Saturday, July 05, 2008

Exploring the revision before you write anything down

While reading yesterday I discovered an interesting sentence attributed to the poet William Stafford from his journal writings. The entry in question reads: “I must explore the revision that happens before you write anything down.” Disappointingly, there weren't any added lines of his exploration on this subject.

What Stafford is alluding to can be considered in two different categories. One is the process of selecting exactly what you want to say and choosing the best words at that moment (certainly subject to change) before you actually write the complete thought upon a page. But there is another aspect that touches upon something I have blogged upon in the past that continues to confound me. It is what I refer to as “self censorship” and while it can be very controlled and directed by the writer, I wonder about the less obvious possibilities as they might relate to the revision that takes place in the mind before reaching the page.

When driving and approaching an intersection with traffic signal, the mind makes decisions that are split second and we don’t seem to be totally cognizant of the process. We know for example what the color signals of the light mean, but coming upon a yellow light there is something that happens quickly to inform us of our decision ahead of applying the breaks or perhaps more gas. It all happens so quickly there seems not the internal banter going on in the brain that you might experience in writing a first line upon a page, where there may be significant forethought that is very transparent. Afterwards, you may be able to recount to another, “I chose this word over that because…” The process of reaching your decision seems retraceable.

Going through the yellow signal or not is likely tied to some internal understanding if fear. Fear of what might or might not happen. I assume there is an assessment of perceived risk, but it happens so quickly we don’t seem to be aware of the data-in and the data-out that makes up the final decision.

I think all writers have safe zones and danger zones to their writing. It may be subjects or it may be images we don’t feel comfortable putting into words. Staying within our comfort zones is of course very limiting. We may find our subject matter tends to repeat. Our choice of vocabulary could become so common that all our work starts to fall into the same tone.

If we perceive danger and make split second decisions on the road, do we do the same with word or subject choices before we commit those thoughts to the page based upon our own preconceived notions as what is safe to write and what is not safe? Do we self censor without real cognitive choice?

Writing reveals us to readers in ways that become exceedingly personal. There is some degree of risk associated with everything we write. The risk we'll look silly. The rick we'll me misunderstood. The risk that everything we write suggests that we've experienced what we've written or that what we write is how we feel about something. Keep in mind that we are the first readers of our own work. Sometimes we may be startled by our own writing. I have no idea if any of this occurred to William Stafford in pondering the mental revision before we commit to page but it is a discussion I would love to have had with him.
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