"There are no great writers, only great rewriters." So says the back of a T-shirt I've had since 2005, when it was given to me by a friend who designed and led a five-week workshop called "The Art of Revision." The shirt always gets knowing smiles when I wear it among writers. But despite my enjoyment of the shirt and the fact that I still have all the materials and the practice work that came of those classes, I rarely do significant revision.
Instead, I take an idea, fashion a draft good enough to get me into a summer conference, see that manuscript through workshop, and then file it away, going back to my novel until conference application time comes around again. The result of this pattern is that I have a novel in an incomplete discovery draft and a half dozen promising but stalled pieces of short fiction.
Perhaps it was the packing of the shirt for a recent sojourn at the Vermont Studio Center that made me decide to devote my time there entirely to revision. I set aside my novel, chose four workshopped drafts, and packed them up, along with my folder of revision techniques.
I begin most days with a ritual I call C&C (Coffee and Contemplation). The first cup, which warms my bones and wakes my senses, is given over to prayer and meditation. I use a graphic technique developed by Sybil MacBeth, whose Praying in Color combines the making of a mandala and the clustering technique popularized for writers by Gabriele Rico. Each week I trace a circle on a blank sheet, write the names of those I love and our present concerns (Dan's new job, Matt's difficult class) along with the concerns of the world (hunger, peace, justice), and then draw borders around the words and use colored pencils to fill the shapes. This half hour or so sets the tenor of the day, and when I don't do it, I don't move as easily through both the things I want to do and those I have to do.
When I take up my second cup of coffee, I also open my notebook and do the first writing of the day. "Can the Bad Girls be saved?" I wrote October 26, my first morning in Vermont. "Bad Girls" is a coming-of-age story that I took to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in 2008, where I received valuable feedback and encouragement. I hadn't looked at it in more than two years. I read it again, read the comments, and began writing my thoughts on the direction I should take. Several readers wanted more about the way the friendship between the main character and an older girl developed.
|I wrote both characters' names on a blank sheet of paper, circled them, and began a cluster. Although I had regularly included the concept as an option in teaching high school students, I rarely used it myself in my own fiction work. That morning in Vermont, I kept going with the cluster, fashioning it into a circle. Then I applied the colored pencils, as I do with my meditation concerns. The decorating of the page slowed me down, kept my focus on the characters and their relationships, and helped me see, perhaps for the first time, how they interacted and what they needed from each other.
Larger image here
I worked on "Bad Girls" for five days, one working week of my time in Vermont, beginning each session with a new colored cluster. By the end of the week I had a profoundly transformed draft. I took the weekend off and began again the next Monday with another manuscript. I "prayed in color" through that one, and two more, and when I left Vermont to join my family for the beginning of the winter holidays, I had much to be thankful for.
I don't know what took me so long to see the connection between what I did to deepen my spiritual life and what I could do to move forward in my writing life. I heard long ago that when the pupil is ready, the teacher will come.
The tools and techniques I needed had always been at my fingertips. Since my sojourn in Vermont, I have not put away my drawing materials when I end my C&C, have breakfast, and then get down to the business of the day. I take them up again, arranging my characters and their concerns in a mosaic of shape and color. They are more real to me now than ever before, and I walk through their days with them, getting ever closer to the time when their stories will be made known to others.