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.