“Visiting Day,” last week’s entry, was revised eight times. Eight times (8!) I returned to that short piece, tweaked and tightened until I forgot why I wrote it in the first place.
Long gone now, that first draft surprised me. It came quickly and made me momentarily joyful. Sure, I stumbled a bit, back-peddling over names of places and people, making it unnecessarily mysterious. (No one in the know says Lake Ellis; it’s “The Agam.”)
But still I took most of a dream and made it an essay, eulogy, love poem, memoir.
I admire the notepad-by-the-bed, napkin-in-the-purse kind of writers, the ones who pay attention without aggression. But I am not one of them. I write looking over my shoulder, fighting myself to the finish line. Except for that day. For once, feeling was a muse and not muzzle.
Revision sometimes tricks us into wanting more.
We return to text to make it better: to find readers, to reach out, make our thinking clear and connect to others. But doing so sometimes sends us seeking too far afield.
As soon as I got feedback (imagined) from readers (imagined again) I wanted something from them and lost myself as a result.
The book I am working on is not about revision. It’s about writing and what teaching writing does to our culture and the search for common ground. But I guess it’s also about how expectation is a kind of suffering.
Which leads me to freewriting. Freewriting is a technique, popularized by two of my teachers, Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff and used by many educators, to liberate the writer from the critic, the judge, the fantasy of an ideal reader and an ideal self. But it’s also a technique associated with suffering. Here’s a passage about freewriting from a collection of essays published nearly thirty years ago:
And, by now, as we lurch toward the end of the 1980s, even conservative teachers who were initially put off by the 1960s aura of the freewriting movement are likely to use freewriting techniques now and then, at least with students suffering from writing blocks.
–Burton Hatlen, “Projective Verse and Freewriting, or Do Charles Olson and Peter Elbow Have Something to Say to Each Other?” From Nothing Begins with N: New Investigations of Freewriting Eds. Pat Belanoff, Peter Elbow and Sheryl I. Fontaine, Southern Illinois Press: 1991.
Scholars of writing debate if freewriting, and other process-oriented heuristics, can work in the educational structure we have now. But the author of this essay does not ask if freewriting works. He asks if freewriting alleviates suffering.
I’m wondering if these associations–between writing and experiment and between students and suffering–died in the 1990s or if they mean something new now, as we lurch toward the 2020s.
More on that next time, as I spend the week trying to stave off another pain-staking revision.