Sunday, September 26, 2010

Wet Clay

The other day I was talking with a friend about revisions, and he mentioned that the hardest thing for him to accept about the revision process is letting go of his words or, as other writers say, “killing off his darlings.”

He spends an inordinate amount of time carefully constructing sentences and admitted it’s painful for him to delete a sentence from a paragraph, even when he can see and acknowledge that the words don’t belong there.

One of the keys to letting go of one’s words, or “killing off your darlings,” is learning to view the revision process in incremental stages. Revisions don’t happen all at once but rather slowly over time. There are early revisions, later revisions, still later revisions, and, most likely, many more revisions until you reach the stage of “final” revisions before sharing the manuscript with a trusted reader or sending it off to your editor.

I like to view the early stages of a draft in terms of wet clay because seeing the words on the page as malleable and still fluid gives me the freedom to move them, cross them out, or replace them with new words. I can make a mess without worrying about breaking anything. (And if I keep copies of earlier drafts, I don’t really lose anything.)

The problem with seeing the words on the page as set in stone too soon is that you won’t be able to move or change them. They’re frozen on the page, either because you’re afraid of losing what you’ve written, or else you believe that simply because they appear on the page that they cannot be altered.

The medium of wet clay, unlike stone, is perfect as a catalyst for creativity.

You can reshape it, flatten it, mold it, take a stylus and write whatever you want, then wipe away the words and write something else. Wet clay will accept any mark that you feel you’d like to make on the page, even if only for the sake of testing out a new color of ink or a different style of writing.

Hard stone, on the other hand, is inflexible, baked to a solidity that forbids further experimentation with the words on the page.

If you try to write on the hard surface of stone, you may break the nub of your pen or scratch your hand. You can’t erase or rub out what’s there. You can only view it as finished, even when, deep in your heart, you know there’s more work to be done.

How many of us experience the same kind of pain as my friend when facing the task of revising a draft? How many of us are afraid of letting go of the words on the page and diving into our stories again to reshape them, rewrite the words from a different perspective, or use a different voice or tone?

The key to surmounting one’s fear of letting go is to see the pages of your draft as wet clay rather than as hard stone.

Remind yourself that you can dip your finger in the clay and play with words, expand or shrink sentences, move paragraphs, turn the world upside down and then right-side up again, until you feel you’ve shaped the words into a new and satisfying form.

If you feel your words are set in stone and that you can’t touch them, perhaps you need to step back from your project... and try to gauge the stage that you’ve reached with it. Is it really the final stage? Or are you simply wishing for the final stage because you want to be finished, even if, on some deep level, you know there’s more work to do?

For more information on letting go of your words–"killing off your darlings"– in the revision process, visit:


Anonymous said...

I have a "Darlings" folder for things that should be killed. They stay in a deep coma until I finally admit they have to go. That works for small pieces, scenes and chapters. Then there are all the partial drafts sitting on two hard drives and several thumb drives. The real challenge for me is to get certain darlings out of my brain so I can move on.

Ann Angel said...

With students, those little darlings are often long paragraphs of explanation or description in which the reader loses sight of the plot and character. I tell students they're stopping the story and the reader will also stop reading.

Cheryl Chaffee said...

And from a yogic perspective, we all have our little "darlings" that are part and parcel of who we are. We identify with the things we've done in the past, and we hold on to them, even when they are no longer useful, or serve to write the continuing story of who we are. We can think of the act doing our yoga poses as reshaping that wet clay again and again, to make a continuous, fluid representation of who we truly are in each moment.