As a psychotherapist I work with people who come to me for help in revising their stories. They wouldn’t necessarily put it that way, maybe wouldn’t think of it that way, but that is essentially what we do. The story they have been living, handed down by family, culture, media becomes too small for the person they truly are and no longer fits. Sometimes a crisis—loss of a job, a divorce, an accident—precipitates this shift, and old strategies no longer work to restore the balance. Another story is pressing at the edges of the old one, and together we try to make room for it to emerge.
As a writer and a mentor for writers I’m fascinated with the process of revising a story. Alice Munro says that when she writes she is always trying to find out what the story is really about. In any story the unconscious is trying to collaborate with the conscious intent of the story, what we think we’re writing about, to bring something deeper and truer, something less familiar in, to surprise us and enrich the story. This is what makes writing fiction so magical. If I write only from my conscious mind, just as if I live only from my conscious mind, the result is tepid, conventional, compliant with all that I’ve been told. The writing lacks the richness of the inner world, where growth and change are organic, fuelled by an inner necessity.
So, how to go about revising a story? How to make a better story? Let’s start with a written story, a fiction. For a while now I’ve been questioning the workshop process for revising, as it is usually practised, even as I’ve practised it myself in my classes and in classes I have taken. This is the process whereby a group of fellow writers reads a manuscript and then tells the writer what’s working and what needs work. It seems to be a balanced and fair way to provide feedback. Mark Twain wrote, “There is no urge so great as for one [person] to edit another [person’s] work.” The “what’s good/what’s needed” format is supposed to provide a counterpoint to that urge. Except that it doesn’t. After all the positive encouraging things people say about the story: “I love the beginning,” “the character drew me in right away,” and so on, the writer is left with a list of other people’s ideas of what their story should be: “It needs more back story,” “the relationship between the lovers isn’t clear,” “the ending doesn’t work.”
“A work of art is of an infinite loneliness,” Rilke wrote. “And with nothing to be so little appreciated as with criticism. Only love can grasp and hold and fairly judge them.” Infinite loneliness speaks of the challenge of trying to wrest a story from its unconscious origins, its inner necessity, without breaking any of its strange associations in order to comply with what’s expected. As a mentor I have been just as guilty of imposing some idea of mine on the poor writer who then goes away and brings back a revised story that’s lost the vigour and glint of the original.
Imagine a group of therapists all giving their view of how a life should be lived: “more assertiveness with your mother required here,” “clarify the motivation about going back to school,” “this character would never do that.” The true living of a life is “of an infinite loneliness,” not because we have to live it all alone, but because no one else can know truly what is right for us. For that we need to look to our own heart.
The novelist, Jacqueline Woodson, says that the first feedback she asks for when she circulates a draft is: “Tell me everything you love about it.” Later she asks her readers to “Ask me three questions that came up for you.” This seems like an infinitely respectful and useful way to assist the writer, encouraging and thought-provoking. The same process could be applied to revising a life story. “What do you love about the way you do things now and how you approach life? Is it your kindness, your spunk, your defiance, your tenacity?” And the questions could be: “What is it you most long for?” “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” “What draws your deepest attention?”
In stories and in life there is a something that wants expression, a truth that wants to be found that expands and deepens what we already know. Our task as writers and humans is to bring that out, to give it language and action. A biologist-turned-writer, Fredrik Sjoberg, said in a radio interview: “All of us need to flee blindly sometimes so as not to become copies of the world’s expectations.” This speaks to me of life and of stories. To write a true story I have to begin with what I know, an image or an idea, and then “flee blindly” from the routine path, letting in what comes. I have to tell the story, as the poet Marie Howe says of her work, “in such a way that the story tells me another story.”
That is what revision is to me. That is how we find a better story.
Photo by Flickr user Steve Hodgson