Imagination doesn't just mean making things up. It means thinking things through, solving [problems] or hoping to do so, and being just distant enough to be able to laugh at things that are normally painful. [Some people] would call this escapism, but they would be be entirely wrong. I would call fantasy the most serious, and the most useful branch of writing there is.
--Diana Wynne Jones

Monday, May 2, 2016

Revising My Tongue

You know those times when somebody asks you a question and everything depends on a decent answer, and somehow what comes out of your mouth is the opposite of what you meant to say? And as soon as you say it, it's out--you can't take it back--so you have to talk around the idiotic thing you said so it sounds like something different from what you actually said--opposite, hopefully, but what you really need is to have un-said it. To stuff it back in your mouth where it came from. Along with your foot. Because it certainly didn't come from your brain.


This happened to me a few weeks ago. It was a job interview for a teaching position and the question was one of the easiest questions they could have asked a novelist: "What is your personal revision process?"

I spend my life writing and then revising what I write. And also suggesting ways for other people to revise. I know my process. This should have been my dream question, the one that sealed my chances for a job teaching beginning university writing as a first-year grad student. Right? Besides, I'd heard rumors the school is desperate for as many graduate instructors as possible so the real professors don't have to teach the dreaded beginning writing classes. The interview may have been a formality. Nothing to be nervous about.

But the University Writing Committee was sitting there looking at me, and I was nervous, so what rolled off my tongue and out of my mouth right into the air, where it hovered (cloud-like, menacing) was some peculiar and utterly nonsensical babble about Strunk and White and perfect grammar, punctuation, and making sure you have a clean manuscript.

Perfect grammar? What? I don't think I was the one who said that. Was I?

The committee looked at me with identical wrong-answer blank looks on their faces. Which made me forget the original question, so I tried to fix it by talking about how to help students rearrange their ideas into something coherent...or something.

It didn't work. And I never actually answered the question.

Speaking is not writing. What I needed was an overhaul revision of my misbehaving tongue, which thought it had a brain and didn't.

Another pair of eyes, my real brain meant to say. An outside critique, since I'm blind to my own worst errors. Big to small, I should have said. Start with the big, the book as a whole: are the characters strong, and how do they change, does the plot structure work, does everything build to a climax? Then what about sub-plots, each chapter's arc? Have I followed through with all threads and themes, kept my dialogue and voice consistent throughout, made my world rich and deep, my descriptions in line with the mood of each scene? Book, chapter, scene, then the small stuff: each sentence, line and word; does everything flow?...And then, ok, yes, punctuation and grammar, typos.

Last.

Somehow I got the job anyway (I wouldn't have given it to me), so it didn't matter, but I've been obsessing ever since about the answer I should have given--the one actually inside my brain and not just in my mouth--and if I hadn't had two papers to write and a final to study for, I would have run straight to my laptop and pounded out a blog post on the spot: all about my personal revision process.

Ah, well. Good thing I'm a writer and most of the time, when the words come out wrong, or stupid, or really, really crappy, I can revise, over and over and over again, sometimes for months. Sometimes a year. A really big overhaul--like when I decide to completely rewrite a hairy, beastly novel--maybe even a couple years or more. The key to no writer's block, ever, is permission to write that first crappy, wrong-headed first draft. And then revise until it's perfect. Or at least no longer embarrassing.

Too bad there's no delete button for words off the tongue. All you can do is mutter, "Er, what I meant to say is...." and move on. Either way, it's a sort of revision. And if you're ever going to have a decent relationship with anyone, ever, you've got to learn to do it: "Sorry, I shouldn't have said that...," "I didn't mean..." "Let me tell you how I really feel..." "I was a beast. Let's start over, ok?"

Mouth-revision is a good thing. And forgiveness when you try again? That's even better. Thankfully, the University Writing Committee thought so...

Or else they were desperate...

2 comments:

  1. Oh man, I am with you. My tongue has major problems, especially when I'm nervous. But I'm so excited that you got the job! I want to take your class now :)

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  2. Oh, the horror. I hate moments like this. I am glad they hired you anyway. You will be amazing!

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