Sometimes, Two Rewrites Make a Wrong—and That’s OK
Words are hard. Yes, I know. That’s weird diction; I probably should say, “Writing is difficult.” Nevertheless, I tell my composition and creative writing students that “[w]ords are hard.” They get the concept, so there’s no reason to revise or change my simple, albeit grammatically questionable, statement. Why? Because those three words make an impact.
And writing from an emotional stance (pathos!) is the most difficult composition style for me. Yes, it is hard. Fiction and poetry? Well, sure, I suffer when I write those, but most times I can distance myself from the final product. However, this creative non-fiction gig is brutal.
This past month my writing life (and life in general) has been painful. In a couple blog essays, I wrote about a time long ago when I was assaulted (I hid those posts for a few days of quiet healing—self-preservation is a mighty motivator). Then, this week, in another essay, I paid tribute to my friend Ilyse Kusnetz; she passed away on September 13. After I’d posted all three of these essays, I re-read the work within hours of hatching. Each time, I found the words lacking. So I walked back on them and revised all of it (and the corresponding Facebook links).
This kind of revision is always a weird endeavor, retooling essays while they are “live,” still under the public’s watchful eye. Why? When a piece of writing is live on the Internet, it means that anyone might be reading it at any time. As I revise, I feel the added pressure under this no-time deadline. Every second that ticks away on the analog clock under my screen is a second someone has seen my crappy eighth draft.
In my case, about these three most recent essays, I must come clean. I admit they were problematic as soon as I hit “publish.” After many repairs and revamps (WordPress shows me that one of these essays was drafted 46 times), I now think they’re fine. Not good. Never great. And of course, never perfect. Not ever. But at least I can live with myself. However, next week, I might scan what I thought was OK today, and I’ll have to gut it.
With print, it’s different. After a work of mine is accepted by a lit mag, I get one shot at changing the galleys. It was the case with my book of short stories, too. Once the work’s on paper, unless it goes through a major reprint, an author’s stuck with what’s sewn or pasted into a book’s spine. If my editor has been attentive to details and caught any silly (major) errors, then more power to the work—I’ll trust that my stories or poems will stand the test of time.
Well, except one. I had great editors for my story in Norton’s Flash Fiction International, and I blew it. It was my fault. The galleys arrived in time. So for my selection, in the last paragraphs of my galley proof, I penciled in a change at the eleventh hour. I revised a verb. I erroneously changed “were” to “was”–from the subjunctive mood to the indicative. I wish I hadn’t. It was a stet moment, but no one caught it. Sure enough, I’d over-revised myself into a major grammatical error. The editors didn’t catch the gaffe. And so, there I am anthologized in a book with literary giants; my work’s alongside some of my idols, Kafka and Kawabata and Keret, and it includes a glaring predicate mistake!
An author friend, a very successful writer, confessed to me in a recent conversation that he’d found blunders in his National Book Award nominated novel only after it went to print (this was almost fifteen years ago). And just recently, he’s had a chance to correct the problems; his book is going through a reprint in honor of his latest novel, which is a huge success and was just long-listed for the 2016 National Book Award. He admitted that it’s a relief to repair those parts of his older book. OK, so if he feels this way about his fiction, and he’s a two-time nominee for the National Book Award, maybe I need to take a chill pill. Do all writers feel like frauds, or is it just me?
And look, there’s a danger with never-ending revision. Blog essays, tweets, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Facebook posts? Folks can delete those. We can furl whatever freak flags we’ve run up the pole. We can also edit the hell out of our social media posts (well, not tweets). But the constant temptation (or is it readily available access) to revise makes for lazy writing. We never let the work rest in place. After we’ve composed it, we post it without letting it marinate and then stew. Our quick-as-a-nanosecond-cyber-society requires that we reveal all, tell all NOW. So we race to say something in public forums, then we revise, and we keep revising. Sometimes we can over-edit, change the life and passion of a piece. Sometimes we over-revise and over salt so much so that our work no longer resembles its original flavor. I keep thinking of Michael Jackson’s plastic surgery. He sure looked different at the end, didn’t he?
Yes, some of my blog essays are very different today than they were when many people read them. But, in my case, I think they’re better. I should’ve waited to post them until I was certain I’d found the perfect turn of phrase, more apt metaphors, more pointed, less sentimental descriptions. Whatever. I’m embarrassed some folks trudged through those nascent essays. How can I alert them? Can I tag them and say, “Hey, these are much better now!” No, I can’t. So I lie awake at night and worry.
I delete a lot of posts, a residual of all this revision. I’ve taken to strafing my social media after a week or so. The ideas have grown stale; people have moved on. When I initially post, I like to think I’m starting a conversation with my far-flung friends. I’ll post an Oscar Wilde quote or tell a story about how a turtle appeared in my mailbox. If someone doesn’t read my words, that’s OK. More are coming. Conversations, even online, should be ephemeral. Impermanence makes our discussions precious. So if someone ever visits my social media, she might only find a couple pictures (rarely selfies), a few personal words. I come and go. And just like a phone call, I hang up when the talking ends.
So the upshot? I have to let go. I have to let my work live on its own. Just like when one raises a child, at some point, the writer must push its hatchling out into the world and hope it can survive.
I know I sound neurotic and obsessive-compulsive, but I believe in words. I believe that the correct combination of sentences and paragraphs are a magic spell. They sift through the ether to shine light on a new idea; they fire readers’ synapses; they shift paradigms. If I compose correctly, if I play my cards right (write), the reader and I might even connect on some karmic level. Well, we can connect if I can get the friggin’ words right. Sometimes I can’t. Writing is difficult. No, words are hard—like a rock upside the head.