Wednesday, January 16, 2008

On Revising

The time has come. I’m in the final semester of my MFA program, which means that by mid April I need to complete my book-length poetry manuscript. I have to send in the latest draft of it on January 31st. Hopefully this will be the first time of many that I have a book due (the poetry world doesn’t often work that way, but I will be publishing in many genres, and poetry contests have due dates). In any case, there’s nothing like a deadline for motivation. I have a list of the poems that need work and a schedule for doing the rewrites. One poem per day, and about three a day on Saturday and Sunday.

During my latest Goddard residency, I attended a workshop by Bhanu Kapil called “The Art of Failure,” in which she gave three methods for revising (in essence – 1, rewrite your piece by starting over on a blank page – 2, rewrite your piece by taking one image or word and using that as a seed, or – 3, find a site in the work that seems blank & ready to be transformed and rewrite it as its opposite). I am summarizing here because I don’t want to steal all her brilliant ideas and I could never recreate her inspired words anyway.

The particular quote that she spoke and I wrote down word for word (it’s now posted above my desk) is this: “In revision, make a decision and then fearlessly commit to that decision. This does not have to be comfortable.”

Chris Abani, our amazing visiting writer, reminded us students that writing is 20% writing and 80% rewriting. He recommended approaching rewriting on a blank sheet of paper. “Often what you like in the piece may be what’s holding you back,” he said. Thank you, Chris.


  1. I especially like "find a site in the work that seems blank & ready to be transformed and rewrite it as its opposite)", which the "Writing Against Yourself" workshop I facilitated was all about (contact me if you'd like the link to my handouts for that one.) I find William Stafford's books to be helpful in this area, and not just "You Must Revise Your Life", but also "Crossing Unmarked Snow" and "The Answers Are Inside the Mountains." As for Albani's point, "Murder your darlings" is advice that's been around a long time (see

    I must admit I was a bit nonplussed by the apparent reluctance of the writers to freely share their thoughts, but, then again, I don't write for a living.

  2. Bob, you are a tireless reader and commenter! And such a rich source of literary references. I will check out William Stafford's books. He's one of the many authors whom I've never read but think I will like, given the quotes I've found from him in various places.

  3. The most user-friendly of his for me is "Crossing Unmarked Snow: Further Views on the Writer's Vocation" , which is nicely broken up into chunks. "The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer's Craft" by his son Kim Stafford is also one I greatly enjoyed reading.

  4. Coincidentally (or perhaps not) today - January 17th - is William Stafford's birthday. Both bios I read mentioned that he was a conscientious objector during WWII.

  5. Yes he was. As was Robert Lowell and Stanley Kunitz. He wrote a good book on his experiences in the CO camp called "Down in My Heart", and another good book of his reflections on war is "Every War Has Two Losers". Happy Birthday, Bill! (insert sound of birthday horn here)

  6. Oh, BTW, I find it interesting to compare writers' attitudes about the necessity of long painstaking revision to something expressed by Vincent Van Gogh about painting quickly. He said that a young lion (inexperienced painter) may take quite a while to kill its prey. An experienced lioness (experienced painter) should be able to do it much quicker. I imagine he expressed this in response to criticism that he painted too fast.

    I think I'd be happier if more writing was originally written more slowly, with more thought and subsequently less revision. It seems I often see work which was drafted quickly, without much thought, and then revised over and over into dessicated, defensible things that don't have much that really grabs me.