More: Revision and the Evolution of the Image

I’m working on a new essay that is. . .well. . .almost working, but not quite. Each time I read the draft, I get to the end, and I don’t feel that resonance that I should feel. This is a sign that I haven’t gone deeply enough into my material. I haven’t found all the layers that should be there. I’ve stopped too soon.

The essay opens with the memory of my nearly-blind grandmother, who lived with us when I was a small boy, listening to the faith healer Oral Roberts and his television program on Sunday mornings. A distant cousin told me years and years after my grandmother’s death that she had “healing hands.” I remember the night she saved me from one of my father’s whippings by pressing a hot teacup into his bare arm. I wrote about that moment in my memoir, From Our House, but I’d never considered her perspective of the accident that cost my father both of his hands and the anger he brought into our house until this essay that I’m working on now.

I remember those Oral Roberts shows so well and the way he healed the afflicted. So throughout the essay I’m working with that image of the healer and I’m connecting it to my grandmother, who through her action, brings my father to a moment when he momentarily puts away his anger, and I reach out to him with tenderness. Why shouldn’t that be enough to give the essay its resonance?

I’ve realized that the reason the essay lacks power at the end isn’t the scene upon which it ends, but the fact that I haven’t fully looked at healing in the essay. Sometimes we can be too narrowly focused on an image or a metaphor. We can think we know exactly what it means and where it should lead us. We have to be open to surprise. The metaphor or image has to evolve so by the time we have our last reference to it, it’s taken on qualities it didn’t at first have.

In my essay, I’ve been so focused on my grandmother as healer, that I’ve forgotten myself as healer. Not the boy I was, but the man I am. From my position now, I want to give my father’s hands back to him. I want to reconstruct them from flesh and muscle and bone. Even though he’s been dead thirty-three years, I want him to be able to take off his hooks and never have to put them on again. I want him to throw off his anger, so he and I can begin to live the life we should have had.

I wasn’t getting to that in the early drafts of the essay. I wasn’t giving the central image the freedom it needs to grow, and by so doing, to take me more deeply into the material. This proves that once we think we know exactly where a piece is going, we’re in trouble. We’ve locked it down. It has no life of its own. It can only be what we’ve decided it is. Essays and stories and poems are built from leaps in thought and emotion and incident. They must unfold like a dream in which anything is possible. We have to invite chaos in order to be open to what we’ve come to the page to say. I don’t want to know what that is until the page tells me. Now that it has, I have more revising to do. That’s the exciting work. Keep doing it, my friends.


  1. Susan Cole on August 31, 2015 at 9:25 am

    Lee, Thank you for this. I’ve only recently been able to write about my mother, now dead five years, with whom I had a very complicated and often rancorous relationship. First I had to get past writing as the victim and surprising myself by putting myself in her shoes; I have very much admired your ability to do that in writing about your father. Then, each time I thought I was at an end of the essay, there was another layer. Still working on it.

    • Lee Martin on September 1, 2015 at 11:31 am

      Thanks for your comment, Susan. I’m always amazed at what can open up in a piece when we change our perspective, writing from someone else’s point of view, or looking at ourselves from a distance. I wish you all the best with the work still ahead of you.

  2. Sophfronia Scott on August 31, 2015 at 10:09 am

    Hi Lee,
    Today I too am working on an essay I’ve been struggling with for some weeks. But your words have given me another way to look at it–to notice where I haven’t gone deep enough, to see where I’m trying to force the essay to be one thing when it really wants to be something else. Thanks for shining some light on the page.

    About your father: I’m always deeply touched when you mention him and the loss of his hands, especially when you discuss helping him get dressed. My friend Robert Vivian once gave a lecture at VCFA about our “immortal wounds” and how as writers we are usually writing about the same thing again and again whether we realize it or not–something we just can’t get over. Tennessee Williams, for example, never got over his sister’s lobotomy and the pain of it is in all of his work.

    The loss of your father’s hands are very much, it seems, your immortal wound. And it makes perfect sense that, time and time again, you are trying to return his hands to him. Coming to that realization is so important not just for the essay you’re writing now, but for all the writing still to come.

    • Jayne Martin on August 31, 2015 at 12:04 pm

      Your response to Lee’s piece was as insightful to me as his words were. Thank you.

      • Lee Martin on September 1, 2015 at 11:33 am

        That Sophfronia is a smart cookie!

    • Lee Martin on September 1, 2015 at 11:33 am

      Sophfronia, there’s no doubt that my father’s injury was mine as well. I keep trying to heal that wound, and, of course, it can never be completely healed. So I keep writing. . . .

    • Britton Swingler on September 5, 2015 at 8:30 pm

      Yes, Sophronia, I echo Jayne’s response and add tears. How utterly beautiful. Thank you.

  3. Jayne Martin on August 31, 2015 at 12:07 pm

    This was just what I needed to rear today. Thank you, Lee.

    • Lee Martin on September 1, 2015 at 11:34 am

      You’re welcome, Jayne!

  4. Mary J. Breen on September 1, 2015 at 3:55 pm

    thanks very much for giving me the idea that our parents’ wounds in some real ways also become our own. I think this is abundantly true, but I never before thought of describing it this way. Very helpful.

    • Jeanne Voelker on September 1, 2015 at 5:13 pm

      Yes, what Mary said. My parents suffered some serious emotional losses and deficits in their early years that negatively affected their emotional development and parenting skills. This has given me and my four siblings some challenges and much to think about and reinvent. I will say that we have all become compassionate people, so maybe an imperfect beginning contributes to that, though surely there are better avenues to compassion.

      • Lee Martin on September 3, 2015 at 11:54 am

        Jeanne, I love what you say about wounds making us more compassionate people. I agree!

    • Lee Martin on September 3, 2015 at 11:52 am

      Mary, I now it’s certainly been true in my case that my father’s wound has always been mine as well.

      • Lee Martin on September 3, 2015 at 11:53 am

        I typed too fast and left the “k” off “know.”

  5. Richard Gilbert on September 2, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    What impresses me before your tenacity is your insight—seeing that your piece wasn’t fully working, though the elements were powerful. It sounds like it takes a lifetime of practice to get to that point!

    • Lee Martin on September 3, 2015 at 11:53 am

      Richard, there’s a sound that I listen for at the end of a piece, a sound of resonance, one that sends me back through the piece and forward as well. If I don’t hear it, I have to think about why it’s missing.

  6. […] and incident. They must unfold like a dream in which anything is possible.—Lee Martin, in his recent post on […]

  7. Britton Swingler on September 3, 2015 at 1:42 pm

    Lee, thank you, as always, for your astute, inspiring, relevant posts. I’ve just submitted my first piece of nonfiction to a magazine I respect. The process of writing and revising it was intense, as it was deeply personal and revealing. Just completing it feels like a victory.

    I know the next piece I write will be informed by the essay I’ve just submitted as well as the insight you’ve provided. I am enjoying the onion-like process creative non-fiction seems to be; the way the layers reveal themselves when we do not accept the first idea or the first (or even the third or fourth) draft—the way we know, if we are blunt with ourselves, brutal even—that it is not quite finished, that there is more, and that we can, if we are patient and diligent, carve it out of ourselves. We ultimately sculpt something we had no idea could be concocted from the raw materials of our experience and research; the result of which it seems, in the end, to have been “dying to get out” all along.

    • Lee Martin on September 3, 2015 at 3:00 pm

      Oh, Britton! How much I love the way you’ve talked about being patient to discover the layers of the material. That’s exactly why I sometimes get to the end of a piece and don’t feel the resonant sound I’m listening for. I haven’t gotten down to enough layers! Many thanks for your comment!

      • Britton Swingler on September 5, 2015 at 8:26 pm

        Thank you, Lee.

        If it weren’t for deadlines, I suppose the layers might be endless—so deep is our writing psyche (osis?).

  8. Stuart Rose on October 17, 2015 at 4:08 pm

    I’ve come to this reflection of yours late, so I won’t repeat but just second the praise and gratitude others have conveyed in the comments.
    Actually, I’ll risk seeming chutzpadik, by request a follow up post in which you muse on the challenge of how we can show the deepening of a image in a piece even once we know how different the resonances of it will be by the end. In a sense, it seems easier to be unsure of the depth of a central image at first and just amble on until it reveals its fullness. The writing will possess a natural flow. But how do you go about distributing your deepening understandings throughout the piece so as to create movement and surprise if your discovery process has taken place before you’ve written the bulk of the essay?

    • Lee Martin on October 18, 2015 at 5:44 pm

      Thanks for that question, Stuart. Ask and ye shall receive–tomorrow!

Leave a Comment