Inspiration Revised

Mining the unconscious can be dull. Get me rewrite

When I was a 14-year-old aspiring writer, I wished more than anything for a book explaining the alchemy that transformed words to gold. How did poets cast such a spell? How did novelists spin their silk?

My biology text diagramed the Krebs cycle. My social studies teacher spelled out the principle of supply and demand. I wanted a comparable explanation for literature. I understood that art requires inspiration, not formulas. All the same, I wondered where I might find a road map to Dickens’s brilliance, or a Lonely Planet Guide to Poetry.

One day I found just such a book in my school library. In Aileen Ward’s biography, “John Keats: The Making of Poet,” I learned the tragic story of Keats’s poverty, his vocation, his remarkable friendships, his love for Fanny Brawne and his death at age 26. I learned something else too: the story of Keats’s development as a writer.

Author Allegra Goodman

Analyzing manuscripts, Ms. Ward showed that the Odes did not spring fully formed from their author’s imagination. Keats improved every line, crossing out conventional phrases and replacing them with stronger, rarer choices. Studying Keats’s revisions, Ward concluded that a poet is made, not born. What a startling, unromantic reading of a Romantic poet. What a remarkable assertion about writers: Even the great ones work for greatness.

Now here was a challenge, and an opportunity as well. Starting with inspiration and some talent, you could work to be a writer. You could keep revising, and improve.

Why was this idea so surprising and liberating for me? Like many literary teenagers, I believed that art was a matter of instinct—that the artist’s first impulse is the most authentic, that revision is something you do to essays but hardly applies to poetry or fiction. I pictured revision as drudge work, spoiling all that was fresh and original. But what if revision actually improved ideas?

I struggled with revision. As a young writer, I hated cutting paragraphs or pages I had labored over, and struggled to rearrange scenes or rethink characters. I’d revise when friends or editors pointed out problems, but I had trouble starting a revision on my own. Gradually, I learned to set my work aside for days and weeks and return to it with new distance and objectivity. Slowly, I began to identify my own awkward phrases and bad habits.

My writing improved when I unpacked sentences, searched for stronger verbs and cut meandering description. My ideas improved as well. Strange but true: What we write instinctively—the story that seems most immediate and personal—is often most conventional.

We grow up hearing that we should just be ourselves, and listen to our inner voices. But what if your authentic self won’t shut up? What if your inner voice is boring? In revision you cut excess verbiage. Revising, you can experiment with other voices.

It’s great to tap into your unconscious, but remember how impressionable the unconscious can be, how quick to absorb the tropes of television and romance and life-affirming or cautionary memoir. Revision means testing and questioning conventions, forging a path through the cultural clutter that we mistake for our own creativity.

As a teenager I put off revision for as long as possible. Now, I make revision part of my routine. I begin by rewriting the pages I wrote the day before. Art no longer seems like alchemy to me. Like a scientist, I test my ideas and hone the words I use as instruments. Revision is a form of experimentation, art a method for discovery.

Allegra Goodman’s latest novels is “The Cookbook Collector.” She teaches a course on revision in the Master of Fine Arts program at Boston University.


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