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Revision As a Blank Screen


I'm on a fifth revision of a short story. Or maybe seventh. I don't really keep track; rather, I keep diving in, plunging under until it feels right, reads right. I don't mean I'm fiddling with words or moving sentences around. I'm trying something different. Something a bit terrifying. Each time, I'm opening a new file and staring at a blank page (well, screen). I'm writing the whole thing over again.

Someone recommended deleting all the previous versions, but I just can't get myself to push the delete button. A certain panic sets in as my fingertip rests on the key. So the revisions are all lined up, waiting in the background. In the previous revision, the heart and soul were still off. The thematic questions of the story aligned too neatly with the content. It was all so obvious. And each time I thought I found the pulse of the main character, her heart beat faltered, then became fainter and fainter. The story veered off in a direction that didn't interest me. The main character has been a young girl from Bulgaria; a middle-aged woman from Cambodia. Who is she?

How do you know to keep throwing yourself into the fire?

I was recently working with a student on a short story who thought he was done. "Is it ready to send out?" I could hear the eagerness in his voice and knew what he wanted me to say. But the questions of the story were blurry, shifting from one thematic inquiry to another, to another. Sometimes the story wanted to be about memory; other times, fate; still other times, artistic pursuit versus commercial. And so the shift or crisis point was muddied. When I pointed out this erratic thread, the writer sighed. "I hoped the reader would figure it out," he said, "because I hadn't."

That's one way to know there's another revision waiting in the wings.

Another writer I know works sentence by sentence, unable to move on until the perfect sentence is on the page. When the story is done, when the last perfect sentence is written, when her images are resonating, she cuts the equivalent of one page. About 250 words.  She knows her tendency is to tell too much and she wants to create more subtext. As Chekhov said, "...in a short story, it is better to say not enough than to say too much."

I'm still staring at a blank screen. A first line comes to me. I don't like it, but there it is, on the screen. I stand up, stare out the window. Watch a crow sit on a branch. I go downstairs and gulp more coffee and stand at the window again. What is the story about? What do I mean to say? Who is she? What do I write into that I haven't explored before? A boy with flaming red hair flies down the hill on his bike, a big grin on his young face. I head back upstairs. The streak of red, the grin, his hands gripped on the bike's handlebars. Something stirs inside. Those images are mingling with my character. I sit down again. Jot notes, maybe a beginning, maybe not.

She's hit from behind. The blow sends her up over the bike's handlebars, flying through the air, but not like a bird, not with the greatest of ease. She is in the grip of a force beyond her! She tries to remember how her brother told her to fall--to tuck and roll? To roll?

4 Comment count
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Hi Nina, nice blog. I just

Hi Nina, nice blog. I just poked on here today and there you were! I'd still love to take a class with you someday. ANy day time ones I could audit in SF?

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Danielle, hello! So, let me

Danielle, hello! So, let me check in with you and see if we can work together. I love your poetry!

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Revisions are not really my

Revisions are not really my forte, but I admire those who persist. I liked what you said, Nina, about finding the pulse of the character. The "Who is she?" query will probably beset a writer even after the work is complete and published, for there will be analyses/reviews that will see her differently from the way she was conceived.

As you can see from this verbose comment, Chekov would have asked me to shut up!


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Farzana, I agree with you--

Farzana, I agree with you-- that haunting question, who are you? Because language will only take you so far. The poet, Aaron Shurin writes, "Language is impoverished, a wild bouquet of tangents and mistakes (what I love about your writing---your tangents). We push it and pull it, are pushed and pulled. Come close; just miss..." (That's from his terrific book, King of Shadows).