Monthly Archives: April 2013

Then Again

revision_logo_smallLately my dreams cut and re-cut fabric until, if it were assembled, it’d barely fit a doll.

Here’s a dream: I’m drawing a truck on commission. My unknown patron makes peculiar requests. I’m to use a certain sort of marker and a certain sort of paper, to work under a certain lamp, and to make marks of certain character and quality. Yet every pen touch is wrong. To correct them, I extend lines or bend them or double them or cross them with other lines or reverse the page to use the shadows bleeding through.

I can’t see the image in my dream, but it isn’t a truck because the drawing erupts like mad cancer, budding, growing, budding, and growing again.

Finally, I get up to read on the couch.

I also form a question for my patron, reworded twenty times: “Is anything un-revisable?”

In the waking world, so much seems so. Bullets don’t return to guns. Physics carries bodies on dire headings. Our responses, however, morph endlessly. We want tragedies to change our thinking but can’t agree on what the tragedies mean. After a moment’s fact, we have only implications.

The other day The Chicago Tribune included the story of a woman who died when she fell down the trash chute of her high rise—17 floors—and wasn’t discovered until a day later. When my wife encountered the story, she asked, “How does a person fit in a trash chute?” and my daughter asked, “How did she fall in?” and I said, “Can you imagine the agony of trying to explain it?” No one was there, and a story—reimagined, revised—replaces truth.

And here I am, using the story myself.

I’m really asking what we can leave alone. One of my son’s lower school art teachers used to say, “There are no mistakes in art, only opportunities.” Her approach suited a nine-year old whose creative train derailed at the lightest breeze, but I’m not sure how deeply her advice penetrated. Once, cleaning out a closet, I found a sketchbook he’d nearly filled with starts—ovals, boxes, the hind legs of headless beasts, and houses that fell before they stood. Many he’d abandoned with angry waves of his pen snaking through what lay beneath.

Teaching revision, I stress the word “re-vision” as a way to urge more than editing. “To really re-envision work,” I say, “pay attention to the possibilities individual comments create for changes elsewhere. Every essay is infinitely perfect-able.”

But I don’t work that way. I adjust, adding and subtracting until I’m finished or abandon the attempt. If grooming prose doesn’t find the answer, there is none. Expedience wins, what suffices. Other writers describe poems, stories, or essays reaching the form they wanted. I’ve had a glimmer of that feeling but distrust it—isn’t that just the rapture I desperately desire?

Here’s another dream: Cards litter a room. Each is white on one side. Stripes of various colors and widths appear on the other side. I’m sure I’m meant to match similar cards, so I wade in, trying to find a card exactly like the one I hold. When I can’t, I pick up a new card, and, unable to match that… you get the idea.

One of my graduate school teachers touted “radical revision.” She made me read essays from the last paragraph to the first to uncover what was misplaced. She instructed me to put my essay in a drawer and try to rewrite it from memory to find, “what ought to stick.” She bisected pages with commands to rearrange them any other way.

These exercises, she said, train intention, revealing reasons behind composition and establishing conscious control over the otherwise accidental. I didn’t enjoy being radical. Words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and pages became furniture. I bruised my shin on a sudden coffee table or tumbled, unbalanced, into a shattered lamp. When anything can go anywhere—or not go at all—something is always in the way.

I told a friend about my dreams, and she said I might be doodling or writing too much. Fixing and re-fixing can’t be good for a brain. Your mind trips into a sixties-style reverb where the frame of things disjoints, then pulsates. Echoes echo on themselves.

Who wouldn’t mind a steadier camera and crisper fidelity, but has that human age passed? A world of possibilities offers no end to revision, and no end to revision offers little relief.

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Filed under Ambition, Anxiety, Doubt, Dreaming, Essays, Identity, Insomnia, Laments, Modern Life, Revision, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Writing


727755015_94987219cf_zI have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth. —Umberto Eco

At first, he put the new shell nowhere near the last, but soon that became impossible. Shells gathered like barnacles clinging to a hull where the air was a vast sea. No one came to tidy up because, as far as he knew, no one visited except him. Whether that did or didn’t make this spot the shrine he imagined, he was loyal.

He half-thought—half-hoped—someone might happen upon his work. A stranger might read signs of loving days, recognize accretion of attention in so many shells so meticulously arranged. When he feared they wouldn’t, he felt vague and unanchored dread, but, as time passed and his daily burden gathered, the shrine spoke its own mystery and meaning apart from him.

Each shell represented careful choice. He might have chosen many others. Some shells he must have passed by before, as they looked almost resigned where they lay, as if they already knew they wouldn’t leave that spot and accepted it. Others cried out. He didn’t always pick the loud ones but noticed their intentions. The silent conversation he shared with shells ran like an undercurrent through his thoughts every morning he walked the shore. He felt important amid all their insistence and also humbled, cowed by what he might do for them.

Yet that day’s shell grew lighter as he carried it. His hand’s warmth stirred the smell of the sea and the absence in the shell’s cavity. A shell is a dead thing—only imagination makes it live again. When you put a shell to your ear, you hear not the distant sea but your own blood rushing invisibly, amplified and echoing, trapped in a labyrinth, the spiral corridors and its abandoned rooms.

He’d started as a boy, and at first it’d meant nothing to leave each shell. It was something he did, and fervor came later. To abandon his task is to acquiesce, to break a chain of days.

In dark moments he stared at his city of shells and wondered about devotion, about compulsion, about obsession, about what separated them. Looking at the spaces he’d ringed and the towers he’d piled in loving balance, he liked to believe his own architecture found expression. A hidden order needed notice. Yet, how could he tell? Maybe desperation is the fundamental necessity. What would he have without a shrine, what other reason might he find for continuing?

The answer crept like tides—inevitable, dawning, adamant—approaching and withdrawing. Nothing else interested him. Walking in the diminished ripples of breakers, he thought about alternatives, what might satisfy his yearnings or fill the blank spots in his imagination. Before he sensed what he was doing, he reached into the surf and saved another shell from vanishing. He shook it in the receding water. He brought it up to his eyes and regarded it. Something said it was the last, the best, the final word.

He’d be back the next day. He wasn’t finished. He couldn’t bear being finished.


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