The impulse to revise

Things were a little intense at our house the last week or so, since I was reading proofs, and not just any old proofs, but those of my own upcoming novel (This Hidden Thing). Proofs mean the work that’s been sitting in computer files and doublespaced on 81/2 X 11 sheets of paper, has landed on designed pages for a book. Proofs mean it’s close to ready for press. Just this last chance to check things over. A wee bit of room for changes, but not much. Not much at all. The cover design is close to finished too. It’s all rather exciting and scary.

On the page in its as-good-as-permanent form, the work can look strange and unfamiliar. In spite of all the times one’s gone through the manuscript, one suddenly sees what there’s probably too much of and maybe too little of as well. I’m comforted, however, in reading the letters of Flannery O’Connor, to find that a writer as good as she was had experiences along the same line. In a letter Oct. 6, 1959 she wrote a friend:

The proofs [of The Violent Bear It Away] came… and seeing the thing in print very nearly made me sick. It all seemed awful to me. There seemed too much to correct to make correcting anything feasible. I did what I could or could stand to and sent them back…

Well, I’m not trying to scare anyone off my book by confessing and quoting that — I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t want readers, and I hope it’s not a surprise to hear that even at this stage of a book anxieties and vulnerabilities of all kinds manifest themselves. This is probably true for anyone who has to let go of what they’ve done, into the public. But O’Connor also said she thought the first and last sentence of the book were “mighty fine sentences” and that she had cheered herself “meditating on them.” After awhile I relaxed with the proofing process too and decided I would be okay with what was there — except for those changes I’ve pleaded the forbearance of my editor and the publishing team to make, of course! 

But there’s just something unfailing about the impulse to revise, and to revise again. I had to chuckle over the note Flannery O’Connor sent editor Catharine Carver:

I’ve rewritten the last pages so I’ll enclose them as I think they’re an improvement. When the grim reaper comes to get me, he’ll have to give me a few extra hours to revise my last words. No end to this.

I wouldn’t mind some warning from the Reaper too, for the same reason!

Oh, and this revision after the post went up (it’s the great thing about blogging): please forgive the shameless self-promotion!

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NOTE: The launch date of This Hidden Thing (CMU Press) has been set for May 19 at McNally’s in Winnipeg.

Short stories: to read, and to write

The latest issue of the Center for Mennonite Writing’s online journal is up: this one devoted to “new fiction.” Editor Ervin Beck says the issue is intended “to encourage the writing of fiction in the Mennonite community.” Periodicals favour poetry, he notes. “Fiction requires more space from the publisher and more patience and commitment from the readers.”

For your patience and commitment then, seven new stories or novel excerpts, including the story “Chopsticks” by yours truly, in which the first person narrator weaves a tale of piano lessons, a train ride, her brother, and her father.

One of the goals I set myself several years ago was to put together a collection of short stories, containing some previously published stories as well as new work. I have eight published pieces from which I might draw, and about half that many others more or less completed or in progress. The publication of such a collection is by no means a given, of course; it may take as many years to find a publisher, especially in these uncertain times, as to write the stories themselves!

But in the meanwhile, I need to get back on track with the project itself. I lost momentum when I returned to the MB Herald last year as interim editor, and have had trouble getting it back, though my desire to continue remains strong. There’s just something about this kind of writing — perhaps because it’s a relatively new genre for me — that provokes all manner of self-doubt, fear, and procrastination. Each time I sit down to it, it’s like jumping into water over my head and knowing I still can’t swim. What’s the right technique again, for legs and arms, for breathing? Help!

Well, enough confession. Flannery O’Connor said, “The only way, I think, to learn to write short stories is to write them, and then to try to discover what you have done. The time to think of technique is when you’ve actually got the story in front of you.” So I’ve gone and declared myself here, and I’ve got the prod of my writers’ group’s monthly meeting on Monday, for which I must have something ready to read. The file of the story-in-progress is open. I’m jumping in. Again.