Jacob M. Appel is an American author, poet, bioethicist, physician, lawyer and social critic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Education at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, where he is Director of Ethics Education in Psychiatry. He is also the author of four literary novels, nine short story collections, an essay collection, a cozy mystery, a thriller, a volume of poems and a compendium of medical dilemmas.
Vision and Revision
Once I had the pleasure of chatting with a well-known sculptor whose preferred medium was marble—and I couldn’t resist asking her what happened if she made a mistake. I had expected her to respond with an earnest observation about the planning required to prevent such a calamity: measuring with calipers, modeling in plaster, etc. Instead, she laughed and replied, “Why do you think the Venus de Milo is missing her arms?”
Fortunately, writing is far more forgiving. A loose plot line can always be tightened or a more original rhyme found to end a stanza. Would-be authors are taught early on that Hemingway wrote forty-seven different endings to A Farewell to Arms and Fitzgerald continued to revise The Great Gatsby even after it had been typeset, that Auden had the audacity to alter “September 1, 1939” after publication and Moore grappled with the text of “Poetry” for five decades. In contrast, writers publicly (although falsely) believed to eschew revision—Jack Kerouac, Frank O’Hara—are often derided accordingly. One can still hear the disdain of Capote’s quip about Kerouac, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”
In modern western culture, and particularly in the United States, revision has claimed a hallowed position. Nearly every writing course I have encountered incorporates an emphasis upon revision, a belief that multiple drafts are essential to the writing process. Maybe this reflects the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, or the Edisonian notion that genius is 99% perspiration. Unfortunately, many aspiring writers take the wrong message from these lessons. It is certainly true that revision has a valuable place in the writing process. However, that does not mean that vision isn’t also necessary. Nor does it mean that, just because great works require revision, revision necessarily leads to great works.
Grace Paley frequently observed that she did her best writing in the bathtub. Her point was not, of course, that she had to worry about getting soap suds on her writing pad. Rather, she was suggesting that she thought through her stories in depth before she put pen to paper. Having a sense of where you are going in advance helps you get there—both in life and on the page. Anyone who has ever planned family vacations with young children surely knows this: It is far wiser to book a hotel room at Disneyland or Yellowstone prior to departure than to hop into the station wagon and drive until one finds an appealing destination. For John Wayne and a few inveterate literary explorers, the open road may be alluring. For many writers, it is the sure path to hours before a blank computer screen. That is not to say that a writer cannot change paths or make discoveries as she writes—for the creative mind, that is inevitable. But choosing the Goldilocks moment to transfer words from one’s soul to one’s hand—not too soon, not too late—is one of the skills that separates the skilled writer from the amateur. And, fortunately, it can be cultivated.
I urge my students to take time to reflect upon what they want to say, and how, long before they consider saying it. It is easier to erase a sentence in one’s mind than on one’s parchment. (There are a few exceptions, like Dostoevsky, who managed to weave his revisions and even his mistakes seamlessly into his prose without any undoing.) Either Will Rogers or Head & Shoulders once warned: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” That is as much true regarding the impression you make upon yourself as the impression that you make upon others. Once you’ve committed yourself to a word or idea in print, you’ve often moored yourself to a particular course. Needless to say, there are limits to how much one should wait before setting down your internal epics. As either Aristotle or Voltaire or my Great Aunt Sadie once warned, “Don’t make the perfect an enemy of the good.” But the good, thought through in advance, can prove the mortal foe of the mediocre.
The fetishization of revision often leads writers to forget one of the craft’s most important principles: Quit while you’re behind. I firmly believe that anyone with the passion and commitment can write valuable and inspiring poetry or fiction. Yet that does not mean that every particular poem or story can be transformed into a work of value and inspiration. Sometimes, the materials themselves don’t cohere: the author had chosen the wrong structure or genre for this particular idea or the underlying plot simply isn’t compelling; other times, the material is worthwhile but the author is at the wrong point in her journey to share it most effectively. Knowing whether a story or poem is working is a talent. But recognizing whether a story or poem can work is a far more crucial skill.
So how does one know whether a story or poem can work? One question to ask is whether, as you are writing, you find yourself with too many or too few ingredients. An analogy I often share with my students is self-assembling an exercise bicycle—inevitably, one of life’s greatest challenges. If you try multiple times and find yourself with excess parts and wheels that don’t spin, or too few parts and a hollow pole for a seat, you might consider repackaging and returning to the supplier. The same is true with writing. Sometimes, the pieces just don’t fit together. Accept that. Move on. Live to fight another day. I say this as a writer who has spent thousands of hours writing manuscripts that should have been scrapped after fifteen minutes. Revision is often necessary, but it is rarely sufficient. No writer wants to be lauded as a “revisionary.”
It has become a trope in creative writing to place original drafts and revisions of famous works side by side to admire the radical changes imposed by the authors between drafts. That is often a rewarding exercise. But I exhort students that they should admire the vision of the original as well. Exceptions do exist: The Ray Carver-Gordon Lish Complex, for instance. (Editor Gordon Lish is often credited with line editing Carver’s stories to create the spare, crystalline prose we now know as Carveresque.) Yet it is usually the magic of the original draft that still enchants in the final form.
Revision, in other words, is an essential tool—but it shouldn’t be a crutch. I am very wary of writers who plan on revisions at the outset, of students who assure me, “I’ll fix that later.” To my thinking, that is like planning for a second marriage at your first wedding. The responsibility of the writer is to get it right the first time. And then, in the revision, to get it even righter.