“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” -Mark Twain
“Worship is not love.” -Donald Hall
When I was a college undergrad, the poet Donald Hall came to speak at my university. It coincided with the ascension of my zeal for writing, especially poetry. I was 19ish and thoroughly entrenched in the idea that the muse was faultless and that all writing borne from a fit of inspiration was pure and therefore purely impeccable. In his address to those of us gathered at one of the many teas the literature department held for visiting luminaries, Hall spoke of the absolute need to edit and revise. Edit, revise, edit, revise, repeat. I scoffed (silently). That semester, one of my writing professors preached the same practice. I scoffed, out loud. “Isn’t there something to be said for the purity of inspiration?” I asked. I don’t remember his exact answer (oh hello, selective memory! Good to see you.) but whatever it was I discarded it as the fruit of a sinister, passion-hating, whitewashing philosophy. Granted, this professor was difficult to like for numerous reasons, not the least of which was his choice in mustache. (His fervor for C. S. Lewis was the reason I refused to read any of Lewis’ writing for almost 10 years.) I was writing scads of poetry at the time and madly in love with all of it. There was too much coming out of me to waste precious time trimming and reworking any of the previous day’s masterpieces. What if, in spending 30 minutes revising this angsty poem about my ex-boyfriend, I shut the gate to another brilliant, angsty poem about my ex-boyfriend?? What would the world do without it???!! And the ocean! and the night sky!! Someone needed to be writing about these subjects, for god’s sake, not revising an already perfectly good ode to sea turtles.
(I might need alcohol to get through a post about my early writing days. My face already hurts from cringing.)
I remember when I first waded in to the practice of editing my creative writing. I was already revising all of my schoolwork, of course, that was different. Such writing was never galvanized by passion. Sure, I enjoyed crafting critical essays about literature I’d loved and loathed, and I had professors whom I highly esteemed and desired to please, even to move with my words, and I relished trimming and fleshing out portions of each draft the way people like my mother hunch over Sudoku puzzles while the world spins around them, and I could barely conceal my glee when a friend would ask me to please edit his or her paper for such-and-such class, but…you know. That was different. That was just lame homework stuff. Truly creative writing didn’t need editing.
There was going to be a publication. The university was reviving its hitherto stagnant literary magazine, and my grouchy, mustachioed professor was leading the effort. That just wouldn’t do! He would ruin it, so I had to step in and be on the editing staff. Well, that and I simply had to submit my own work and win all possible prizes and accompanying accolades and prestige. I began the process of paring down my considerable supply of poems to choose the best possible pieces for selection and inevitable fame. I had a final 20, then after days of agonizing, a final 18, and so on and so forth until I had the ten that needed to be reduced to five. I read them a thousand times each, comparing apples to apples, while a tic formed in the deepest, suppressiest part of my mind. They aren’t perfect, the tic seemed to whisper. You can’t read anything a thousand times without projecting a change, it’s simply impossible. Orson Welles would alter ‘Citizen Kane’ if he were alive today, and Faulkner would tweak ‘The Sound and the Fury’ and Van Gogh would adjust ‘Starry Night’. I tentatively, skittishly began to revise in the most minute ways I could. At first I only changed structure, shifting line breaks by a word or two. It seemed less intrusive, less violent than changing the actual words of my beautiful masterpieces that, in truth, had been tarnishing little by little since I’d begun reading them critically. Next I conjured my courage and replaced some words with synonyms. Innocuous enough, really. I mean, they were synonyms, not totally different words. Gradually, my definition of ‘synonym’ became more nebulous as I began honestly assessing each piece and its needs. Then titles began to change, followed by lines being removed altogether. It was a natural part of the writing process, I could finally feel that, but that realization didn’t negate the difficulty and the pain of changing and excising bits that I’d once been so proud of, lines that I’d once held aloft as proof that I was a real writer, dammit, not just a creative bookworm with encouraging parents. I felt like I was insensitively turning away from old friends who had supported me and given me affection at critical times. I couldn’t deny the improvements, though. The pacing was better, the brights were brighter and the shadows deeper. The poems retained the inspiration they’d been germinated by, but now read as if they’d been crafted slowly and calmly, not in a burst of flighty intensity.
Once I submitted them and began the selection process of wading through all the other submissions, it was like I’d been given glasses after living blearily near-sighted for too long. I mentally rewrote everything; my imaginary editing pen, with it’s bright red invisible ink, could not be stilled. I felt like my standards for selecting poems and awarding honors were miles above most of the other editors’ and I couldn’t understand why they didn’t see how much better all of these poems should’ve been. It was exhilaratingly frustrating, and the beginning of an incredibly rewarding pursuit.
These days, far removed from my angsty poetry writing (and married to its targeted ex-boyfriend), I edit for time length and maximum word count along with editing for improvement, though brevity is nearly always an improvement. I was interviewed recently about the craft of writing, and caught myself answering at great length about the writer’s common mistake of overtelling. Thankfully, it was an email interview, so I was able to edit my response considerably. I’ve thoroughly embraced the aforementioned Mark Twain quote and could singlehandedly keep thesaurus.com active with my constant use of it. I edit emails to friends, text messages, tweets, anything that comes out of my fingers. Truly passionate, inspired writing, I’ve found, is nurtured and developed, not tossed up and called complete. I wish my 19-year-old self would have embraced revision sooner. I would have liked to read her writing.