Revision: Special Lessons from a Special Girl
Here are some stories about a four-year-old girl we’ll call Parker. Parker’s mother recently took her with her to a wake and told her she should be sure to ask whatever questions she might have. Taking note of the fact that the legs of the departed were covered by the lower half of the casket, Parker asked, “What kind of shoes do you think she’s wearing?” Parker’s mother, of course, had to say, “I don’t know. We can’t see her feet.” Sometimes the evidence of things unseen are present only in the imagination.
As writers, we too often close off the imagination at a crucial time in the writing process. As my friend, David Jauss, points out in this splendid piece about revision (https://gristjournal.com/the-flowers-of-afterthought-premises-and-strategies-for-revision-by-david-jauss/) we should remind ourselves that the revision process should be one of play, one in which the writer engages the imagination anew. David says, “We often hear writers praised for their work ethic, but what writers really need is a play ethic. If we approach revision as work, we’re not in the right frame of mind to create anything of value.” He goes on to quote Robert Olen Butler, who says, “Rewriting is redreaming.” We can take a lesson from children such as Parker who has the playful common sense to ask the question most adults wouldn’t even think to wonder: “What kind of shoes?”
At another point of the wake, Parker said to her mother, “She’s dead, right?” “Yes, she is,” Parker’s mother said. Parker looked at the casket. She looked at her mother. Then she sighed and her shoulders slumped and she shook her head and said, “I should’ve brought her a card.” At this point, Parker was revising the scenario she was witnessing, including her and her mother’s own place within it. One advantage we writers have over the living or the dead in the real world is we can make anything happen that we choose. We should never feel married to the first words we’ve put on the page in a rough draft, or in any subsequent draft. Everything can be rethought, reimagined, restructured, recreated. The act of revision is often one of trying out slightly different scenarios. A card for the departed? Why not?
Then there’s the story of Parker, who after seeing a portrait of Jesus with his long hair, dubbed him “Special Girl.” If you ask Special Girl for something, she decided, Special Girl will you bring it to you. How closely this connects with the notion of a muse guiding us through the writing process. For me, the idea of a spirit offering us inspiration, has always been more correctly articulated as the writer’s own willingness to engage the imagination, or, as in the case of revision, to re-engage it.
When revising a piece, why not try putting it away? Don’t look at it. Dream it. In other words, instead of looking at a manuscript with thoughts of line editing, cutting, adding, why not divorce yourself from the actual words? Why not take yourself to a quiet place where you can close your eyes, conjure up the world of your piece, and let yourself daydream other possibilities. Maybe your imagination will come up with scenes you haven’t yet thought to write, or layers of characters and their situation that haven’t quite risen to the top in your early draft or drafts. What questions haven’t you thought to ask? What possible turns haven’t you taken? What special aspects of the piece haven’t come to the page? Just as Parker can ask Special Girl for help, you can tap into the imagination to see what gifts are waiting there for you to open.