"Revision is when you finally get to recognize the distance between what you wanted to write, what you thought you were writting, and what you actually did write. That recognition often makes you want to throw up."
~~Carolyn See, Making a Literary Life
One night when I was ten, I had a particularly vivid dream about a talking horse. I no longer remember anything the horse had to say, which is a shame, because I almost remember that there was a vaguely philosophical bent to his rambling--perhaps he bestowed upon me priceless wisdom that I am poorer for having forgotten. I do, however, remember with certainty waking up the next morning with a clear mental image of this horse, with his glossy coat and flowing mane and tail.
So clear was this image that I felt certain that even I could draw it. Please believe me when I say that I approached the page with a deep confidence wholly unjustified by any of my previous artistic productions. Here is what I drew:
|*This sketch has been darkened by tracing the original lines with pencil so they would show up for this photo. Apparently, pencil starts to fade after a couple of decades; I should probably be grateful.|
You will perhaps note that this glorious specimen of horseflesh is hiding his head in shame.The shame, rest assured, was all mine. By the time I had gotten to his head, I was so demoralized, I made his neck longer so I wouldn't have room for my horrendous approximation of his head.
It's surprising to me that this page was not torn out of its notebook in a fit of frustrated humiliation, but I am glad that it wasn't because now I have preserved forever(-ish)* evidence of my first memory of that particular variety of artistic frustration.
I have long since given up on the visual arts--though I occasionally dabble and doodle, my expectations are so low that I'm never devastated by inferior results. Writing, of course, is a whole other story. You know that feeling that you get when you know what you want to say, but there is some weird glitch between your brain and your pen or keyboard so that what comes out is as similar to what you meant to say as a ladybug is to a giraffe? Yeah, that.
In my guest post over at Periphery today, I talked about the sick feeling we get in the pits of our stomachs when we compare our work to the work of others and find it wanting. The only thing that compares to that feeling--and maybe even surpasses it, for me--is comparing my own work to the picture of it I had in my head.
"A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people." I've had that Thomas Mann quote etched in my brain for so long, I can no longer even remember when or where I first heard it. But, as someone who makes multiple drafts of practically everything I put to paper--friendly letters, school excuses, notices to delinquent customers, incident reports, everything--I understand exactly what he meant.
I am a perpetual tinkerer, trying to get incrementally closer to what I meant to say, and I will mess around with stuff I've written almost indefinitely unless I have a deadline. Daily blogging has been great for me in that way because it's meant a daily deadline (albeit a self-imposed one). I have to admit to having quite a long way to go, though--and on those nights when you see a Random Quote (or, say, a picture of a roll of toilet paper on my bathroom sink) posted it is likely that there is a three-quarters-of-the-way written post in my drafts folder that has stymied me.
One of the things I am learning, however gradually, is that when I can't get a thought or an image to come out just-so, it's quite possible that it's not time yet and no amount of tinkering, or thinking at it is going to get it ready any faster. The only thing that helps (when I can force myself to do it), is to set it down and come back later--maybe every day for a week, maybe not at all for six months.
One of the other things that I am learning, also painfully gradually, is that the utter delight in getting it right can carry me through a whole lot of getting it wrong. There's another Carolyn See quote that I adore--and it's taken from the same book as that semi-despairing quote above: "I have to say--self-absorbed or not--that there are sentences of my own I love so much I quote them to myself...Maybe the world wasn't waiting in radiance for me to write those sentences, but maybe I was."
Sometimes, I know just what she means. And it makes all the difference.