Revising (from Michael Kimball’s “The 1-Hour MFA”)
Lucky for us (all of us), novelist Michael Kimball has let Real Pants publish an excerpt from his talk The 1-Hour MFA for this Revisionings installment. He outs himself as an enthusiastic reviser and a meticulant when it comes to writing fiction prose. Makes sense. It seems to me that his novels leverage a certain precision in the prose— which is typically lean, inventive, and casual—to move big, big emotions in the reader without getting maudlin. Here’s Kimball:
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A bunch of writers have smart, pithy things to say about revision. Here are three of them. Ellen Gilchrist says this: “Writing is rewriting.” John Irving says this: “Half of my life is an act of revision.” Sam Lipsyte says this: “I don’t trust people who brag about how they rarely rewrite. Either they’re lying or their prose sucks.” It’s easy to agree with all three of them.
I’m always revising, even in the early drafting stages. I write with the idea that anything can be changed and that every piece of fiction can be improved. Even my published novels are marked up.
In the early stages, I like to work with big margins and big fonts, so there is lots of white space to mark things up. I consider whatever I write to be a proposition, something that can change. I like to revise as I go. I need to be happy with the sentences I have written, to some extent, before I can write the next sentence.
The fiction writer’s only standard is whether the fiction works or doesn’t work. While I’m revising, I have two questions that I continually ask myself. The first is this: Does it work? If the answer is no, then I rewrite it or cut it. If the answer is yes, then I ask the second question: Can I make it better? I’m always trying to make whatever I have written better. Eventually, I end up rewriting almost every sentence.
There are, of course, other approaches to revising. For instance, Andrew Porter likes to keep a macro-view of the fiction during the initial stages of revision: “I don’t allow myself to think too much about individual sentences until I’m pretty far along in the revision process. This is partly because I tend to be a little obsessive when it comes to getting the prose to ‘sound’ right, and if I started tinkering around with that stuff too early in the process, I’d probably lose sight of the actual story.”
Sometimes, when I’m stuck in revision, I use an idea that a science journalist passed on to me: I impose my will. It may sound a little silly, but when the page is being difficult, this mindset can provide insight. There is something clarifying about it. I start cutting passages, moving others, rewriting whatever is left. There is something about imposing my will that gives me permission to be ruthless with the writing. In a sense, the fiction writer becomes the fiction editor. The mindset provides a certain distance and clarity about the work that lets the fiction writer see what the fiction needs to be. The most difficult part of this, of course, is being honest with yourself about what is good and what needs be rewritten or cut.
The part I love most about revising is cutting. It is incredibly satisfying. In fact, the single best piece of writing advice I ever received was something like this: Cut whatever is not absolutely necessary. There are many benefits to making good cuts in revision. Cutting can help to clarify the story, the narration, the characters, the voice, etc. Cutting can create greater implication. Cutting can increase the sense of narrative speed.
Sarah Waters sees multiple benefits to cutting too: “Cut like crazy. Less is more. I’ve often read manuscripts—including my own—where I’ve got to the beginning of, say, chapter two and have thought: ‘This is where the novel should actually start.’”
Esther Freud agrees with the necessity of cutting: “Editing is everything. Cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life.” Sam Lipsyte picks up that idea with this: “It comes alive … in revision. I love rephrasing, rewriting. I love to delete. Maybe it’s the only time in my life I feel in control of anything.”
The revision process can seem endless. There are always opportunities for improvement, but eventually the fiction writer has to let the fiction go. Supposedly, Evan Connell said that he knew he was finished with a short story when he found himself going through the story again and putting commas back in the same places. Noy Holland talks about commas too: “If I reach a point where I am glazing over, or replacing, one day, a comma I omitted the day before, then I let the story go, for better or worse, and move on.”
I like Emil Cioran’s take on knowing when he is finished: “A work is finished when we can no longer improve it, though we know it to be inadequate and incomplete. We are so overtaxed by it that we no longer have the power to add a single comma, however indispensable. Whatever determines the degree to which a work is done is not a requirement of art or of truth, it is exhaustion and, even more, disgust.”
It must mean something that the end of the revision process, for so many, comes down to commas (and disgust).