Monday, December 30, 2013

Revision, Part I: Restructuring your story

I've been away all of this holiday week, first on a road trip with my wife and mother-in-law to Joshua Tree National Park and then to a 3-day retreat, so I've been remiss in my blog posts. 
Ocotillo at Joshua Tree National Park (Nicole R Zimmerman 2013) 
In the new year I'm settling in at 30 hours a week of copywriting for Viator, which leaves me 10 for creative writing/revision. With two MFA essays now accepted for publication, I have a host of others (and two short stories) on my list to revise and polish for submission, and I'm excited about the challenge of bringing these pieces to fruition. 

Before leaving on my trip I started revising an essay -- a profile of a woman I know who worked as a seasonal wildlife biologist in Alaska. After several interviews with her and her partner (a close friend of mine), the essay morphed into a portrait of their uncommon relationship and its challenges. I submitted two very different drafts of the essay in 2011 during my MFA, one in Feb. and one in Nov., and I have approximately eight 1-page student responses (plus instructor comments) that accompany each. So I began the daunting task of unraveling and restitching my material by reading through and highlighting all of this feedback. 

As I find with much of my work, there are several themes and stories competing for attention, and my job in the revision process is to untangle them, make some decisions about which to highlight, and shape the arc of the story toward that vision. 

"What is this piece about?" is the essential question. Here are a few responses:
  • What it's like to make the transition back to society after being connected to the earth's heartbeat for so long
  • A modern relationship and the challenges of maintaining connection with an extreme work situation
  • What it's like to hold space for someone when separated by space and time
  • About loving across thousands of miles
After reading the comments on the first draft, I then read that draft and made some notes in relation to the students' and instructor's responses. Then I did the same for the second draft. As often happens in a second draft, many of the essential components were cut in an attempt to address feedback, but in doing so more was lost than gained; although strides were made on a prose level (much of it had been initially told in lengthy block quotes, which I later changed to my own words or described in scenes), the structure had lost its shape and new questions arose. So, much like taking apart a textile to reweave it, I cut apart both drafts and rearranged them into one on the kitchen table (sometimes with its alternate version of text next to it). I had to take out two extra leaves to make the paper fit across it!

This part of the revision process is painstaking, but it is one I love, for I call upon the dreamlike, imagery-laden, intuitive right brain and the analytic, language-loving, problem-solving left brain to unite in a coordinating effort towards art. If I allow my left brain to listen without taking over, the story takes shape before me and transforms again and again until it feels right. That essay on the table is roughly hewn, but my material is all there. When I reach a hair-tearing state and can't imagine how to go on, I read a section I especially like and remind myself to trust in the process, remembering that I've been here many times before and I've seen my way out.

Once I arranged this essay into a loose structure, I wrote an outline for each section before cutting and pasting them anew on the computer. Now I've placed that 30-page draft (which I imagine will be cut in half by the end) into Scrivener, a writer's lifesaver. Those notes I took for the outline can then be placed on virtual index cards on the 'cork board' and entire sections easily moved around, tightened or sliced up without pages of scrolling. My next task is to comb through each section and tighten the prose, and keep rearranging its structure until the story emerges whole. I'm still not positive what that is, but I trust it'll tell me.

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