I am not knee deep in the revision process. I am neck deep.
So deep that I often feel like I’m drowning. It’s Thesis Time and I’m weeding
through all my stories, trying to figure out which ones I want to continue to
work on, continue to revise. This is a difficult task. Revision always makes me
feel like I’m pretty much the worst writer on the planet. No, my writer friend Jess tells me jokingly, there are some writers worse than you. We laugh at this. Could be
true. But maybe not. She always reminds me of her singer/song writer brother’s
mantra: The worst songwriter in the world
is still a songwriter. This helps a little. Because at least I am writing. But
other times, I curse the page. I repeat over and over again: But you are not Lorrie Moore,
dammit. You are nothing close to Lorrie Moore. Why even bother if you will never even
be in the same orbit as Lorrie Moore? Every word I tack down on the page,
ever sentence I construct I think:
Lorrie Moore wouldn’t choose such a measly word. Lorrie Moore wouldn’t write a sentence that is stretched so thin, that
lacks such richness. I choose Lorrie Moore somewhat randomly as I just
finished her new novel and she is fresh in my mind. Yes, basically the revision
process makes me feel incompetent. It freezes me up. Because sometimes I just
don’t know how to make these stories any better. I just don’t know if it’s possible for them to get any better.
My husband and I are in full on house hunting mode. I tell
you this because some of the houses we’ve seen remind me of my stories. These
are the houses that our realtor calls “the poor bandaged ones.” These are the
ones that stick out in my head. Most of these homes are truly falling apart. A
lot of them were in foreclosure, forgotten. And then this is what happened:
someone came in with a little bit of time and a little bit of money and put
some band aids over the evidence. They installed a stainless steel refrigerator
here to distract you from the small, poorly designed kitchen. They added crown
molding there to bring your eye up and away from the sloped, cracked floors.
They tried to cover imperfections and in doing so made the houses look even worse.
husband and I would look at each other and think something’s not right here.
I do not want to write bandaged stories. My writer friend
says—sometimes bringing in fancy new
furniture only clutters a story more. But how can one differentiate between
when a revision is serving a story and when the revision is merely a band aid covering
something that is already falling apart?
A mentor once told me: Some
stories just aren’t worth saving. Sometimes you just need to move on.
And so as I tackle these revisions, as I put my thesis
together, I’m beginning to figure out which stories are worth saving. Here’s
what I’m thinking.
story is worth saving IF:
are still passionate it about it. The story still makes your
heart race. It still has the ability to dial your imagination up to high and
keep you awake at night. Ideas for it pop into your mind throughout the day.
find not one, not two, but several golden morsels.
Golden morsels are moments in the story that pop; they are shiny and bright and
bursting with life. They suggest something is truly at work, that the story has
a beating heart.
character won’t stop doing things. He/she won’t stop saying
things. He/she keeps leading you on adventures and though sometimes you may get
lost, at least you’re still moving.
story means something to you.
You’re attached to it not because you’ve worked hard on it, but because it’s an
important message, a heart song, something you’ve been burning to say. In other words: are you obsessed?
If someone (not your mother or husband or best friend because they’ll always
say it’s great, but someone with experience, someone from your writing group, a
teacher, or a writer you admire) tells you there is “something” there, then
it’s is worth taking another stab at. If
more than one person believes in the story, then you’re required to push
forward. Sometimes we just need to be believed in. Sometimes we don’t see how
good we actually are. It’s possible
we’re on the brink of brilliance and just don’t know it yet.
when is a story worth letting go? I think we all know intuitively
when it’s time. It’s when you’ve sucked all the blood from the story, when
revisions begin to make the story worse, not better. When working on a story is
no longer a challenge, but a chore. When you’ve done your absolute best and
you’ve carried the story as far as it will go. That’s our job. To take it as
far as we can. Our job isn’t to keep knocking our head against a wall. It’s
never wasted time, you know? Each story is part of the process. My friend just
finished her novel and said, Well, it may
not be perfect, but it is where I was at the time. We cannot write great
stories out of the gate. We need practice stories. It was just the other day
that my teacher promised me this:
you crack a story open once, you’ll know how to do it again and again. What
that means to me: every story I write gets me closer to the one that will set me
you write a hundred stories and they’re all bad, that doesn’t mean you’ve
failed. You only fail if you stop writing.”