Friday, May 13, 2016

Rebuking the Wise Man

Do not reprove the scorner, the writer of Proverbs warns, “lest he hate thee.” Rather, “rebuke a wise man, and he will love thee.”

“Give instruction to a wise man,” Proverbs Chapter 9 continues, “and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning.”

As you revise your own writing and as you accept revision and criticism from others, be the wise man and be wiser. Be the just man, and increase in learning.

It’s natural for any writer to defend what he or she has written. A lot of time, a lot of labor, and a lot of love go into the stories we create. But we do ourselves, our stories, and our readers a great disservice if we don’t revise, or if we stop revising too soon.

In April 2016, author Obert Skye delivered a talk at TEDx Idaho Falls in which he calls revision “frustratingly magical.”

He imagined as a child sitting down in a warm field to write, and writing a wonderful story on the first try. That, of course, never happened. Instead, he discovered the best stories came to him through revision. "Good ideas can get lost or become hidden or never discovered,” he says, “if they are buried under the laziness and misconception of a job well done."

A scorner might say that revision piled upon revision shows a story not worthy of being told in the first place. In some cases they might be right. But to the keen writer, who realizes imagination ought to play second fiddle to the inspiration that comes through revision, wisdom comes.

Skye continues: “Revision is understanding. It is long-suffering. It is inquisitive, it solves things. It is the detective of writing.”

The scorner compares what is written to a human baby: Precious, darling, worthy of protection at all costs.

But truth be told there are some ugly, ugly babies out there.

A friend of the family has a way around saying a person’s baby is ugly. Presented with a homely child, she simply says, “Oh, what beautiful hair.” And the hair can indeed be beautiful, even if the baby it’s attached to is not.

Nathan Shumate, author of the web comic Cheap Caffiene, says recognizing that ugliness is essential for artists and writers.

“Even with my literal babies,” he says, “whose birth I attended in all four instances, I did not think they were beautiful because I loved them. I loved them, yes, but I also acknowledged that they looked like all newborns do: like red, wrinkly turds.”
Maybe this all sounds cruel. But as with the Ugly Duckling, the ugly baby with the beautiful hair, the red, wrinkly turds outgrow their homeliness and become more beautiful as time goes on.

This is what the wise man knows, when it comes time to revise. The wise man looks at what he has written and sees at once the beautiful hair and the wrinkly turdiness of what lies before him.

The wise man knows at revision, the ugliness, the turdiness is replaced – slowly at times – with the stately white feathers of the swan that was once, in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, called a turkey egg, incapable of swimming.

And when he or she considers the job well done, it can be time once again to set that wrinkly turd aside for a while and then look at it with fresh eyes to see again if the hair is more beautiful than the babe who bears it.

The wise man knows, and listens to the hen, even through their own duckling scorn:

"You don't understand me," said the duckling.

"Well, if we don't, who would? [says the hen] Surely you don't think you are cleverer than the cat and the old woman-to say nothing of myself. Don't be so conceited, child. Just thank your Maker for all the kindness we have shown you. Didn't you get into this snug room, and fall in with people who can tell you what's what? But you are such a numbskull that it's no pleasure to have you around. Believe me, I tell you this for your own good. I say unpleasant truths, but that's the only way you can know who are your friends. Be sure now that you lay some eggs. See to it that you learn to purr or to make sparks."

The hen offers a tough love, to be sure – and the duckling tires of it. But when you are a writer, when you are a wise writer who truly revises, it pays to have those friends who will tell you those unpleasant truths. If you’re on the first draft, the third or fourth revision, and are surrounded by people who say you are doing well, expand your circle of friends. Find a few who will honestly tell you that what you’ve created needs more work.

Because it does.

And that’s okay.

As I write Doleful Creatures, I recognize the story’s beauty has evolved. It was an ugly duckling after the first draft. After the tenth draft – though it had grown a bit and started to lose its turdiness and grow into its beautiful hair by then. Now on revision fourteen, I begin to see – begin, note – that had I settled for a job well done (and self-publishing, electronic publishing, lets a job well done be nearly instantly awarded) when if I worked harder, many ideas hidden and undiscovered would come to light. And what a glorious light it is.

Poet Gregory Orr writes of “process[ing] experience” as he writes. “I take what’s inside me – the raw, chaotic material of feeling or memory – and translate it into words and then shape those words into the rhythmical language we call a poem. This process brings me a kind of wild joy. Before I was powerless and passive in the face of my confusion; but now I am active: the powerful shaper of my experience.”

Note the words translate and shape. That is what revision is. Drafting or writing is taking memory or imagination and pressing it through a Play-Doh Fun Factory. Revision is taking the resulting mess and making something of it. Revision allows our brains to look at what exists and see what can be added to make it better – revision triggers our brains into thinking of everything, not just what’s idling on the surface.

And maybe revision means killing that initial vision. Or that beloved character. Or that tone. Or that narration style, Or that scene.

Revision makes us wiser. And yes, sometimes sadder.

But Meredith Wilson has an anthem for revision:

I flinch, I shy, when the lass with the delicate air goes by
I smile, I grin, when the gal with a touch of sin walks in
I hope, I pray, for Hester to win just one more A
The sadder but wiser girl for me!

Rebuke a wise man, and he will love thee.

Be that wise man. Revise.

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