Over the past few years of teaching, I have handed out a sheet similar to the image to the left to initiate a discussion of what I call "deep revision." (The handout was given to me many xeroxed years ago by a fellow MFA student, Herman Fong.)
I tell students with prior Western art history knowledge to sit still for a moment while those students who have no idea that the artist is Picasso bat back & forth the questions: "Which is the first draft bull? Which the final version? What would be possible equivalencies for a writing process?"
I tell my writing students that I'm less interested in the reality (i.e.: the final bull is at the bottom of the middle column) and more interested in their perceptions about what it takes to revise, to reach such a radical change in an artist's perceptions. This work, I say, was from a point in this painter's career in which he had reached notoriety, but he was not satisfied with remaining in place.
Re-vision. The importance to get down on one's knees as an artist and rethink one's entire approach. What I call my "Martha Graham" moments--thinking of how the legendarily hardworking dancer spent years crouched on a hard wooden floor trying to work through her aesthetic. It's the willingness to put everything on the table, to be able to relinquish any component of a piece, no matter how hard it was achieved or what others have already said of it. Perhaps even your "signature" gesture as an artist.
What does it take to do a type of deep revision? It can entail identifying a structural question in one's text and meditating on it fiercely, with perhaps fewer or no provisions for self-expression or personal emotion. To identify a structural element and take it much deeper, yards deeper than one would normally go. It means taking on deep issues such as:
* one's subjectivity (are you willing, for instance, to change your whole outlook--indeed, your personality? the way you proceed with life? the way you look at the world?)
* one's relation to truth and fact
* one's writerly "crutches," habits, and support systems
* a single formal element (figurative language or even the use of prepositions) and making it the dominant organizing feature
* the logical progression of one's meaning: deductive? inductive?
* the moral framework of one's meaning: a different sort of implication
Change like this is right around the corner. It's in the frame of the next moment. But it's certainly not easily achieved. It takes a radical groundlessness, a freedom from preconceived notions about one's work, about oneself.
It is easy to fool oneself or others. For instance, this Bull seems like it could be done. It seems like a sufficient amount of revision face time has been put in:
No one else would probably know what you know: that your work is not yet done. I've sent out
Bulls like this one to literary journals or to writer friends under the guise of a finished product, knowing full well that my work remained before me.
To end up with the last Bull, the get-it-right Bull, the one the writer knows is the final product, that is one of the biggest rewards of this writing life: