The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way,
to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting.
~Annie Dillard, “Living Like Weasels”
After years of workshops as both a student and a teacher, I’ve turned into a champion of the rough, the weird, and the misfit bits of early drafts. I’m not alone in this. Most teachers and writers eventually arrive at this place. You begin to appreciate the things that others want to throw away. Ask any good chef, they have countless uses for the animal parts that others disdain: the gizzard, the offal, the bone and marrow. In my student workshops, it’s often my most talented writers that listen to their workshop mates and get rid of the most interesting (and often problematic) parts of their stories and essays. I often do the same, revising, sanitizing. My students remind me over and over again to honor what is most interesting, not what is most perfect.
If you are stuck in a draft that doesn’t want to live, do yourself a favor and look for the images, the lines, paragraphs, and scenes that seem not to fit. I’m not talking about throw-away language, or about the scenes and lines that repeat the same work. Get rid of them. I’m talking about the oddly magnetic lines, the images that, as rough as they are, pulse on the page. Watch out for the details you want to censor, to erase, to smooth, to hide. Often, by writing into these moments and teasing them open, we find the banging, clanging heart of the story, the rusted engine that begins to rattle, and maybe, if we’re lucky, to purr.
Here are some tips for finding the hotspots in drafts you’ve been revising to death:
1. Take your draft and read through it looking for hotspots. Or, better, have a friend or writing group member find them for you. Circle interesting images, characters, and moments within scenes that never fully develop or connect to the broader piece. Place these on fresh pages and brainstorm one at a time, writing into the uncertainty, using your imagination to invent your way into the story that wants to unfold. Entire essays, stories, and novels have been triggered by a single image, or a repeating phrase.*
2. Highlight the most alive or interesting or mysterious lines. Where have we unknowingly minimized, or exaggerated, or tried to avoid articulating something important? (Hint: We often mask uncomfortable truths with poetic, cryptic, or abstract language. Also, a character that doesn’t quite tell the truth might make a fantastic unreliable narrator, if you make more of what is unsaid.) Once you’ve found a few good lines, try beginning a new draft of a story or essay with them.
3. Often we save the moment that triggered a piece for the ending. Try taking your ending and moving it to the top of your draft. Use your best material right away, so that you have to continually dig for more. You’ll be amazed by how much this one “trick” can energize a piece, and lead to astonishing new drafts.
4. I once listened to a podcast with an Olympic performance coach. Here are three questions he asks his clients that you can ask of a problematic draft: 1) What am I not saying that needs to be said? 2) What am I saying that’s not being heard? 3) What’s being said that I’m not hearing?
*For some examples of exploded image stories, take a look at “The Sock” by Lydia Davis, “The Accordion” by Aleksandar Hemon, “The Shawl” by Cynthia Ozick, and “Pet Milk” by Stuart Dybek. For examples of repeating phrase pieces, check out “Why I Write” by Terry Tempest Williams, “We Didn’t” by Stuart Dybek, “Girl” by Jamaica Kinkaid, and “100 Things About Writing a Novel” by Alexander Chee.
[These notes are for Part 1 of a workshop on Strategies for Getting Unstuck and Energizing Your Prose for the 2019 Northwestern Summer Writers’ Conference.]