On Revision

I’ve lately been chewing on “revision.” Two weeks ago in my freshman composition class, I initiated a discussion of students’ writing processes, also bringing up that very word. Two weeks ago in my creative writing class, we read and discussed Anne Lamott’s classic essay, “Shitty First Drafts.” Some of my students discovered a revolutionary approach to writing.

In that beautiful piece, Lamott argues that writers would do well do write first drafts in which they do not restrain themselves. Writers must allow themselves to pursue whichever directions, unconcerned about the end result. She urges writers to imagine their critics as mice and place them in a jar so that they will not distract writers in that important stage of completing a first draft.

A while back I touched on some ideas related to the writing process (in a post on my university’s faculty blog), but I am returning to revision. My creative writing students have asked (and will keep asking), “so how do you know when a piece is finished? How do you know when it doesn’t need more revision?” Those are difficult questions that I answer with my common answer, “it depends.” An example might serve best.

Last Friday morning at an academic conference, I read an original (and as yet-unpublished) short story: a part of my short-story cycle that was my PhD dissertation. I wrote the first draft in March 2010. In the time since, it has undergone various revisions and “versions.” The draft as I read it Friday clocked in at just under 3,400 words. Another version of the story, with a different direction and ending and overall tone, clocked in at 6,500 words.

While I read the story to the audience, I felt as though it was working well, but 5 1/2 years later, I still wasn’t sure. Immediately after I finished reading it, I thought, “I need to cut the first 1/3 of the story, the opening scene.” In the time since then, and having shared my thoughts with my wife who has read the various versions, I received five verbal affirmations of the story from conference participants (fellow writers themselves), and even an email from another participant (sent near midnight).

When is the story done? A good question. Paul Valery quipped the poem is never finished but only abandoned. I like that idea (minus the connotation of abandonment).

On Reaching 50 Posts

Last week when I shared some photos from my time in Southwestern Minnesota, I realized that was my 50th post, which prompted me to reflect on why I write posts in the first place.

For any writer, it’s beneficial to regularly reflect on the why: Why am I writing this story draft? Revising this poem? Mulling over this blog post? Moreover, there is the need to reflect on the bigger WHY: why am I choosing to write rather than pursue other interests?

I began this website in 2010, but from that time through 2013, I wrote only 16 posts. From January 2014 to the present, I’ve written 38 posts, and 23 this year already. (Okay, so I enjoy numbers and statistics.) Numbers here, however, need some contextualization. What has changed in the last 20 months?

At the beginning of 2014 I made the decision to write more in this space, that decision coinciding with the publication of my poetry chapbook, Four Seasons West of the 95th Meridian. I wanted to offer more content here, as well as to promote my published writing. Friends and family read what I post, so I thought I would offer them more to read. Lastly, I was inspired by several writing friends who write posts regularly. (Shortening the domain name to plainswriter.com was an added incentive since doing so was not free.)

My posts are not the poems, short stories, and creative nonfiction pieces I am regularly writing and revising. Those reside in their own places, but I needed another venue beyond the jottings in a notebook. As an addendum to the previous paragraph, I use this space to try out ideas, to share thoughts about my interests. In all my years writing, I’ve learned (among other lessons) that writing feeds more writing, and that a post might morph/transform into an extended piece at some later date, or perhaps suggest some other piece to write.

I now view my posts as weekly columns, although I don’t tend to write about “big” issues or “hot-button” topics. Although I don’t offer my words on such topics, I do want to make sure that I’m not offering more “noise” to an Internet already full of it. I hope that what I write, even if it’s 500 words on some topic, will resonate with readers in some way(s).

So thanks for reading and following me, and I hope that what you read in the next 50 posts will be meaningful to you, will provide a diversion, will encourage reflection, will maybe simply even entertain you.

On Country Roads and Open Space

This week, I thought I’d share some pictures I took while back in Southwestern Minnesota at my in-laws’ farm. Their farmstead and the surrounding area is one of my favorite places. Ever. Whether I was out walking in the evening (when some of these pictures were taken) or out running in the morning (note the elongated shadow), there were few cars. Just asphalt or gravel. Birds. Insects. Wind. Sky. A soothing quietness.

SWMN1Note the utility poles leaning to the west. During our time, crews were in the process of “planting” new poles and removing the old.

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I’ve always been intrigued by lines venturing out toward the horizon.

SWMN6And then there’s the evening sky like this. Followed the next day by a morning run with this view.

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I know that there are no “grand” objects here. No mountains, no forests, no river.  Just corn, soybeans, gravel, shelter belts. And there’s color and openness that expands my soul and refreshes me in ways that few other places/landscapes do.

A lot of my poetry and fiction is set in this landscape, replete with roads and characters driving on them. As to why those elements keep recurring? That’s a post (or an essay, perhaps?) for another day.

For now, there are the images.

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