Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Embroidery that is Revision

In my Thanksgiving post, I quoted a passage from one of my favorite novels of all time, Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety. I flat out love this book. It's got Madison, it's got a story of an adult lifelong friendship between two couples, it's got a writer/teacher struggling to make sense of his place in the cosmos, and, above all, it's got magical, lyrical writing that I get completely lost in. It, along with a few other stories (The Sound and the Fury and The Things They Carried to name two) take my breath away.

But, I digress.

Here's another quote:

"Charity and Sally are stitched together with a thousand threads of feeling and shared experience. Each is for the other that one unfailingly understanding and sympathetic fellow-creature that everybody wishes for and many never find."

These two women know each other beyond knowing. And, so does Stegner. And that's what I've recently discovered again in my revisions.

With All the Numbers, when I wrote the scene in which my main character has to take her dead son's clothes to the funeral home, I knew I'd found the perfect place to open the book. But, this was actually the very last scene I wrote. Initially, I was surprised that I hadn't started here, but as I thought about it, I knew that would have been impossible. I hadn't yet wallowed in her world of grief to know what that moment would feel like for her. To know what it would mean for her to smell her son on his clothes. And to frantically not want to lose that scent. Until I'd written the rest of her story, I hadn't put in enough stitches. And when I had, it all worked.

I'm now in the final revisions of Unexpected Grace. And I had to do some major restitching of one of the narrative lines. Using completely different yarn. And, if a few months ago, you'd told me, gee, Judy, maybe you need to make that one guy die 8 months ago rather than 8 years ago, I would have panicked. Well, no, I'd have wanted to say (but I'd have been too tongue-tied to do so), I can't do that because, well, it's not how I thought it out and no, it just won't work. But, since I'd completed the story, I knew the characters so well that when it was suggested to me recently, I thought, oh my, that's exactly right. It was as if I'd pulled some threads too tight, and this one suggestion opened up so much more. And it's been incredibly easy. All because I'd thought I was done. I'd gone so far in with my characters; I knew them so well.

I HAD to know those thousand threads of my characters. And I could stitch and sew and pull and knot all I wanted, but until enough threads were present, I wouldn't have the full picture. And I might have to yank out an entire section and restitch. And in the process I'd probably poke my finger and perhaps even draw blood. But in the end I'd have a fully formed piece. Only because I'd allowed myself the luxury of a draft. I'd allowed myself to make a garment, try it on, let it out here and take it in there. Put it on the dummy and glance at it from all angles and under different lights. Revision truly is RE-VISION. Another look. A glance back.

And to go back to the quote--it's something everyone wishes for but many never find. Maybe because it requires a writer's eye.

16 comments:

The Writers' Group said...

Judy, I'm going to print this out and save it for the next book. The revision process is wrenching for me, but you've presented it in such a clear way, I think I just might enjoy it this go round. Thanks SO much.

Amy

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

You're very welcome, Amy. I so hope it helps. Revision has always been fun for me--I know everything's right there and I just need to polish it. (It's also my chance to add those few thousand more words to get the dang thing long enough!)

kristen said...

Judy, I love this post and agree that it is a keeper, one to look back on and take comfort in the fact that we don't always get it right the first time, but in the end, we will.

And if that little bit you quote from Crossing to Safety is any indication, well, I need to make that my next read. It's been on the pile since way back when I first asked you about it. Time to give it a read, don't you think?

The Writers' Group said...

I love the sewing analogy, right down to the prick of the needle. Then, too, your comment above that the key revision was your chance to add a few thousand more words. That rings true, as well!

Hannah

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Kristen, yes, absolutely, read this book. I think you'll love it (I was right with the O'Brien recommendation, wasn't I?).

Hannah, I didn't realize you wrote on the "short" side, too. One more thing we have in common, huh?

Therese said...

I love revision, too. So much easier to rend and stitch than to create thread by thread. All of it, however, is good!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Judy, needed this as I do my own sewing. And the yarns they keep a changing.

Usman/Reality.

Lisa said...

You have such clarity with regard to revision. There was a post you did about it several months ago that also stayed with me. Thank you Judy.

debra said...

Thank you for this post.I have just checked Crossing to Safety out of the library.
Along with re-vision, I think we should be aware that recreation is RE-CREATION.

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Therese, it is all good, isn't it? Without those first stitches, we'd never get to the end.

Usmman/Reality, so glad you stopped by. Good luck choosing the right yarns.

Lisa, you're so welcome.

Debra, yes, such an important point--re-creation. And let me know when you've finished Crossing to Safety. It's such a lovely book.

Sustenance Scout said...

So much fodder for thought here, Judy. Thanks so much... K.

Bev Marshall said...

What a wonderful post! I love the revision process . . . maybe too much as it's difficult to stop revising when it's time to let go. But you've presented here the euphoria coupled with the understanding of the why we revise and I think that's something we often forget. Thanks!

Carleen Brice said...

Wow, sounds like you're getting close!

Revision is a funny thing. I had a big breakthrough when I realized this week that a scene that from the beginning I had imagined as one of the last scenes of my book just doesn't fit at all. (Though I think it might fit in the next one!) I cut the character and all related to that scene and it was only 1,500 words. A BIG sign that this scene wasn't part of the climax or resolution of my story.

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

K, Glad to be of help. It's always nice to have you stop in.

Bev, It can be hard to finally say you're done sometimes. I'm always finding one sentence to tweak here and there.

Carleen, Yes, the end is really in sight. It's exciting.

Melanie Lynne Hauser said...

Revisions are my absolute favorite part of writing. It's where I feel I am, actually, WRITING, with a capital W; it's where I feel I'm my most creative, most insightful.

That first draft is absolutely necessary, but painful and messy and, to me, has nothing to do with WRITING with a capital W. I've heard it described as "vomiting on paper," and that's about how it feels to me. But I love your embroidery imagery for the revision process. It's definitely how I feel about it.

Can't WAIT - with a capital W! - to read this one, Judy! (And as far as Crossing to Safety - I didn't think I liked it when I read it, but it's definitely a book that has stayed with me.)

Anonymous said...

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