Rewriting the Draft (four years later?!?)

I spent a good part of the weekend revising an essay that will be published this spring. I first started writing it 4 years ago. I wasn't really sure what I was writing about back then, but I knew that I'd had a relationship with a woman that had changed my life and I wanted to tell that story.

The first draft was emotional and rambling. I shared it with friends who were writers and avid readers. One friend sent lots of notes and really good suggestions. She kept saying that she was moved by it. That was enough encouragement for me to feel like I had something to further develop.

I let the draft sit for a few months before I picked it up again.

I'm always amazed at how clearly I see my writing after I let it rest for a while. When I return to a piece after a hiatus, I can tell right away what's working and what isn't. That is never true for me when I spend days in a row revising and editing. For me, working too long and hard on the same piece obscures my vision. I've ruined good drafts that way.

When I read the essay again, I liked a lot of it, but the introduction wasn't working and the themes were not fully developed. I took another stab at it. When I finished that draft, I sent it out to literary journals who accept nonfiction. No one was interested. When I read the draft again, after it had been rejected, I decided that it really wasn't the type of essay that a literary journal would publish. The tone was not literary and the subject matter was popular. It was also an essay that would be of special interest to women, especially mothers.

I sent a pitch to an online magazine. The editor seemed interested and asked that I forward it. I sent the essay to her and waited. Nothing happened. I read through the essays that this site published and realized that my piece, although too commercial for the lit journals, was probably too serious for this site. The essayists writing for this site were young, hip, and kind of snarky. I could never write the way that they did.

Then I purposely forgot about the essay. This is the hardest thing for me to do. I feel as much pressure as the next writer to publish and publish often, but taking a pause is a crucial part of my process. I've found that when I just live my life, I'm inevitably observing the world and thinking deeply about issues, even when I'm just walking the dog. When I just live my life, something I hear or see will "click" and remind me that "This is what you were trying to write about in that essay." Then I'll feel a new sense of urgency to return to the draft and sharpen its focus.

I've learned that my first drafts are usually about releasing the emotion I feel about an issue. The intellectual piece does not come until later for me, and it doesn't come at all if I try to force it. I have to do ordinary things like work and deal with relatives. When I interact with other people, I see situations that are extraordinary and that are the stuff of literature. That's when I understand the theme that wants to emerge in my work.

So the intellectual piece for this essay eventually revealed itself and I understood that I was writing about ideology--when to trust it and when to let it go. I revised some more and then sent it to two places, a publication where the readers are mostly educated women and mothers, and as an unsolicited email to an editor at a bigwig monthly magazine. The bigwig editor never answered, but the women's magazine was interested.

The editors thought that I had two distinct narratives going on and wanted me to get rid of one of them. This was a revelation for me. I thought I had one major plot line and a sub-plot that helped clarify the main story. But once I read the essay again, they were absolutely right.

They also told me I needed more scenes and so I added that.

Once I'd made those revisions, they accepted the submission. Then came the first round of edits, the ones I spent this weekend incorporating into the latest revision. There are two editors and their comments are in two different-colored fonts. They made suggestions about the title, the opening, the closing, whether or not to name my children in the essay, they asked for more background information and, once again, told me that I needed more scenes.

To say that I'm grateful for their help is an understatement. I feel so lucky to have the chance to learn from them. I always tell my students that they need a community of writers to give them feedback, but I also know that good editors, the kind that get what you're trying to say and that push you to write your best, are rare. So I've spent several days trying to live up to their expectations.

I've also learned two things about my relationship to creative nonfiction. The first thing is that I'm avoiding scenes in my essays because I believe that my memory is unreliable. I think, How can I write dialogue that's not 100% accurate? This isn't completely true. I really need to get over that.

The second thing is that I fret over how much of my family's personal life I should share in my writing. I will use pseudonyms for my children in this essay, to protect them, even though the essay really isn't about them at all. Still, I feel like I'm straddling a tricky line by even mentioning them in my work. I'm now thinking about whether I'll ever include my kids in writing which I publish in the future.

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