I’m reviewing textbooks in order to choose one for a writing class I’m teaching this fall, and I stumbled across a wonderful example, in fact, stellar, of the power of revision. Janet Burroway’s textbook, Imaginative Writing, The Elements of Craft, has a copy of of Elizabeth Bishop’s first draft of “One Art.” Upon seeing it, I was floored. Not only was it a thrill to see this draft of a great poet’s work, it was terribly enlightening. Why? Because Bishop’s first draft is terrible when compared to her final work, which is arguably one of the best villanelles ever written. If you are not familiar with “One Art,” read it. It’s a must regardless of your writing genre.
Bishop’s early draft of “One Art” reads like a conversation – as if Bishop has written down an argument she would potentially put forth on the value of “mislaying” or losing things. There is absolutely no sign of a closed form (such as the villanelle) in this early draft – it is simply four stanzas of varying line lengths. To read it and to be familiar with the final version is a good study for any writer on the massive power of revision.
One of the mistakes I made very early in my writing career was to rarely go beyond the first draft. Since writing saved my sanity, I was all too eager to get it from paper to screen in that unnecessary belief that I must immediately publish my poems. The problem was that when I typed the poem onto the screen, it looked way too “finished.” Therefore, I was scared to revise – it was as if the poem were set in stone and should not be altered. Years later, as I began to carry around my journal and write and rewrite my poems, I realized that the best work was, by far, the poems that I wrote by hand more than once.
So I encourage you in this new year to examine your own writing process. Do you write longhand? If not, try it. If you are a prose writer and that’s just too much, then try playing some music while you write to capture the mood or tone you wish to portray in your writing. I have two writing friends who each have processes that I find interesting. One poet friend of mine writes standing up, and another fiction writer I know is an expert yogi and goes straight from her mat to her writing desk, her creative juices flowing. So give it a shot yourself. Alter something about where or how you write and reflect on the work – you may be pleasantly surprised!