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Friday, March 30, 2012

Renovations, revisions, and a drive to Moose Jaw

We don't yet have a date for the kitchen destruction, but my skillful cabinet maker came on Wednesday to take a careful look at the room and firm up some of the plans.  In the meantime, I've been cleaning out drawers and cupboards, thinking about what is really necessary for the kind of cooking I do now.  There's a kind of archeology to this process:  as I dig into the back of drawers, I fetch up things like an avocado green hard-boiled egg slicer or the baby silverware or four differently-sized whisks. (I was looking for the perfect whisk, I suspect.)  I moved my kitchen into this house in 1990, when Veronica was 11, and haven't really cleaned out drawers since, though my cooking has changed dramatically.  There's now a box downstairs with items that will go to Community Living or some similar charity.  I'll leave them in the box, which I can get to easily in case I need something; but a month after reno, out they go.  If I haven't used them by then, I don't need them.  Even before the new kitchen is created, I have more space.

I have good feelings about revisions like this one.  Twice in my life, revision made an enormous difference.  There's the funny story:  about how I had posted a provile on LavaLife, (before it got cheesy) but wasn't getting much interest.  A close friend was dying, and the portrait of myself that I'd created was of someone facing a friend's mortality, facing the unfairness of a universe that took a friend in the prime of her life.  Serious.  No sense of play.  I no longer remember what inspired me, but one morning I rewrote my profile, making it much more playful and flirtatious.  Bill got in touch the next day; we met a week later after a series of insightful emails; I set a land speed record for falling in love.  I have actually shared this story with students in writing classes with the following moral: It always pays to revise.

Then there's the startling story.  When my insightful publisher, Ruth Linka, read the edited draft of Blue Duets, she said quite firmly "This ms is 120,000 words long.  You've got to get it down to 90,000."  She had two reasons for this.  One was simply that Blue Duets was a first novel and you can't sell first novels if they cost more than $20.  The second was aesthetic.  The novel tells a fairly small story--small in the context of books about wars, about injustice, about massive cruelty, about historical figures.  The manuscript, on the other hand, was bloated.

You have no idea how liberating it was to undertake that revision.  I had to decide what was important and to shave or sand away everything else.  If the novel has a coherent shape, it's because Ruth insisted on that revision.  If the reader clearly knows what's important, if she or he connects emotionally to Lila's experience, it's because there is less dross, fewer red herrings and false turnings.  When you find the right shape for a story, you can quit talking about it and let the story be the reader's guide.

This morning, I hit the road for Moose Jaw.  That's a non-sequitur if you've ever heard one.  But I'd gotten to the point in the chapter on Mrs Dalloway where I can't see the chapter's shape, where I'd lost the thread of its purpose. 

There are two elements to revising.  One is to literally re-see or re-view what you have made.  This part of the process forces you to take the long view, to step back and study the way the various pieces fit together, to see whether they're running alongside an elegant fence or simply held together, cruelly and crudely, with baling wire.  The second element brings you much closer to what you're written to see if the paragraphs hold together and have a coherent structure, if your mechanics are solid and keep the reader's confusion to a minimum.  Hence the need to drive to Moose Jaw.  On the road, I can't flip my pages back and forth defensively to tie up the bits of string that seem to be straggling between the pages.  If I can't recall the major steps in my argument while I study the prairie, I'm in trouble.  There's something about that huge landscape that makes one take the long view, the large view.  So I found where I'd gone awry and figured out where the next pieces of my argument should take me.

At the same time, driving to Moose Jaw at this time of year, when the landscape is as minimal as my kitchen drawers, makes you attend to detail.  Is that a hawk?  Are there birds in those nests?  Do I really see buds on these trees?  So you come back ready to do the other kind of revision, the less inspiring but nevertheless satisfying work of getting all the details in place. 

I like both elements of revision.  The large-scale version is a cheeky girl who's looking at you archly and saying "So?  So what?"  The smaller-scale version is a youthful engineer who is convinced everything will work better if all the pieces and screws and washers are in their right place.  If that machine is your stove or your sewing machine or your computer, you also value efficiency, tidiness, and a sense of purpose.  So of course you want your writer or your artist to make that thought as clear as possible so you are ready to grapple with the demands it's going to make of you to think in a new or different way.  Then it's your turn to hold the piece of writing or the work of art up to the world you see to see if you, too, need to revise.  The drive from Regina to Moose Jaw takes just the right amount of time for doing that.

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