Monday, April 4, 2011

Story And Self: Challenges to Revision

Juliette Wade presents some interesting thoughts on self and story in the context of the revision process. She makes the point, and entitles her blog, "Revisions: Your Story Isn't You." So I've been thinking about different ways of looking at the relationship:

1. Your Story Is You. Many of us have had the experience of being so enmeshed in a story (or characters) that we just can't hear criticism of the words on the page as distinct from a personal attack. Sometimes it's because we see so much of ourselves in the characters. They are, after all, having the adventures we wish we could have, or they are the people we wish we were. So we develop a selective blindness about them as characters, often in terms of inconsistent motivation, their lack of significant shortcomings, or perhaps even the reverse, that their mistakes don't make sense (a la Italian opera plots).

There's a corollary for plot and story, in which our original idea is so precious to us that we twist and turn and distort and jam illogical things together to make everything come together "the way it has to happen." Sometimes, that story we're reaching for really is the right one; more often, we start with a flawed or superficial conception and develop it into something solid in the process of getting rid of whatever doesn't work. I'm talking about the sense of inviolability, of plot being "darling" in the sense of non-negotiable as an extension of ego/self.

2. Your Story Is Words On The Page. This is the conventional view advanced in writing workshops, critique groups, and panels on writing. It's immensely helpful in establishing distance between you--a person, a writer of many stories--and this specific piece of work. That makes it easier to hear feedback about what you actually wrote, not what you envisioned or thought you wrote. (As a side note, one of the reasons it's hard to copy-edit your own work is that we see what we intended, not necessarily what's on the page.) Sometimes, getting from story-as-self to story-as-words-on-page feels like a divorce, a death, a beloved child leaving home. Other times, it's a relief. Oh, I did a horrible job with the story I meant to tell, but there's an even better story buried under the drek. Which, I admit, is how almost all of my early stories worked.

3. Your Story Has A Life Of Its Own. I think we all run into this when a story "comes to life" and runs away with us, when the words just pour out, or when characters develop minds of their own and do unexpected things (that often don't fit with our preconceived notions of plot!) We joke about secondary characters threatening to take over the entire story, or demanding books of their own. Janni Lee Simner often posts delightful conversations with her characters.This view of story is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it's exhilarating to surf on the wave of unfolding story, one of the best highs there is. All kinds of wonderful things result. Sometimes, we like those pushy, opinionated secondary characters better than the tepid heroes. Then there's nothing to do but tear the story apart and put it together with the right focus.

On the other hand, if we look at the story as a sort of Platonic Ideal Form, existing as an integral whole outside of us, it can be much harder to do substantial changes. It's easy to glamorize the struggles of an artist, and actually, it's a form of boasting to agonize publicly about the vividness of our creations and the recalcitrance (realness) of our characters. I know I'm going to get people upset with me, but I think when we say, "I can't make my character do what I want her to," it's admitting to lazy writing. A poorly-executed, inconsistent, un-thought-out character is going to feel as if she's talking back or "has a mind of his own." Then, instead of doing the hard work of developing a deep, complex character in relationship with other multi-dimensional, idiosyncratic characters, we just throw up our hands. After all, if the characters truly do exist independently of us, we stand as much chance of changing them as we might trying to get an alcoholic to stop drinking. That way lies madness.


  1. Good thoughts, Deborah! I hope I didn't come across as advocating that the story as written is in the Platonic ideal form... at least that wasn't my intention. I really don't think we ever hit that form (just as we don't meet Platonic ideal anything in the real world!).

  2. No, that was what popped into my mind when you wrote about a story having an existence outside of ourselves. I've heard writers who are stuck somewhere in the my-story-is-perfect resistance to feedback mode (usually beginners in terms of quality, although they have often been writing for a long time) talk about their work almost as separate entities, of which not a jot nor a tittle may be altered. Sigh