poems bubble up after a drafting session and sort of ask to be revised. In other words, they come to mind as needing revision.

At that point, I go into my word processor and open each and every file that is "in progress," filling the screen with windows. I start with whatever window lands on top.

*Note: I used to claim that I could not revise on the screen, that I had to have a printed copy to tinker with. Sometime in the last six months, that has changed and I do all my local revising on the screen.

With whichever poem lands on the top of the screen, I start reading at the title, and I read out loud, with confidence and above a whisper. I am reading cold at this point, and I am listening for the places I stumble. I listen for the gunky lines that go on too long or the awkward line breaks. I listen for missed opportunities for assonance and alliteration, for metaphors and similes. I listen for useless repetition or extra adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, articles, etc. I always listen for the more precise way to say something, for the need for a more specific noun or for the need to change my syntax. Finally, I listen for the logic of the poem. Is it going to hold together and make sense to a reader outside of my own head?

As I read out loud, I stop and tinker with the lines, and after every change, I go back to the beginning and read the poem out loud from the start. The process is organic, circular, intuitive. I am not beyond cutting a stanza, and I almost always end up cutting some lines or phrases along the way, as I've learned my own tendency to useless repetition and over-explaining. I might add a line or phrase here and there, but usually, I'm cutting or substituting a better word. When I've made it through an out-loud reading from the title to the last line and I haven't stopped to tinker, I print out a new copy and date it. Even then, I don't consider the poem "finished" and ready to send out, as it needs to rest again. Later, when I'm spending time submitting, I'll read through the folder and select any drafts that are ready to be promoted into the "ready to submit" folder.

Every once in a while, this method of local revising exposes a poem that isn't making it, a poem that probably shouldn't have made it to this cycle at all. I just move on and leave it be. Maybe I'll come back to it; maybe I won't.

While it may be frustrating for the beginning writer, and it certainly was for me back in the day, there simply isn't a formula for revision. There are tools and tricks learned along the way, but there is no substitute for doing the work and discovering what works for you and your poems.


Kathleen said...

Oh, I love your process notes--and the term "local revising" and your trust in intuition! And hard work.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks, Kathleen!