Tuesday, October 12, 2010

My Cranium Is Suddenly Lit Up

It's difficult to talk about the creative process without sounding like a nut job. If, for example, I were to say to you that when I have an idea that's really good--like a passage that will push a scene out into nether space and expand the meaning of the whole narrative--the inside of my cranium is suddenly lit up with a bright white light of such power that it should blind me and everyone sitting nearby, and that I'm not speaking in metaphor but that this light actually does exist and I can feel it in my head and while it shines pure rays of bluewhite, I can feel the forepart of my brain getting sort of cold but in a pleasant way, like when one has a glass of clear ice water on a hot summer day, you might be inclined to think that Bailey has gone off the deep end of whatever shaky pier he's been treading.

But that's just the way of it: when I have a really good idea, it's as if my entire physiology has altered for a moment. Possibly I'm just having a seizure. How would I even know? Frankly, I don't care if I am. It's a good trade: some stray brain cells I probably don't use that often in exchange for three perfect sentences and one near brilliant image.

I mention all of this because I had one of these bluewhite flashes yesterday afternoon, on the bus homeward, while I was revising Chapter 10 of Killing Hamlet. It was then that I remembered what I love about revisions: to revise--to rewrite--is not to sit and check my grammar, usage and spelling; it is not to pore over the MS and see how I can be more concise or more precise or whatever. It is to hover over the narrative I've built so far and recognize that what I've wrought is not a book, but a scaffold on/in/around which I can be more creative and on/in/around which I can spin yet more ideas and push boundaries and discover new thoughts I'd never otherwise think. Revisions, that is to say, are where the going gets cool.

This is something I had not remembered quite yet, and now I feel like I should start at the beginning of the MS again and go over all that I've already revised and look for places where I ought to be adding more coolness, straining at the seams of the world, making scrimshaw out of my exposition and fireworks out of my plot points. Or something. Anyway, I think this is going to be a good book. I don't know why people find revising their work to be so odious. They must be doing something wrong.


  1. Proof-reading is tedious and painful, and I bow to those who love it.

    Revising is when you take the good meal you just cooked and suddenly think, "Lime juice, by heavens!" And voila, it's better.

    My cranium does not light up when I have an insight, but I feel sort like a drowsy fighter feels after a big kick to the liver. It hurts physically for an instant and then I'm more awake, alert, and energetic than I was the moment before the idea.

    My human bio classes want me to blab about adrenaline and the sympathetic nervous system and a bunch of other hooey. I'd rather just think it's cool.

  2. I don't know that I've ever thought of it in those exact terms, but I know just what you mean. It's a transcendent feeling. Revising is crafting and I think a lot of people find that tedious. Sometimes I do. It's most frustrating when I can't figure out how to make things right. I've redone my first page so many times that, lately, I have been wringing my hands over it, but this week I've circled the wagons and think I may finally have it. Of course, that could all change tomorrow when I read back over it and think: "Crap. Complete crap. What was I thinking? That doesn't work at all."

  3. Nevets: I don't proof read. I just don't. If I don't catch it in the revision process, I don't catch it at all. Mighty Reader is great at proofing, and perhaps I rely too much on her for that.

    Yes, "Lime juice!" is what I'm talking about. But I can also sort of find my way into that headspace again once I've had a good kick of it, and unfocus my eyes and see not just the words on the page but the world in my imagination and some of the connections I might have wanted to make to pull the story farther out of the page and into the world.

    A good revision feels a lot like falling in love. Let's not discount the role of biochemistry in art.

    Lois: Yeah, it is crafting, but even changing one word for a better one is art. Today at lunch I went over my first chapter again after having already reworked it, and I found a better way to say a lot of stuff there. I made myself think of the most simple way of stating what the first image was: "I was standing on a frozen lake while two soldiers tried to kill each other." And then I worked to make the opening scene support that image without actually using that sentence. It was a really helpful exercise. I cut out a lot of junk and rearranged some things and now the pages have a nice clarity into which I'm weaving (so I tell myself) my little scraps of poetry.

    I approach every draft with the assumption that it's all complete crap and will be replaced, every word of it. It helps avoid regrets at cutting things when you know that everything you're doing is an improvement.

  4. I'm actually relieved you don't proof read. I don't really either. I usually have Rose or my mom/editor help with that part. I'll proof short stories some, but I get sea sick when I try to proof read a novel.

    After you won the Pullitzer, I noticed that you were nearly brilliant, and therefore assumed that proofing would be another area in which you would loom large, casting a wide shadow over my own adequacy.

    Woot for not.