by Cheryl Wilder, with Suzanne Farrell Smith
ed. Claire Guyton
Cheryl Wilder would like another helping, please. And maybe just one more?
While studying poetry as an undergraduate in UNC Wilmington’s Creative Writing program, I became obsessed with line breaks. For me, the magic of poetry resided in a well-rendered line break. I marveled at how the decision to move a word from one line to the next created suspense and anticipation in the poem. And if I tried hard enough, I could create double meaning in the poem by choosing which words stood together on each line—a story within a story. I was in love. This poetic tool influenced every decision I made during revision. For two years, nothing mattered more than the line and the line break that made it possible.
The problem? My obsession drove me to revise even a “finished” poem. I wanted the line breaks to be more poignant and the images to be richer with double meaning. I sat for hours making a single line break decision, only to change it back, or change it in a different way. When I finally stopped, the poem sat chopped-up on the page, barely breathing. Perfectionism had overpowered both me and my poem. I was a revision-Glutton.
Over-indulgence in revision brings up the age-old question for writers and artists alike: is a piece ever truly finished? During a Sarah Lawrence Summer Writers Seminar, poet Laure-Anne Bosselaar told our class a story when this question came up, as it often does. She was honored with being one of a few readers that “opened up” for poet Galway Kinnell. As the readings of the night proceeded, Bosselaar watched Kinnell penciling edits to his Pulitzer prize-winning book in preparation for his reading. If the Pulitzer does not persuade an artist that his work is finished, than what in the world could?
When Suzanne and I asked a handful of writer friends about Gluttony in their writing life, Jason Mott said this about revision: “No piece is ever finished. That’s just a rule of art in all forms.” But the endless tinkering can come at a price. “For me though, gluttony always makes me suffer. In my world, a project is done when I’ve read, reread, and edited it until I’m utterly and completely disgusted with it. That’s the ‘walk away’ point. Or, rather it’s the ‘walk away or I’m torching my computer’ point.”
Risa Nye knows what it feels like to labor over a much-revised piece. “I have one particular piece in mind here.” I marvel at her: Only one? “I have revisited and made a number of changes to it. Sent it out, got rejections. Gave it a long rest. It’s out in the world right now, and I’m determined to get that sucker published somewhere. Wanna read it?”
Over-indulgence in revision is just one form of writing-Gluttony, but it happens to be the only kind I currently suffer. One of the most resonant lessons I am learning while writing this essay series—working with co-author Suzanne, reading the comments of our surveyed writers, and hashing through revisions with our editor, Claire Guyton—is that the deadly sins play out in the writing life in a stunning variety of ways. Maybe one of the reasons we formally discuss the writing life so much less—as opposed to the time and space we devote to solving the mysteries of craft and publication—is precisely due to its individual nature; its utter subjectivity. At best we can only learn how others traverse their writing process, but inevitably we have to make the writing work in our own lives, addressing our own nuanced, sinful transgressions.
As we’ve discussed elsewhere in this series (most notably in Sloth and Lust), writing includes other tasks besides putting words on the page. One of these is research, which brings the Gluttony out in Jennifer Lunden. “I am an information addict. There. I said it.” And what’s wrong with that? “Well, here is the problem,” she continues. “I love information. And when I am doing research for an essay, or for my book-in-progress, one curiosity leads to another, and another, and another, and pretty soon I’m a long way down the rabbit hole… [which] makes for a very slow writer.”
Jason Mott suffers a form of Gluttony that I Envy: adding words. “I tend to overindulge in description. Settings, scenes, characters. I can go on for pages just describing everything about them if I don’t edit myself.” How I wish I could silence my internal editor, who commands a halt to any impulse to Gluttonous writing, then calls for the Gluttonous revision to begin.
Adam Arvidson’s Gluttony should be the Envy of any writer. “My writing process was once described by Kurt Caswell (a VCFA advisor and environmental essayist) as ‘binge writing.’ I tend to do all my research up front, then sit down and write in one big fell swoop. It’s not unusual for me to crank out a 3000 word essay or article in about 2 hours. That’s gluttony at its best, and because of it (and the exhaustion I feel after gorging myself at the keyboard), I would love to just put a bow on my writing and walk away.”
I’m inspired by Arvidson’s Gluttonous writing, even by the exhaustion he feels afterwards, which I see as the natural coda to a satisfying hard day’s work. I’m determined to experience that feeling. But Arvidson and I are natural opposites. Whereas I’m editing before words even appear on the page, his binge writing leaves him with no energy nor desire for revision at all. Never looking back is as fatal to a piece as over-revising. We need to find a balance between the two extremes. So far the best method I have found for tempering my revision-Gluttony is to tilt my laptop screen toward my fingers on an angle that hides the words appearing across the page, taunting me to revise them. Arvidson’s balance comes from a methodical approach to revision that preserves his early, impulse-driven material.
“When I attended workshops with Barry Lopez at VCFA,” says Arvidson, “he spoke of the ‘genius of the first draft.’ Lopez feels that there is some magic in those first words and that any revision (even for flow and grammar) should be considered carefully.” So Arvidson created a revision process that honored the first draft. “[O]ne must revise, to some degree, so I do. Taking Lopez’s advice, though, I save a new copy of my file and run some revisions. Later, the next day, say, or sometimes after even months, I save a new copy and run the revisions again. So I end up with files called ‘Essay’ and ‘Essay2’ and ‘Essay3.’ At some point, either when it feels near finished or when I feel it has lost something, I go back to earlier versions and read those again. It’s not unusual for bits of the original feast to come back in.”
There is always one slice of pie that is cut larger than the rest, one that makes us feel queasy as we loosen our belt and scrape the last pieces off the plate toward our mouths—a deeper, darker over-indulgence, and I’m not talking about Hemingway’s drinking, Burroughs’ heroin, Byron’s sex, Dostoevsky’s gambling, Rand’s amphetamines, or Dickens’ “repulsed attraction” to the morgue. I’m talking about the over-consumption of advice from other writers, something Rich Farrell knows a lot about:
I consumed craft books by the dozens. I read whatever more successful writers read. I followed superstitions and practices. (Write before breakfast! Write to music! Write in nature!) I gobbled up aphorisms and advice and stuffed myself with wisdom: You attend, said Annie Dillard, and I did. I searched earnestly for Robert Olen Butler’s white hot center and I wrote moral fiction as John Gardner preached. I practiced a sort of ascetic discipline that involved forced hours of bad writing. All of this became a desperate prayer, a cry for help that had less to do with the words on the page and more to do with my unfulfilled sense of self.
I, too, have hungered for the knowledge and experience and words of successful writers. I hasten to admit it looks nothing as seductive as Farrell’s search for the “white hot center.”
When I decided to pursue writing as a high school student, the first lesson I took in was to find my own voice. I considered this advice to be absolute and I didn’t Gluttonously work to capture Sexton’s emotional anguish or Poe’s attention to internal rhyme. Instead I bounced from William Blake to James Joyce without any real direction. Back then I was a Glutton for words and I did write pages and pages of awful material (which may be why I grew to over-compensate with my revision), but I did so because I selfishly wanted to discover something within myself. The advice that struck a chord with me was not bad advice—a writer has to find her voice—it was incomplete advice.
When I returned to college in my late twenties as a single mother of a three-year-old, I had no time for indulgence in craft books or hours of producing pages (good or bad). Instead, I indulged in the wondrous Gluttony of education. In Spring 2005 I began my last year at UNC Wilmington. It was finally time to gorge on poetry—I had just been introduced to Symborska, Pastan, and Hoagland.
That semester, poet A. Van Jordan was a visiting writer for our Writers Week and I was one of a lucky few students scheduled to receive a one-on-one critique from him. I also planned to attend the Sandhills Writers Series that April, where poet Thomas Lux would provide a one-on-one critique as well. After years of revising many of my poems to the point of waste, I was determined to figure out how not to over-indulge in revision-Gluttony. In part, this meant I needed to trust myself—my decisions—during revision. And learning how to do that meant learning how to trust myself as a writer over writers whose work I admired and respected.
Workshop is a valuable tool for writers, but as a new serious writer, finding confidence in my revision process was not easy in the wake of advice from an admired writer. In those early years of undergraduate school, I was Gluttonous for any successful writer’s feedback, and took it in voraciously—because they knew better than I did. They had books to prove it. But if you’ve ever been in more than one workshop, or you have had two writers leading one workshop, you quickly learn the varying opinions on how to revise one single poem. It was enough to make this beginning writer crazy.
Determined to trust my revision choices, therefore freeing myself from over-indulgence in revision, I gave Lux and Van Jordan exactly the same poems. Once I gathered the revision suggestions together, I read them over and over, absorbing their differences. Fireworks shot off in my private writing life. I was elated at their conflicting opinions; it validated that I could make a divergent choice too. It was one of those moments when I felt my brain grow.
Learning how to stop putting too much emphasis on what another poet said about my work was an important step in actualizing myself as a writer. Before then, it seemed as if I was only playing writer, not being one. And as I had suspected, freeing myself from writer-advice-Gluttony in turn helped me address my revision-Gluttony.
Mott empathizes with feedback overload and has found a way to avoid it: “Getting lots of feedback from lots of people is mostly useless and serves only to cause confusion. I’ve been lucky enough to find a core group of about three really strong readers who I’m able to send my work to for feedback. I definitely listen to what they have to say.” And Farrell has addressed his writing-advice-Gluttony by leaving half his slice of pie on the plate. “I had feasted on my own need for validation. The belly-ache from such on over-indulgent binge came in the form of a year’s worth of rejection letters. But then a strange thing happened. As the initial sting wore off from the impersonal rejections, I began to feel a sort of relief, a slow, somewhat painful but liberating realization that my gluttonous ambition had been misguided.”
When I look back at the poems that took the brunt of my indulgent revisions, I see the initial beauty of the words that I loved so much. I’ve even pulled a few from the dredges to bring back to life. And over these last weeks, as Claire and I tinker over every last word in an essay late into the night before she publishes it, I realize that my history of Gluttonous revision is not wasted. I’m not afraid to cut my favorite sentence if it doesn’t work for a piece. I don’t feel guilty for staring at a word for ten minutes in hope of finding a more descriptive one. And I’m comfortable taking constructive criticism. Though writers approach Gluttony in their writing life differently, what we’re really saying is, “I’m not going to stop until I get this right.”
The truth is, Gluttony may be the most productive sin for writers. “To me,” says Lunden about her over-indulgence in research, “That rabbit hole leads to a fascinating warren of interwoven facts and stories, and that makes for a good essay.” Revision-Gluttony, writing-advice-Gluttony, writing too many pages of description, researching ourselves into that rabbit hole—all of these variations of Gluttony mean one thing: the writer is engaged in the writing life. Those chopped-up, barely breathing drafts of yesterday are stepping stones to the completed manuscripts of today.
The writer friends quoted here…
The questions we asked…
How does a writer learn when to walk away from a piece and not over-indulge in revision? How do you know when a piece is finished?
What do you do with those pieces that have been suffocated by your over-revision? Do you revisit? Try to revive them?
How about the over-indulgence in an admired writer’s feedback? How does their critique influence your revision?
Is there something else that you over-indulge in when it comes to writing?
Is this more of a sin for beginning writers?
Abstract painting with thick brush strokes of red, blue, orange, white, green mixing together by Steve Johnson via Pexels.
Previously published at Hunger Mountain.