revise

revise v. 1. To amend or alter: to revise one’s opinion; 2. To alter something already written or printed, in order to make corrections, improve, or update: to revise a manuscript.

1567, “to look at again.” From re- “again” + videre “to see.” Meaning “to look over again with intent to improve or amend” is recorded from 1596.

purgatory n: 1. (in the belief of Roman Catholics and others) a condition or place in which the souls of those dying penitent are purified from venal sins, or undergo the temporal punishment that, after the guilt of the mortal sin has been remitted, still remains to be endured by the sinner. 3. Any condition or place of temporary punishment, suffering, expiation, or the like. Adj. 4. Serving to cleanse, purify, or expiate.

Think about the connection for a moment.

I’ll tell you how I view this pair of definitions. “To revise” actually means “to enter into a condition that is much like purgatory.” You will suffer. You’ll atone for whatever terrible thing you did in your draft or manuscript or whatever you call the thing you’re revising. If you’re like I am, you’ll make a big mess of whatever you’re revising and then you’ll fall into a weeping, slobbery pile, which (as the symbolism might tell you) will purify, cleanse you of your writerly sins. You’ll lie there in a heap until you pull yourself together and get typing or cutting-and-pasting or whatever it is you need to do. If it’s winter in the Midwest, you’ll take your vitamin D and use your happy lamp and meditate on the fact that spring is coming; with this in mind, you’ll get your goddamn revision(s) done and then celebrate with a bottle of whiskey and inappropriate dancing.

Or maybe you won’t celebrate at all until you get feedback from your boss or your director or your agent or editor or whoever you secretly hope will tell you that your revision is, without a doubt, the most brilliant thing she’s ever read. That it should go into print right now, that [insert name of your favorite press] will publish it right now, and that no more revisions need to take place.

Sigh.

I’ve never been much of a reviser, so you might not want to trust my description of this process. I will say this: I’m becoming more acquainted with revision, and I’m trying my damndest to pretend I’m Joyce Carol Oates, who 1) has no personality; she said so, and 2) thinks revising is “fun.”

Watch this if you don’t believe me:

Joyce Carol Oates Video

If revising is “fun,” I’m missing out on some serious good times. One thing I have in common with JCO is the fact that I don’t know how many things I’ve written. Ongoing projects? Can count them on one hand. But everything? Who knows? (And, perhaps more importantly, who cares?) One thing I don’t have in common with her is that, maybe unfortunately, I know exactly how much money I have in the bank. And it’s not much.

Here’s the thing. I think I agree with what she says about (lack of) personality, assuming that she’s exaggerating. But how can we tell if she’s exaggerating if she has no personality? How do we know?!

What happens to me is that I become my protagonist.

That was hyperbolic. I’m sorry.

What I mean is that I become her shadow; she becomes my shadow; we dance a complicated dance, in which she directs me and I argue with her about how things are going to go. This is really no different than being a kid who has an imaginary friend. It’s just that I’m a grown woman and I hope that my imaginary friend can one day surprise and delight an audience. And, at thirty-something, it’s socially unacceptable to argue with a fictional character in public. Right? (Hence the whole “I’m locking myself in my home office until I finish this” thing that happens.)

Honestly, though, the whole protagonist/me thing is a character flaw. Mine, not hers. Just ask anyone who talks to me while I’m writing or, as one might have it, revising. It might mean that my shadow’s voice is compelling and that people want to read about her experiences, but, alas, my own personality, which is ordinarily pretty strong, you know, with a decent sense of humor and semi-interesting things to relate to others, erodes into some abyss and is replaced with hers. She has her own set of flaws; I remind her of this on a regular basis as I rewrite her story. And so we dance into a spiral that ends. . . where?

I’d love to hear other comments about this (heavily edited) Oates interview. Or “visit,” or whatever the New Yorker called it. Do you know how many things you’ve written? Do you know how much money you have in the bank? Do you have a personality? Is revising fun?

(Disclaimer: I revised this post three times.)

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narrative

narrative. n. 1. a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious. 2. a book, literary work, etc., containing such a story. 3. the art, technique, or process of narrating: Somerset Maugham was a master of narrative.

Sometimes, when I’m someplace other than my house, I watch people. Okay, always. I’m that creep in the corner staring at you and looking away when you make eye contact with me. My partner has kicked me under restaurant tables for doing this, probably because sometimes I forget to participate in conversations as a result of it. Or because it’s weird. Either way.

But it’s not just watching. It’s storytelling. I’m spinning a narrative. Making shit up in my head about people I don’t know, occasionally recording the most interesting details in a notebook that I think of as my “reporter’s notebook,” even though I’m not a reporter and I usually forget the notebook at home. When I do have the notebook, it usually functions as someplace to make lists and/or obsess about things other than narrative. Whatever.

Take, for example, that guy over there right now, reading the Morrissey autobiography with his headphones on? He has Morrissey hair. I bet he’s listening to the Smiths. He’s tall and has his legs outstretched under the table. I’m surprised by how young he looks. Frankly, I didn’t know anyone still gave a shit about Morrissey, at least until Penguin released his ridiculously long autobiography which, based on what I gather from reviews, sounds very much like Morrissey’s song lyrics in its almost-painful self-consciousness. I’ve also heard that he participated in NaNoWriMo and is planning to publish a novel this year. I’m not sure yet if I’ll read it.

I digress. This guy is probably a psychology major. He’s thinking right now about the psychology of Morrissey. Later, he’ll go home and Skype with his girlfriend, who lives in a different state, and he’ll try to convince her—again—that the queen is dead and every day is like Sunday.

He keeps coughing. He caught a cold this week from the brunette in his math class, with whom he flirts. The girlfriend doesn’t know that he does this; he doesn’t see anything wrong with it, because it’s not like he acts on any of it. It’s just innocent flirting.

Because this is for a blog post, I’m recording many more details than I typically would of his—I mean my—narrative. Any notes in my reporter’s notebook would probably look more like this:

Morrissey a/b

“ “ hair

headphones—Morrissey

Skype gf

Later, if I look at that page of the notebook as I hope for inspiration to find me, I will have forgotten the details about how tall the guy is, how his legs are stretched out so far, how young he looks as he turns those pages of the book, how he taps his hand against the table in time with whatever song plays through his earbuds. So I’ll have to spin it from what I have, and the notes that I took won’t give me an accurate picture. I’ll never get the moment back. I’ll have to make him a completely fictional character.

You know, as opposed to a “based on a true story” character.

But it’s more likely that I’ll never look at the page again and that Morrissey-guy will never make his way into my writing.

Wait a minute.

I guess the moral of the story is that some version of the guy might, one day, end up in something (else) that I write. Then again, he might not. I use him here as a mere example—and for that, I guess I apologize, since outside of my little narrative he’s a real person with a name and a life and probably a family, and I just made him into some kind of character from central casting just to illustrate a point about process and contemplate, in a purely subjective and perhaps irrelevant manner, the word “narrative.”

(In other news, I had to look up who Somerset Maugham was since, in spite of myriad degrees and though the name rang a faint bell somewhere in there, I’m an ignorant jerk. Whatever, I’m an Americanist, so I have good reason. Maugham was British. [Do you like that disclaimer?]

Wikipedia tells me that W. Somorset Maugham was the highest paid author during the 1930s, at least in Britain. He seems like an interesting guy who wrote interesting things; I’m especially interested in The Magician, which is purportedly about Aleister Crowley—or, to be fair, it’s a fictional narrative about someone who sounds a lot like Aleister Crowley. I read the whole Wikipedia entry.

I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know much about Maugham until now. And here’s another disclaimer: I always tell my students that Wikipedia isn’t a legitimate source. But, you know what? Maybe it is. It struck me as I was reading that even Wikpedia is a collection of narratives.)

It’s all narrative. We can’t get out of it; it’s how our brains work; I’m pretty sure a bunch of philosophers and E.L. Doctorow have said as much.

But here’s a question, one that’s driven me professionally, if not creatively, for the past several years: how do we decide what makes a narrative “legitimate”? Does it have to be “high art,” you know, literary fiction of the kind that the academy sanctions?

You probably know by now what my answer is to that last question, but I really am intrigued by the first one. Is the legitimacy of narrative purely subjective?

Probably.

(The academic in me says of course not; it’s culturally determined.)

But maybe it is subjective. Just maybe.