In the beginning, there is nothing—a blank page, a lump of clay—and then something sensible begins to take form. As creators, this is the exhilarating part, with writers filling pages that coalesce into the stories only we can tell, giving life to our creations by breathing words into them. And they are extraordinary, the best things we have ever done! For weeks, they float us above the mundane and make anything seem possible. But then one day as we are re-reading, the creation springs a leak and we fall back to earth together. In no time, it is half-deflated, stumbling about in circles, and we are reeling with it.
The disappointment of this moment can be awful enough that manuscripts are abandoned. The earlier promise now feels like betrayal, our effort a failure. And yet…The deflation that comes from seeing with fresh eyes, the recognition that significant revision is needed, is a part of the process of nearly every book ever written. As the author Frank Yerby said, “It is my contention that a really great novel is made with a knife and not a pen. A novelist must have the intestinal fortitude to cut out even the most brilliant passage so long as it doesn’t advance the story.”
In my own work, there is nothing I have struggled with more than the repeated need for revision. I have put aside a nascent novel for months at a time because I felt overwhelmed by what was required to get it into shape. Part of the difficulty is that we must be both the creator and the physician of our writing, which are quite different skills and require quite different states of mind. The expressive exuberance of creating is what gets me to my desk. But the humble, open, unknowing that I must bring to the work of revision is where I find my strength. In the boneyard. Let me explain…
In my personal writing metaphor, rewriting is more a cycle of death and rebirth. When I recognize that my creation is bloated and staggering aimlessly about, I let it fall to the ground and die. For a time, I do not even look at it, making time for the flesh to be loosed from the bones. I wander the boneyard then, feeling the different kind of possibility here. The fleshy showing off is over, and I have to find the beauty in the skeleton of it, in the marrow. I must become the forensic artist of my own work. I strip away all that still clings to the bones, so I can see the shape it is meant to become.
The new skeleton version is pared down to only the scenes that are absolutely necessary to move the story forward. I also save the previous version as “source,” allowing that there is material I will mine again, now or in another story. I remind myself that all the excised flesh is not wasted; it has rounded out my understanding of characters, backstory, setting. I spend time strengthening the connective tissue of the skeletal story, and only then do I selectively add back bits of flesh, some old, some new.
Constructing or re-constructing each skeleton carefully enough that it can stand tall in its stripped down clarity is the most important writing lesson I have ever learned. It was reiterated by the writing instructor Jerry Cleaver, who said in one of his fiction writing workshops, “Every novel needs to go through five to ten major surgeries” (which I received with both dismay and relief). But I first learned it in a journalism course.
There, I wanted to hit my writing instructor for even suggesting that we were all over-writing. I only did the extreme editing exercise because he had been a newspaper editor longer than I had been alive, so I had to begrudgingly allow he must know a little something more than I did as a college student. Conciseness is a basic lesson of journalism, of course, which must convey the nugget of the story in a single, accessible lede sentence and be written to strict word counts. Once I practiced the exercise, I was still mad, not so much for the loss of those particular extraneous words, but because I understood this carried implications for all time, for everything I wrote. I was full of pretty words and wanted to use them. The exercise taught me that there was a level at which they were an indulgence.
It is a lesson taught more gently in creative writing, where we have the luxury of being able to enhance and embellish. And where still, if we are not acutely aware of the essence giving shape to this, no amount of propping or enhancement will make it a strong story.
I still go slowly into the boneyard now, but willingly. It is a little like going to the gym, which is another discipline I have brought into my life. In both cases, the sessions of work are usually not exciting or rewarding. They leave their mark only over a period of time—after which the results alone justify the work. But there is also something else: The discipline and the trusting in the value of my efforts improves not only my fitness or the piece of work I am revising. These also change me in ways that make me a healthier individual, a more skillful writer…and a stronger, happier person. Who knew?