I’ve been reading former Poet Laureate Donald Hall’s Essays after Eighty, in which he contemplates what the writing life is like for someone whose world has become circumscribed by the physical infirmities of old age, as well by the loss of his primary genre:
Poems are image-bursts from brain-depths, words flavored by buttery long vowels. As I grew older–collapsing into my seventies, glimpsing ahead the cliffs of the eighties, colliding into eighty-five–poetry abandoned me.1
Hall’s prose in the book’s opening essay is lyrical, with the rich imagery and smooth cadences you’d expect from poetry. Make no mistake, however. Prose this good does not come easy. Prose this good takes time, patience, and the ability to listen with your reader’s ear and to experience with your reader’s heart.
Prose this good takes revision.
I am particularly taken with the following passage from Essays after Eighty because it so clearly expresses my own relationship with revision:
As I work over clauses and commas, I understand the rhythm and cadence have little connection to import, but they should carry the reader on a pleasurable journey. Sentences can be long, three or more complete clauses dancing together, or two clauses with one leaning on the other, or an added phrase of only a few syllables. Sentences and paragraphs are as various as human beings.2
My own relationship with revision has been hard-fought, beginning with a complete lack awareness of the need for it. The Muse spoke, I transcribed, and A Poem was born, an enchanting little thing, just waiting–and expecting–to be loved by all who gazed upon her.
I was equally blessed by The Muse of Fiction. She narrated, I transcribed, and A Story came into the world poised to amaze and delight.
Then I went to college and took my first fiction workshop. There were tears.
So I wrote story after story in an effort to meet the preordained number of bad stories every writer is destined to write before she creates anything publishable. The biggest obstacle I had to overcome was what I still refer to as “a failure of imagination,” the inability to envision a story as anything other than what it was when I first wrote it.
Many years later, I don’t even remember how or when the failure of imagination barrier to revision came down, but it did. Probably one brick at a time, as I slowly began to learn the ways and means of craft. (If you stack your scenes one atop the other with no mortar in between, your story ends up a pile of rubble the first time someone brushes against it.)
Today, revising my writing is one of life’s greatest pleasures. I can see when point of view doesn’t work, when plot wanders aimlessly, when character is caricature. Even better, I am now able to guide the story gently but firmly to where it wanted to go all along.
1Donald Hall, Essays after Eighty (Boston: Houghton, Milfflin, Harcourt, 2014), 12.
2Hall, Essays after, 14.