Vision and Revision: a guest post by Jacob M. Appel

  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.

A photograph of the hardcover of The Mask of Sanity by Jacob M. Appel

Jacob’s novelThe Mask of Sanity

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.

Oral Poetry: Trying a new writing process

The Poetics challenge from Ingrid at dVerse Poets Pub is to write a poem without writing it down. This intrigued me and sounded like a great way to start exploring some ideas for this month’s Changing Focus project around the theme “reflections.”

I thought I’d share this vocal warm-up I like to do before recording (because it’s fun):

Yesterday, I discovered that the bass effects pedal I’ve had for many years, has a built in drum machine, so hold onto your hats world.

Focus on Reflections words and music by Maria L. Berg

Focus on Reflections

I face a self-imposed focus
on reflections
a month of looking
of looking in mirrors
looking at me

not turning away
looking further
and deeper
finding the deep waters
past the imperfections

What will I find there?
What does reflection
smell like? What is its
taste? How will I get to
the point where I
only see what I like?

All those flaws
become only a reflection
only the light
hitting a chip in the mirror
everything reflects light
all we see is a reflection


*That was an interesting experience. After finding a drum beat and recording the drum and bass. I played it back while saying lines to the room. When I felt like the concept was flowing, I recorded myself, then typed up what I said as if transcribing. That was fun. I think I’ll play with that a lot.

Cover of The Cynic in Extremis, a poetry collection by Jacob M. Appel. There is a picture of a grumpy looking pug wrapped in a furry blanket.

I hope all of you will come by this Thursday, Sept. 2, and read a special guest post about revision by Jacob M. Appel. I recently enjoyed his poetry collection, The Cynic in Extremis. I found it both entertaining and provocative.

Now Back to the Scheduled Program . . . Revision: Using feedback to strategize.

It’s been fun taking this art break, but it’s time to get back to what this blog is all about this year: revision. And at the end of this post I have a special announcement. Ooooh, Aaahhh.

Brainstorming Revision Strategies

Since one of my stories placed in its event in the Writer’s Games, it will be published in the 72 Hours of Insanity anthology later this year. I will soon receive notes from the editors. The main reason I find the Writer’s Games worthwhile is that each story receives feedback from three to five judges. Today, let’s look through my feedback and strategize how to approach revision.

The Feedback

During the Writer’s Games I wrote six stories. These are my generalized notes of feedback from all of the stories.

Character Development

  • physically describe the secondary character
  • clarify MC’s relationship and emotional connection to secondary character
  • how character holds him/herself
  • more description and elaboration of characters important to the climax and end of story
  • character should cling to previous beliefs and behaviors before change

Setting

  • consider how descriptions interact with internal logic
  • smooth transitions

Backstory

  • a delicate balance: too much in one story, not enough in another
  • more backstory through character’s internal thoughts, not dialogue

Foreshadowing

  • needs to be more clear
  • character’s beliefs need to be clear at the beginning

My thoughts

As with most feedback, one judge says one thing, and the next says the opposite, but what I listed above appeared to be a consensus, or was something I agreed with. Saving the feedback and giving it time to sit helped me separate my emotional jerk reactions and find useful information. Now that I’ve identified things to work on, how do I want to approach revision?

Revision Strategies

Character Development

I like to leave most of the physical aspects of my characters up to the reader’s imagination, but it appears the readers sometimes need more. I have a couple of tools I’ve collected but didn’t use while writing these stories. I’ll give them a try before I revise.

Exercise 1: Act out how the character walks, stands, gestures. To do this, I will envision that I am the character and walk around the room for a while. Then I’ll act out some dialogue as the character. I’ll video tape myself doing this and see how my movement and gestures change as I become each character.

Exercise 2: Chart the character relationships. For this exercise I’ll put the main character’s name in the center of a page then put the names of the rest of the characters encircling it, then I’ll draw lines of relationship between the characters and write what those relationships are. I’ll journal about how these relationships formed and changed over time, then I’ll focus on the main character’s perceptions of each of these relationships.

I thought the comment about a character not letting go of his/her previous beliefs so quickly was a very good point. I’ll brainstorm ways that my characters can demonstrate that they don’t want to believe their own eyes, and are struggling to find rational explanations before changing their beliefs.

Setting

I thought the comment about description needing to follow the stories internal logic was good. I do tend to explain things after the fact when I should make sure something is clear to the reader before I describe it, or at least directly after, not later in the story. I will be on the look out for places where the reader needs context.

Backstory

The feedback I received about use of backstory is tricky. There’s a delicate dance here that ties in with the work I need to do to recognize when the reader needs more context. I think I will try a couple of exercises to work on this.

Exercise 1: Read through the story and highlight everything I consider backstory. Are there flashbacks? Highlight flashbacks in another color. Are they necessary? What do they bring to the present narrative? Where does the reader need context for a character’s feelings or actions? What is the character’s most powerful memory that influences that behavior? Will it clear things up for the reader to know that, or will it take them out of the present action?

Exercise 2: Print out 5 short stories I like and highlight every use of backstory and flashbacks. When and how was backstory used.

Foreshadowing

Using chiastic outlines ( This article “The Strength of a Symmetrical Plot” does a good job of explaining it and has a great example created by Susan Raab using the story of Beauty and the Beast) has really helped me think about foreshadowing. However, from the feedback I received, it looks like I still have a ways to go. I think both of the exercises I set up to work on backstory will also apply to foreshadowing.

Reading aloud

I have found in the past that having the computer read my story to me has helped with final edits, especially typos. Recently, however, while I was recording myself reading my poems for the pathways project, I found that knowing I was going to record it led to important revisions. I haven’t tried that with a short story yet, so for this revision, I will try recording myself reading it aloud and see what the process of recording myself reading it does for short story revision.

And here’s the Special Announcement!

One of my favorite short story writers, Jacob M. Appel, has taken time out of his incredibly busy schedule to write a guest post about revision for Experience Writing. If you haven’t read his work yet, he has something for everyone. He has published novels, story collections, a poetry collection, essays, and medical articles; he contributes to Writer’s Digest, and so much more. There’s a documentary about him on Amazon Prime Video called Jacob.

Here’s his bio from his website:

Jacob M. Appel’s first novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, won the Dundee International Book Award in 2012. His short story collection, Scouting for the Reaper, won the 2012 Hudson Prize and was published by Black Lawrence in November 2013. He is the author of seven other collections of short stories: The Magic Laundry, The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street, Einstein’s Beach House, Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana, Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets, Amazing Things Are Happening Here, The Amazing Mr. Morality, The Liars’ Asylum and Winter Honeymoon; an essay collection, Phoning Home; a poetry collection, The Cynic in Extremis; four other novels novel: The Biology of Luck, The Mask of Sanity, Surrendering Appomattox, and Millard Salter’s Last Day; and a collection of ethical dilemmas, Who Says You’re Dead?

Jacob has published short fiction in more than two hundred literary journals including Agni, Alaska Quarterly Review, Conjunctions, Colorado Review, Gettysburg Review, Iowa Review, Pleiades, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Southwest Review, StoryQuarterly, Subtropics, Threepenny Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and West Branch. He has won the New Millennium Writings contest four times, the Writer’s Digest “grand prize” twice, and the William Faulkner-William Wisdom competition in both fiction and creative nonfiction. He has also won annual contests sponsored by Boston Review, Missouri Review, Arts & Letters, Bellingham Review, Briar Cliff Review, North American Review, Sycamore Review, Writers’ Voice, the Dana Awards, the Salem Center for Women Writers, and Washington Square. His work has been short listed for the O. Henry Award (2001), Best American Short Stories (2007, 2008), Best American Essays (2011, 2012), and received “special mention” for the Pushcart Prize in 2006, 2007, 2011 and 2013.

Jacob holds a B.A. and an M.A. from Brown University, an M.A. and an M.Phil. from Columbia University, an M.S. in bioethics from the Alden March Bioethics Institute of Albany Medical College, an M.D. from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, an M.F.A. in creative writing from New York University, an M.F.A. in playwriting from Queens College, an M.P.H. from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He has most recently taught at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where he was honored with the Undergraduate Council of Students Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2003, and at the Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City. He also publishes in the field of bioethics and contributes to such publications as the Journal of Clinical Ethics, the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, the Hastings Center Report, and the Bulletin of the History of Medicine. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The New York Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Detroit Free Press, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Times, The Providence Journal and many regional newspapers.

Jacob has been admitted to the practice of law in New York State and Rhode Island, and is a licensed New York City sightseeing guide.

I think you can see why I’m excited. I hope you will stop by Experience Writing this Thursday, September 2nd, to read Jacob’s insights on revision. See you there!