Melanie Bishop

Writing, Teaching, Editing, Retreats


Virginity and Potential

I should confess that I have never been a fan of revision. Yes, I preach to my students about its importance, but I am loath to embark on it myself. This resistance in me is pure laziness; I want what I write to be right the first time. I want writing to be easy. A creative writing professor in college once suggested I’d finally written a pretty decent short story, but he thought it needed a few more drafts. I told him I didn’t like to revise. I said, in defense of my stance: “I like first drafts; there’s a virginal quality to them.” I actually used that word virginal. I was that dumb. This professor, Alan Weisman, who is now a famous writer (The World Without Us and Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth) was kind enough not to guffaw. I think he smiled, and then told me when to have the next draft in his faculty mailbox.

A year later, a week before I would graduate from Prescott College, Weisman said in our final meeting: “Melanie, don’t sit back on your potential.” It was good advice. I knew I had potential; he thought so, too. I thought potential was enough; he knew otherwise. Many times in the 27 years since that conversation, I’ve had to remind myself of his closing words to me. Not revising an essay or story or memoir or novel is the equivalent of letting that piece of writing sit back on its potential. Quick way not to get published: market all your work in its virginal state.

In more recent years, my relationship to revision has changed. In some cases, I would much rather revise than go through the turmoil of generating new material–of inventing something new. Turning a blank page into one with something happening on it. Revision, once you have a solid first draft, can be so much easier than creating virgins. I now find it freeing to go back to a draft of a story or book and start playing the “what if?” game. Or to reconstruct sentences to be more precise, concise, rhythmic and poetic. A big part of revision is crossing shit out, and once you get into it, it can be fun, exing out entire paragraphs. But my resistance to revision still shows up, in the writing scenarios that are the hardest.

Case in point: a book-length memoir I wrote that was accepted by a small press, Outpost19, on the condition I would do some fairly major revisions. I should use caps: MAJOR REVISIONS.  The memoir is titled Some Glad Morning and chronicles the year of my father’s cancer and death, and my first year of grief. This memoir had gone from 400 manuscript pages to 300 pages to 260 pages, and had gone through a good five drafts before the press even saw it. The draft they are challenging me to do is one that will develop several new chapters, covering earlier stages in my father’s life. This suggestion of course makes sense: readers need to know the man in the memoir before he’s sick. Otherwise they have no reason to care that he’s dying. Why should anyone care? is the mantra I took away from graduate school, but apparently I forgot all about it during the seven years I was writing this memoir. I can’t even remember how many months it has been since Outpost 19 gave me their specific and very helpful notes for this fairly major revision—something like 20 months? During a residency at Playa, last August, I tried, really hard, for three weeks. While I did develop a couple new chapters that I like, the conclusion I came to was that the whole damn book needed a rather humongous overhaul. Maybe I needed to start with these new chapters I’d just written, and let the tone and voice of that new work dictate the book’s reincarnation. One thing I tell students about revision is to think of it as re-seeing. I tell them that sometimes revision means starting over and seeing the whole thing anew. They never like that advice; I watch their faces fall. Now, faced myself with the job of re-seeing the memoir, I’ve been stymied and mute for more than a year. So I can’t say I merrily embrace revision these days. It all depends on the scale of difficulty. When the going gets tough, honestly, my tendency is to flee.

But having been writing and publishing for over two decades now, I am proud to realize how many drafts I’ve tackled of any given piece. I wrote three drafts of one screenplay (Hurricane Season), and five drafts of another (The Makeover), and three of an adaptation (Antlers). I have written at least three and at most ten drafts of every story in my short story cycle, Home for Wayward Girls. Two novellas I wrote in the last three years (Eklepsi and Friday Night in America) each underwent multiple revisions, and one of them still appears on my laptop as FNIA, Ending One, and FNIA, Ending Two. At some point when it gets published, I hope to know which ending is right.

Most recently, I’ve written a young adult novel, My So-Called Ruined Life, due out in January from Torrey House Press. The revision trajectory with this book is kind of unusual. I wrote the book, revised a couple of times, and submitted some chapters to Milkweed Press. An editor there liked what he’d read and asked to see the rest of the book. Milkweed has a 200 page limit for the young adult genre, so I sliced and diced till I got my book down to 201 pages and sent it in. Several months later, the editor who had expressed interest was laid off and the person above him ended up, after many more months, saying no thanks. The next place I sent the manuscript was Torrey House Press and they accepted it, with the condition that I amp up the role of the environment in the protagonist’s life, to better address the press’ mission. I immediately knew what I would do, and figured it would mean adding one chapter after the climax of the book. I was eager to reenter the world of Tate McCoy without the 200 page restriction. That one chapter turned into four, and they are now my favorite chapters in the book. Such a happy revision tale!

Many months later, another editor there scheduled what was to be a 90 minute conference call with me and her assistant. 90 minutes stretched to over two hours, and the notes I took filled nine pages in my notebook. It is safe to say I freaked out. I had been under the mistaken impression that since my development of the nature chapters, my book was done. I was aghast to hear how much the editor still wanted me to do. We’d already sent the manuscript out to half a dozen authors for blurbs; how could it be that I would be expected to change it substantially at this juncture? As much as I loved this Tate McCoy girl I’d invented, I absolutely dreaded going back into revision mode. I liked the book. It had been worked over already. I was plotting Book Two of the Tate McCoy series, and couldn’t conceive of doing such substantive work on Book One. I put the revision notes from the marathon phone call away and spent the evening complaining to my husband. Why are they making me do this? I’d had several teenagers—kids of friends—read the book and they liked it. What was the point of changing it? Why fix what isn’t broken?

The next day I reread the notes and they no longer came across as so extreme. I saw patterns in the suggestions and was able to categorize and organize the notes so that the job looked a bit more manageable. I had a month-long retreat coming up, in a remote cabin in the Santa Cruz redwoods and I decided this set of revisions was doable in that time frame. In the end, it took only eight days—four days of the first week and four of the second—and I had a new draft that addressed the entirety of those nine pages of notes. There was only one suggestion I did not take, and the editor was fine with that. She said none of her suggestions were mandatory; she only wanted me to try them out. But the truth is, the book was again a much better book for those eight days I’d spent with her ideas.

Since this is my most recent experience with revision, I’m a fan of it right now. Revision has been good to me, has done exactly what it’s supposed to do—allowed me to re-see. I’m always going to be initially lazy about certain aspects of writing. I will always wish it was easier than it actually is. I will wish my first drafts, those lovely virgins, would be deemed brilliant. Flawless. Don’t change a single word! I’d be one of those writers who gets it exactly right the first time, one who lets things gestate just long enough in her head to have them come out on paper perfect. I do have one short story for which that was true. A story that pretty much wrote itself, and then needed only very minor tweaking before it soared through MFA workshop, got nominated for an award, went on to win that award, and then to help me win a year-long screenwriting fellowship. So I’m not saying it can’t happen—these pure and gorgeous virgins landing on the page. But it’s rare as all hell. Count on having to work your stories over. And over. And over. You are the pestering partner, always wanting more.