One A Week: Revision Edition

A year ago I challenged myself to write one story a week. This year I challenge myself to revise one story a week. Five weeks, five revisions. Drafts and revisions posted on the next five Fridays. At some point during each week, I’ll check in here to tell about the piece in progress or my process.

I’m doing this because I need to respect my writing enough to work with a piece through its completion. It’s easy for me to keep a notebook and write down my rattling thoughts and it’s easy to do the same writing exercises I assign my students and it’s easy for me to think that some of this work will get read someday. Some and someday are so broad I can feign commitment to writing without honing the craft. But if I practice the craft and honor this gift, my writing will be ready and worth sharing. So I make up these games and start before I’m ready.

This week I’m revising a story that is such a mess only a couple of people have ever read it. I remember feeling very brilliant while I wrote the first draft. The story nearly turned into a Jodi Piccoult novel. Which I realized after I’d slogged through to the end, tears on my cheeks. Even so, I wanted to revise it and did, a couple of years ago. I didn’t like the result much and only reread it this past week. Until then, it’d been a file on my computer I’d avoid eye contact with.

Why pick this for the first of five? Because it’s so bad it can only get better. And because I abandoned a good first sentence for a terrible story. And because I must start somewhere.

Poetry Revision

I haven’t played with poetry this semester as much as I have in past semesters. Even so, this week I sat down to practice revision. I used revision suggestions from The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux.

First, a quick edit of my draft:

Gray day facing the sea,
waves turning over seaweed,
plastic bottles, shells,
our kids in the froth

Between us we’ve touched
all continents but Antarctica
We know how to pack a suitcase,
bringing what we’ll miss most:
cheese, chocolate, vodka,
the right pens, affordable shoes
Between us we know how to make
temporary permanent enough
so our kids make it through okay
and our marriages do alright
We paint walls, hang photos,
insist on familiar, heavy books
to fill shelves

Some places you just can’t make it
from the start or near the end
Oil and water,
your body and all the others
Even if you want to like it,
you can’t

Our kids come up from the waves,
shivering, kicking up sand,
hungry from play

It is good to sit
and look at the sea,
making it enough

And now, with lines cut and slight changes to how it looks on the page:

Gray day facing the sea,
waves turning over seaweed,
plastic bottles, shells,
our kids in the froth
Between us we’ve touched
all continents but Antarctica
We know how to pack a suitcase:
cheese, chocolate, vodka,
the right pens, affordable shoes
Between us we know how to make
temporary permanent enough
so our kids make it through okay
and our marriages do alright
We paint walls, hang photos,
insist on familiar, heavy books
to fill shelves

Some places you just can’t make it
from the start or near the end

Our kids come up from the waves,
shivering, kicking up sand,
hungry from play

And last, paring to the stanza that sparked the poem, and trying new:

Some places you just can’t make it
from the start or near the end
rural Wisconsin
New York
Kuwait
Even if you want to like it
you can’t
marriage
new motherhood
church
I make love a duty
to like this day enough

I drew the draft from a day at the beach with other expat moms, and from separate conversations over the years here. I like that a first draft turned out two different pieces. And I really like the line another woman said

Some places you just can’t make it

and how I finished it

from the start or near the end

The second revision includes another idea I’ve been thinking about, that sometimes love is a duty and there isn’t anything wrong admitting feeling comes much later, or not at all. That we love because it is right.

Riding The Train In India: A Peek At Revision

I cut a 1009 word piece to 706!

I’ve been going through old essays to find work I might submit. I wrote “Riding The Train In India” in 2011, from a 2009 journal entry. In 2013 I took an online writing workshop and learned the phrase “vicious editor.” I’ve gotten a bit cut-happy. And as I’ve practiced cutting, I’ve gained confidence. I trust myself not to lop off an ear or nose when I’m trimming fringe.

(Though I once cut my fringe while my hair was wet and it dried high on my forehead. It looked terrible. I would have appreciated an undo button).

When I cut a piece, I copy and paste the whole thing  on the same document. The latest revision is always the top of the page. I cut knowing I can always find what’s missing, if it’s that necessary.

I am learning to find the truer story (more on that in another post) in my essay pieces. I think that’s evident in the first few paragraphs of my revised work below. But humor me and read the draft first:

I rode two different classes. The first was second class, from Delhi to Dehra Dun. A few hours in our own cracked brown vinyl seats with armrests and a tray table, we were given a newspaper to read and a complimentary breakfast of wet scrambled eggs, dry toast, and coffee served in a thermos that might not have been washed after its last use. Later on our trip, we rode third class and liked that much better. Third class seats were blue vinyl covered benches facing each other, the aisle at one end and metal bar covered windows at the other. My brother and his wife, Joie, and their two children Will and Annie, and Justin, Claire and me: three facing three, with baby Claire and little Annie on laps.

Everything before and after and between just sitting on the train is complicated or frustrating or difficult. Names on lists posted in the depot must be checked against the tickets. Sometimes the lists aren’t posted where you expect them. We let my brother do this while we stood in a knot of bags and children. I kept checking to be sure our passports were still where I put them. It felt like a documentary: the mass of men, women, and children on the train platform waiting, nudging, and staring. Porters carrying two or three suitcases balanced on their heads moved deftly through and around packs of passengers. I was exhausted after nights of poor sleep, but my senses were prickly alive. I couldn’t open my eyes wide enough.

Boarding the train was hateful. All pushing and pulling and faces mashed into shoulders and unwashed hair an inch from your mouth. I had a baby or a suitcase to carry too. No one was gentle with their elbows or hips and once on, you had to find your seats; once at your seats, they might already be occupied. We sat and soon after, more passengers crowded our benches, pressing us to the window.

Now, enjoy this:

We rode third class was from Dehra Dun to Jaipur: blue vinyl benches facing each other, the aisle at one end and metal barred windows at the other. We travelled with my brother, Nate, and his family. After spending Christmas together in the Himalayan foothills, we were going to see the Taj Mahal.

At the depot, we stood in a knot of luggage and children. “I don’t like the way those bags are hanging off you,” Nate said to me. I kept checking our passports were still there, exhausted after a week of poor sleep, but prickly awake in the crowd. There was a joke I made, early in our travel through India, about the country being where the world’s sweaters came to die. There was the odor of a diet heavy on onion. A woman opened her infant’s pants and flicked the contents on a track. Porters with two or three suitcases balanced on their heads moved deftly around us.

Boarding the train was hateful. No one was gentle with elbows or hips in the push up the stairs. I balanced a baby and a bag or two, mashed into the shoulder of a man with dirty hair. I swore. I hadn’t come to India for its romance. We found our seats. Other passengers found our seats too.

That alone was a cut of 113 words! And I got to add my joke about the sweaters!

I will leave this piece alone for a few days and reread it. I think it’s very close to finished.

Revision: We Want Tone

I cut just over a third of the words from the previous draft of “We Want Tone.” I like to practice revision on pieces I’m not radically invested in. Sometimes, the drafting and revising of a so-so work gives me a piece I’m more likely to continue exploring or revising. Even if I eventually abandon a practice piece, the practice remains worthwhile. I spent about an hour cutting words from the following and re-ordering some of the dialogue. I also made small changes to format.


Kelly leaves the gym dressed in the spandex tights and moisture-wicking shirt she put on that morning. She’s late to meet two prospective clients, who wave her over at the coffee shop. Jill nudges an iced latte across the table and points to Kelly’s shirt. Strong Is The New Sexy. “I love that,” says Jill, “I wanna be the new sexy.”

“Me too,” Abi says.

Kelly smiles, takes out her tablet, swiping the screen to open

Jill and Abi

“I really need this,” says Jill, “I feel like a box after two kids. No waist.” She runs her palms ribs to hips. “Forty-eight kilos, but I want a waist again.”

“We want tone,” Abi says.

Jill and Abi
Tone

“And I want a butt,” Jill says, “I used to dance. But I want a butt like yours.”

Kelly laughs. “Well, squats work.”

“I have a butt,” Abi says, “And a belly.” She takes handfuls of her stomach rolls and laughs. “I’m mostly in this for health. She suggested it.”

“If we do it together, we’ll actually workout,” Jill says.

Health
Routine

Kelly types, looks up. “I can meet twice a week. We’ll use bodyweight and progress to small weights.”

“How long is a session?” Abi asks.

“One hour.”

“I’m gonna die after ten minutes,” says Jill, “I’ll be like, begging to stop.”

“What about food? Do you do any nutritional consultation?” Abi asks.

“We saw your grilled chicken on Instagram,” Jill says.

“Yeah, we looked you up. You eat really healthy,” says Abi.

Kelly isn’t surprised they looked her up. “I can give you a few recipes. Meats and veg.”

“I love love love veg,” Jill says, “Just so expensive. I buy frozen.”

“I prefer raw,” Kelly says, “But, yeah, expensive. Especially organic.”

“Oh my God,” Jill says, “I bought a little tray of organic blueberries at Sultan and paid like twenty-three dollars. Kids ate them like candy.”

“I can’t afford organic,” says Abi.

“Co-ops are good for produce,” Kelly says.

“Yes, totally,” Jill says.

“I started making green smoothies for breakfast,” says Abi.

“Yummy,” says Kelly.

“I eat a couple eggs too.”

“I thought egg was bad,” Jill says.

“No. Good,” says Kelly.

“They’ll be bad again. I read leeks cause cancer. Everything is bad.”

“Except booze,” Abi says and the two friends laugh. “You should see her drink,” Abi says.

Jill holds up her hands. “Guilty. Which is why I so need this.”

“Right,” says Kelly, “Let’s figure out days.”

“Anything,” says Jill, “I mean, forty-eight kilos means nothing if I’m not healthy. I want a waist.”

“Having a waist doesn’t mean healthy,” Kelly says.

“So I get healthy and get a waist.”

“Sure, that can happen.”

“And a butt.”

“And a butt.” Kelly adds to her note.

Nutrition
Waist
Butt

Abi pulls her phone from her bag and opens the calendar. “I can do Saturdays.”

“And Mondays,” Jill says, “Sevenish okay?”

“Sure. You’ll go to bed tired.”

“Good,” Abi says, “I can’t fall asleep.”

“Okay,” says Kelly, “I’ll probably need you to move furniture to have enough space.”

“No problem,” says Jill, “Hubby can pick up stuff on base too. What do we need?”

“Just mats for now.”

“Okay. I’m so excited. My body just – I’m gonna die.” Jill finishes her iced latte.

Gonna Die

Kelly closes her tablet, smiles, holds up her empty coffee. “Thanks for this. I’ll see you ladies Saturday at seven.”

“Awesome. I’ll text directions,” Jill says.

“Awesome,” says Kelly.

May Revision: Essays That Nearly Killed Me

I revised five pieces this month. Let me tell you a little about each, most waiting for a better title than their topics:

Comparison: I pulled this piece from a long rant, bringing into focus my insecurity about parenting. This insecurity comes and goes. And that made revising this piece difficult: while I have hope for myself and my children (let us quit the comparison game!), I still wobble. There isn’t a tidy summary to this unflattering view of me.

Envy: The second piece pulled from the aforementioned rant, with an eye on wanting what I can’t have. For years I was sure I shouldn’t have become a mom because I can be so selfish. I looked at the childless people with an envy that occasionally bordered on hate. In this piece I write about contentment. I am really sad for that stretch when I couldn’t see the joy I possessed because my eyes were on what I didn’t have.

Rose: Rose is a woman whose death brought my own sin into painfully sharp focus. She was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer and died within a month. And that month for me was perhaps the peak of my anger and discontent at being a wife and mother. I can see that now, a little over a year away: a shift begun when I thought about this mom who knew she wouldn’t see her eight year old son turn nine. The challenge of returning to this piece, and a couple of others, is that I wanted to write about the experience as I see it now, or as I have (or haven’t) grown since.  Instead, I kept the piece in present tense, editing to tighten.

The Year After Grant: Also about a year ago, I wrote two essays back-to-back about the year following the birth of my son. That year was wonderful and awful and I was looking for a way to say all of it. With this revision, I combined the two pieces. The challenge was finding an appropriate tone. I’m letting this piece sit right now: it’s stronger, but not finished.

To An Affair I Haven’t Had: A Confession To My Husband: Oh, the one piece with a title. Also written a year ago. This essay partners with a couple of my fiction pieces. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I returned to this piece: it is hot, raw, sad. I center on the fight of flesh and spirit, knowing right and wanting wrong (Romans 7). I returned to this piece less concerned with keeping the details of my own situation accurate, and more concerned with writing a work that encompasses the absolute despair and suckiness of wanting an affair you can’t have. And shouldn’t have!

Title of my first collection: Wanting What I Can’t Have. Joking. Kinda. Sometimes in the middle of WP or drafting, I write God. I might follow that with a quick prayer like help or I might take a page to pour out the spiritual or faith side of topic. When I returned to these pieces, I did pray. Because I get shaky writing these things honestly, now with the intent to share. I am fast reaching the point where I don’t care what ugly bits of me you see, so long as you also see my faith worked out. So during this month of revising (and drafting) tough pieces, I returned to this question: what purpose does my transparency serve?

Running Still

I might be a revision junkie. I reread yesterday’s post and saw necessary changes. I’m not revising the entire post, but here is one paragraph that deserves better:

We have sweet spaces of time built for daydreaming and thinking. In college I began running longer and longer distances, mapping twenty-mile routes through the middle of nowhere. I ran with a tape deck once because my CD player wouldn’t fit in my Camelbak. Yes. A dubbed tape. But aside from that anomaly, my long runs were open to whatever thought flitted through my mind. I counted to a thousand, and then back down. When I started using the time to think about pieces I had in workshop, running and writing became more tangibly connected.

Nothing terribly wrong. But like I said, this paragraph deserves better. I skipped over the center of it: that running gave me space to space out. That’s it, really. So why mention the one long run with a dubbed tape? Oh, and I don’t like the word “flitted.” I don’t know why I used it. Maybe some thoughts flit, but a lot land with a thud or peek around the corner.

So I spent about forty minutes thinking and writing about when I returned to running in college and what made that routine such necessity. I’ve written about my running before. This may be another start:

In college I began running longer and longer distances, mapping twenty-mile routes through the middle of nowhere. I drew maps on notebook paper and copied road names from the Gazetteer, consulting the note at dead intersections of farmland and sky. The running, even shorter distances in town, gave me undistracted time to think. I counted to a thousand and then back down, again and again, counting with my breath. I took interruptions.

Running and writing connected. I had a classmate who said she composed the best forgotten essays on her marathon training runs. Running was a piece of paper and pen, an hour or so to write, cross-out, rewrite, find the best word. I found and lost poetry on road and trail. I gave characters an audience and went home with the next scene for a workshop piece.

I also had a lot I didn’t want to think about. I was hearing truth, but not listening. Running took me far away from campus and my house. I hit my stride, thinking or not thinking. I found stretches of abandoned road and stopped to stare at the telephone wires. I might stand in one place, listening, for ten or fifteen minutes, sweat drying as salt on my brow. I remembered the goodness of being quiet.

This practice became necessity. I started praying again; I wanted to hear God. Running became my way of being still and knowing. Running with only your heart and mind to hold is as meditative as sitting still. There is something spectacular about working your body, finding a steady pace, and letting your thoughts come and go.

Better, yes?

Daydreaming as Drafting

Daydreaming was my first practice at drafting and revision. I remember car rides to the grocery store, sitting in the backseat of the station wagon. I remember my daydreams: waking up one morning with curly hair like the girl in the magazine ad for Tide; hunching over the handlebars of a skinny-wheeled ten-speed bike, racing downhill; creating a new wardrobe of primary colors and white Keds. Behind the wheel in the front seat, my mom might have been daydreaming too, the back roads familiar enough to let her mind wander.

We have sweet spaces of time built for daydreaming and thinking. In college I began running longer and longer distances, mapping twenty-mile routes through the middle of nowhere. I ran with a tape deck once because my CD player wouldn’t fit in my Camelbak. Yes. A dubbed tape. But aside from that anomaly, my long runs were open to whatever thought flitted through my mind. I counted to a thousand, and then back down. When I started using the time to think about pieces I had in workshop, running and writing became more tangibly connected.

We often return to the same daydreams or thoughts, just as in our notebooks. In the back seat, the underbrush or open fields flying by, I could start over: change small parts of my fantasy, reconstruct dialogue.

But give yourself those sweet spaces. I made a list of times or places where I can let my mind wander. Do the same. Unplug for five or ten minutes of waiting in a line, turn off the radio on your drive home or keep the TV off for an evening. Let quiet and boredom invade. Make a practice of this. Find a question or an answer. Write a story in your head and take it to the page. Pray.

A while ago, I read “In Defense of Boredom” by Carolyn Y. Johnson in The Week, first published in The Boston Globe as “The Joy of Boredom.” I read it with a kind of AmenPreachIt response. Take a moment to read the piece.

A Single Set of Circumstances

The first creative writing course I took in college used an early edition of What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. After college, I returned to the book only occasionally. My stories were terrible but I kept writing , unguided. When I began teaching creative writing to high school students, I found the third edition of What If? and have used the prompts to draft and revise my own work since.

Here is one I love:

Write five mini-stories (limit: 200 words each) to account for a single event or set of circumstances, such as a man and woman standing on a city sidewalk, hailing a cab. Each story should be different – in characters, plot, and theme – from the others.

When I use this prompt in the classroom, we make a long list of situations. A year ago, a student offered

Three teenagers in a gas station

And I wrote five mini-stories. I titled each after towns I knew in Wisconsin. This week I zipped through a revision of each piece. I like the idea that a series of mini-stories could stand as a whole piece. My five are not strong enough to warrant that yet, but the point is: I’m practicing revision. And enjoying the practice!

Below, are two of the pieces. Read only the revisions or take a look at the drafts too, to see changes.

(Revision) The Pitstop
The joke is the whole town is a giant truckstop. North-south and east-west interchanges make a cross of cheap motels, gas stations and a Super Wal-mart. Mike, Jessie and Jennifer started hanging out at the Pitstop their freshman year. They made friends with Delores and Mary who called Mike, Jessie and Jennifer “young things” and made up for burnt coffee with complimentary pie. The five of them, and whichever trucker cared to weigh in, shot the shit.

At some point in the evening, Delores would step out for a cigarette and then let Mary have her turn. “This place was better when we could smoke,” Mary said. Delores coughed and pointed at the three young things. She said, “We’re saving their young lungs.” Mike said he liked a little gravel in the voice and the two waitresses laughed like it was the best joke they’d heard.

When Mike turned eighteen, he stopped at the Pitstop’s front counter, showed his license and bought a pack of Marlboros. At the back counter, when it was time for Delores to go have her smoke, Mike asked to join her. “You’re a baby,” Delores said. Mike shrugged. They stood in the damp alley next to a Dumpster. Delores offered her lighter and Mike sucked a lungful of smoke, coughed. Delores didn’t laugh or look away. When Mike quit coughing, he looked at her, his eyes watering, and said, “Don’t tell.” Delores took a long drag of her own, held it for a moment, exhaled in a slow stream. “Tell what?”

(Draft) Tomah, Wisconsin
The whole town is a giant truck stop. That’s the joke. North-south and east-west interchanges make a cross of cheap motels, gas stations and a Super Wal-mart. When they were freshmen, Mike, Jessie and Jennifer started hanging out at The Pitstop on Friday nights when the rest of the school was at a football or basketball game. They made friends with Delores and Mary who called Mike, Jessie and Jennifer “young things” and made up for burnt coffee with complimentary pie. The five of them, and whichever trucker cared to weigh in, shot the shit. At some point in the evening, Delores would step out for a cigarette, return to the counter and let Mary have her turn. “This place was better when we could smoke,” Mary said. Delores coughed and waved a hand at her friend and then pointed at the three young things, “We’re saving their young lungs.” Mike said he liked a little gravel in the voice and the two waitresses roared. When Mike turned eighteen, he met Jessie and Jennifer at the Pitstop; instead of walking through the gas station to the restaurant in back, Mike stopped at the front counter, took out his license and bought a pack of Marlboros. At the back counter, when it was time for Delores to go have her smoke, Mike stood and asked if he could join her. “You’re a baby,” Delores laughed and Mike shrugged. They stood in the damp alley next to a Dumpster. Delores offered her lighter and Mike sucked a lungful of smoke, coughed. Delores didn’t laugh or look away. When Mike quit coughing, he looked at her, his eyes watering, “Don’t tell.” Delores took a long drag of her own, held it for a moment, exhaled in a slow stream, “Tell what?”

(Revision) Ric’s Kwik Trip
It took a week for Mrs. Nefger to figure out what the three boys were doing. They showed up during the afternoon lull and walked up and down the aisles giggling, occasionally bending or kneeling and then standing quickly, glancing her way. She sat behind the counter flipping through a magazine or checking the tobacco inventory. Each day the boys stopped at the back cooler for neon Gatorades. The medium size cost $1.39.

One day Mrs. Nefger was helping a customer find baby wipes when she noticed the price stickers on the shelves. The thirty-nines were circled in green Sharpie. The next afternoon, when the boys were halfway down the chips aisle, Mrs. Nefger called from her perch, “Hey, you. What’s with the thirty-nines?” The trio froze, looked at one another, then at Mrs. Nefger. She said, “Yeah, I noticed. Is it some kinda pervert thing?” One of the boys blushed up to his white blonde hair, shook his head. “Then what is it?” she said, stepping down from the stool, leaning on the counter. The one wearing a hat pointed thumbs at the other two and said, “We’re all thirteen, that’s all. Adds up to thirty-nine. We call ourselves Thirty-Nine.”

Mrs. Nefger could have said that was the dumbest thing she’d ever heard, but didn’t. Instead she half smiled. “Better than the Three Musketeers.” The baby-faced one giggled. She said, “What are you gonna do when one of you turns fourteen?”

(Draft) Orfordville, Wisconsin
It took a week for Mrs. Nefger to figure out what the three boys were doing. Every afternoon they showed up at Ric’s Kwik Trip during the lull before commuters stopped for gas. The boys walked up and down the aisles giggling, occasionally bending or kneeling and standing quickly, glancing her way. She sat on stool behind the counter flipping through a magazine when she should be checking the tobacco inventory. Each day the boys stopped at the back cooler and picked neon colored Gatorades to drink on their walk home. The medium size cost $1.39. One day Mrs. Nefger was helping another customer find baby wipes when she noticed the price stickers on the shelves. The thirty-nines were circled in green Sharpie. The next afternoon, when the boys were halfway down the chip aisle, Mrs. Nefger called from her perch, “Hey. Yeah, you. What’s with the thirty-nines?” The trio froze, looked at one another, then at Mrs. Nefger. She said, “Yeah, I noticed. Is it some kinda pervert thing?” One of the boys blushed up to his white blonde hair, shook his head. “Then what is it?” she said, stepping down from the stool, leaning on the counter. The one wearing a hat pointed thumbs at the other two and said, “We’re all thirteen, that’s all. Adds up to thirty-nine. We call ourselves Thirty-Nine.” Mrs. Nefger could have said that was the dumbest thing she’d ever heard, but she didn’t. Instead she half smiled, “Better than the Three Musketeers, I guess.” The baby-faced one giggled. “What are you gonna do when one of you turns fourteen?” The three boys shrugged; one of them said they had awhile yet.

 

Essay Revision: Practiced Avoidance

I need to practice revising personal pieces.

But a few are so personal:
Marriage
Comparison
Lust
Envy
Anger
Parenting
Contentment (as in: my plea for complete)

Some pieces read like first thoughts. When I read them, I feel where I was. And then I wonder where I am. I read some pieces and sense refinement bringing me a breath closer to holy. A year ago I wrote a piece called “To an Affair I Haven’t Had.” I read it now, to rework it, and know I was spared. I didn’t fuck up my marriage. I only wanted to.

I only wanted to. That is why returning to a few of these pieces is tough.

The other day I showed Justin my sunglasses, the inside lenses speckled with tiny tear drops. My car cries, I call them, when I turn the radio off on my commute home and wrestle through whatever lump is in my heart. Some of these pieces I want to revise might have been written last week, rather than a year ago, or two. I drive fast and cry about wanting what is wrong. I drive fast and pray to want what is right. To really want it.

I am not returning to these pieces to tidy my story. I write confessional pieces to remain confessional. I remember writing about lust and thinking, I am not the only person who has felt this. But I named it on a page. I see no reason to hide my sin. And I see no reason to hide my desperate faith. I have no shame in its desperation. If I lived in a cave, I might have a meditative faith, but I live in the middle of full days and my faith is worked out on car cries and in my pages.

When I return to some of those pages this month, I pray I go with compassion and honesty.