Old habits die hard. When I was young, word counts determined a day’s success. If I hit my 500, 750, or 1,000 words then life was sweet, if not I was cranky and unsociable. At the very least, having a daily goal forced me to sit at my desk and work. Over the years I discovered the downside proved to be sloppy writing simply because I wanted to hit my target. I needed to learn the art of revision.
Though I never met him, the novelist John Gardner taught me much. The author of The Sunlight Dialogues, Nickel Mountain, and October Light—thankfully all now available at New Directions Books—had a work ethic that should be the envy of any artist. He preached not only daily writing but also daily rewriting. And rewriting. And rewriting. After all, an author wants to set a dream in the reader’s mind, and nothing pops that dream bubble faster than sloppy work. Gardner said, “The novelist pursues questions, and pursues them thoroughly.” The key word is thoroughly—thematically, emotionally, through gestures and imagery, and by reworking scene after scene after scene.
Naturally revision needs to be tempered with common sense. Paul Valery once professed that a poem is never finished, only abandoned. At some point it is time to move on. After all, what writer is ever completely satisfied with his work? However, I think the opposite tends to be more of an issue. A friend of mine who ran a literary journal once complained that so many poems she read were two or three drafts from fulfillment. The novelist Tom Williams told a bunch of young and hungry writers back in the 1980s that often his student’s work was initially better than his. A pause, a smile, a puff on his pipe—yes, professors smoked in class in those days—and then he added but none of them worked as hard as he did to improve it. Now I see that was why he was published and reviewed in the New York Times and few of his students ever joined him.
The Poet Donald Hall said, “Because I loved my work it was as if I did not work at all.” Interestingly, Hall likes rewriting better than creating the original because he enjoys the word play and tinkering. For most of us I believe it’s the opposite. We thrive when the creative spirit pulses through our mind, body and soul and the new suddenly springs to life. And I fully admit that’s me—when I first wrote The Wastelanders it took on a life of its own, surprising me at many turns. Yet when I finished the first draft I understood I had to go back and put some meat on its bones. Or come up with a decent metaphor. Or polish the dialogue. Or even cut the fat because I still get sloppy when meeting the day’s deadline. Old habits die hard, but thankfully Mr. Gardner, Mr. Williams and Mr. Hall remain close-by, whispering, “You’ve done the fun part, Tim, now let’s get to work.”