Saturday, November 22, 2014

Thus I Have Heard

Do not clutch at writing outcome for to do so is to embrace an explosive, rabid, backstabbing, and ravenous pet, combination of pit bull and piranha. This creature will shred the shirt you are wearing. It will leave you in pain. It will show others the foolishness of your choices and the vanity of your ego. It is said that this creature once existed peaceably in mythic lands, running after written products, final drafts, and publications, causing no harm until one of us embraced it. And then this creature of outcome caused havoc with livestock and the ability of nearly adolescent children to focus in school.
                                                          Far wiser is it to watch the minnows of the moment pass and pass in the river of process.

* Image provided by britishlibrary.typepad

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Montaigne Method: Keeping Revision Fresh

This post is based on Thomas Newkirk's research on Montaigne in The Art of Slow Reading and his 2005 Rhetoric Review article, "Montaigne's Revisions." Staci Fleury and I co-authored an article forthcoming in the Journal of Teaching Writing in which we applied Montaigne's revision method to Staci's high school English classes. Here I'm talking about the rest of us--writers not necessarily in a classroom.

If you struggle to revise, chances are your audience-in-the-head dynamic is off. If you find revision to be more chore than exploration, you're probably (at least for this particular writing task) acting as though a purely hypothetical reader resides in the present moment with you. Scrutiny of your intrapersonal dialog or self-talk will show signs that you think this reader actually in the room. You're overlooking that fundamental vacancy of the moment of writing and operating as though revision was the same as public speaking.

To help energize revision, find a way to regain the privacy of writing, even at this seemingly late stage in the writing process. In other words, if you find yourself in this state, try to return to the initial working conditions of invention, the opening moments.

No matter how much time has passed since the start of the writing project--no matter how much time remains until the project deadline--return yourself to the mindset of the beginning.

Staci Fleury and I describe how revision is "Janus-faced," meaning that revision can mean looking back to the beginning (a generative and reflective time) or it can look ahead to editing and proofreading (a time for carefully considering the needs of audience).

A writer should be able to push his or her text closer to the beginning at any moment, right up until the very final minutes. Presumably, someone could return to invention five minutes before pushing the Send button on an email to a publisher.

Michel de Montaigne, the sixteenth-century essayist, spent a lifetime adding material in the expansive margins of his often already published texts. The versions of his essays typically seen by twenty-first century readers are distillations of additions separated by years and decades: many present moments instead of just one.

We can adopt Montaigne's practice. Obtain very large sheets of paper (or tape together four sheets of standard typing paper). Tape a page of your draft to the center of this "parchment." Allow yourself 20-30 minutes to revise just this page by only adding material. These additions could be details, phrases, sentences, whole paragraphs, ideas, internal reflection, rebuttal, definition, tangents, examples, questions--essentially, anything that is new material. Try to also add onto your additions by rereading your notations and listening for what arises from them.

The only thing that is not permitted with the Montaigne method of revising is the elimination of content: trimming is valuable but occurs at another time. For now, just add and simultaneously watch your own attitude toward adding. After a lifetime of over-consideration of audience, some people find it difficult to resist deleting their work. Backspacing has been as prevalent in their practice as forward movement. Just take stock of your internal reactions to pure addition.

After 20 or 30 minutes, repeat: tape another page of the draft to another "parchment."

By bringing revision closer to invention, you're making the revision more of a low-stakes task. You're giving yourself the time and space to invent material with all the playfulness, blundering, rich ambiguity, and insight that special phase can hold.

* Image from mediumaevumtumblr.