As one of my friends mentioned recently, writing is indeed a lonely profession. However, it is essential to define what we mean by writing, for that one word covers so many different things from shopping and laundry lists to twitter, tweets, e-mails, and blogs to journals, poetry, prose poems, flash fiction, short stories, novels, to skits, plays, ads, film scripts etc etc … clearly the one word WRITING covers a vast area of understanding and its associations vary in each of these forms. While some of parts of the creative process used in writing is lonely work, some parts are clearly social, hence social media, and demand a different thought process, and a different response and a set of different needs for a response. A writer, for example, does not (and should not) expect instant gratification from the preliminary version of a laundry list, a sonnet, or a short story, whereas one might expect (and hope for) a quick response from an e-mail sent to a friend in a sequence of e-mail exchanges.
In the same way that writing has so many different connotations, so does the act of revising. Some acts of writing need revision, others don’t. Social media is fraught with danger because it is all too often instant thought written down and fired off, sometimes in the heat of the moment. With no live facial expression to guide and no tonal variations to shape the recipient’s response, there is much room for misunderstanding as writer and reader may well (and often do) attach different meanings to what appear, on the surface, to be the same words.
“Shooting from the lip”– this neat phrase illuminates the perils of the politician on the high wire of the televised interview. There have been many such instant responses, words shot out on the spur of the moment, instantly regretted, and endlessly debated, described, retracted, revised, doctored and spin, span, spun. Fortunately for most writers, their words are rarely exposed to the publicity spotlight that picks out each possible meaning and rarely is the everyday writer banished to the fiery flame.
My motto, for many years, rather than shooting from the lip, has been “think before you ink.” This means thinking out the possible ramifications of any combinations of words before putting them down on paper. Once the words are written, “think before you ink” takes on the meaning of a review and a double think before clicking the send button and allowing the selected combination to wing its way towards the intended and unsuspecting reader. Long ago, Horace (65 – 8 BCE) wrote that nescit vox missa reverti / a word once spoken can never be recalled. We ignore his warning at our peril: for his words still hold true. For me, the necessity of thinking about that word, before it is spoken, before it is written, before it is sent, is paramount.
This brings me to my central idea: if we are serious, deep-thinking, creative writers, rather than instant action, social media, quick response specialists, then thought and revision are necessary parts of our writing skills. Unfortunately, revision also presents the writer with another set of problems. T. S. Eliot has expressed the problem of choosing the right word in the right place better than anyone. He writes
crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
will not stay still.
And that is only one among many of the writer’s problems: which word to choose and what exactly is the right word in the right place. The examination and re-examination of the words we use is an exercise in itself. If we write rhyming poetry do we stick with the easy rhyme, the first one that comes into our head? Do we shuffle and cut the rhyme scheme, change the order of the sentences, search and re-search for le mot juste, the one that adds meaning and rhythm as well as rhyme? I would like to think that we do, but I know that all too often we take the easy way out. I know I do. And the words themselves are like shifting sands, drifting, moving around, changing their potentialites, not standing still.
And what if we decide to revise? Are we, as revisers, the same poets who penned the initial thought? In other words, do we feel the same way now as we did when we initially put pen to paper? By extension, what do we gain when we revise and what do we lose? I would answer those questions first by referring back to Heraclitus who, according to Plutarch, wrote that it is not possible to step into the same river twice, nor can one come into contact twice with the same person for people and states of mind may well change between meeting and meeting, and people are rarely ever quite the same. For Heraclitus, as the waters flow, so the river changes, and it is never the same river, even though you think it is. For T. S. Eliot, on the other hand,
… every attempt
is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
because one has only learned to get the better of words
for the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
one is no longer disposed to say it.
Clearly, then, revision is fraught with peril and this is why some people prefer to preserve their thoughts in the original state of inspiration and never revise them. To revise or not to revise: the choice is yours. In my case, revision is always a part of the writing process. In that sense, I think of myself not just as a writer, but also as a re-writer. In that second guise, I revisit my work regularly, re-reading, re-thinking, and, where I deem it necessary, re-writing as well.