The Chapter Two Curse – An In-Depth Look at Revision

peaceEver since I got back from AWP, I’ve been working on revising my memoir manuscript, Moonchild.

It’s been a real challenge.

But as challenges go, it was relatively okay for the first chapter. A lot of work, yes. Lots of stitching together, inserting, deleting, writing new material, actually getting clearer on memories of the time that I’d forgotten and writing those in, shifting focus, bringing in more background. It took a lot of time and energy but it was fairly pleasant.

Then I got to Chapter Two, and that was more like…well, a clusterfuck.

It’s been difficult from the beginning. I have the oldest version, which I wrote from ages 22-24, and then a hyper-revised version that I worked on from ages 25-27. And I thought that what I would be doing now at age 33 would be marrying the two drafts together. It’s important to me to keep the soul of the earliest draft, the tighter writing of the most recent one, but I also have sensibilities as a writer that I didn’t have for either of the early drafts that I’m finding important to write towards.

It wasn’t that Chapter Two was horrible, or that the two versions were widely different–in fact they were fairly similar–just that it was all problematic. The writing was okay but lacking. There were sections where instead of truly being in scene, I as the narrator was describing more than inhabiting, summarizing too much. There was some lazy writing in there, cliches, sentences that were way too obvious and others that were so overstated that they weren’t accurate. Chapter Two didn’t just need editing; it needed a complete overhaul.

So a lot of the language had to be adjusted throughout, to make the scenes work and feel more alive. So that took work throughout the entire chapter. I rewrote almost every paragraph in at least some way, and some paragraphs were rewritten from scratch.

I also feel dedicated to giving a clear representation of what it’s like to see through my visually-impaired eyes. So I spent a lot of time getting specific about what things looked like, what I could and couldn’t see, rather than assuming the reader would just get it because they know I’m legally blind. One thing I’ve learned is that every person, especially those with varying levels of blindness, sees differently, and it can be really hard to explain to a fully sighted person what I can and can’t see and why. This all goes back to wanting to fully inhabit the scenes. I wanted the visual account to be accurate, to give the reader the real sense of the authentic experience of my albinism and its blindness.

So that, too, took up a lot of time and energy to go back through, re-envision each scene, get it on the page with precise language.

I also wanted to get to the same sort of specifics with feelings. There are two parts in this chapter where I tackle challenge course elements–a zipline and an alpine tower–and I just felt that the actual feelings of what those experiences were like were lacking. I hadn’t really captured what it was like to “rush” after the zipline, and I especially hadn’t captured the feelings of frustration when I was stuck on the alpine tower, and how I had to really dig into some scrappy girl mentality to pull out the wherewithal to get to the top. The way it was written before was too simplified, too summarized, too distant. There was another part, in between the challenge elements, where I was looking out at the water and I knew the feelings weren’t quite there either.

So there was a lot to work on throughout the entire chapter. The skeleton outline, and some passages, stayed the same but I rewrote most of it.

I also knew there were two sections that I needed to add. I wanted to include, in this passage from the chapter where I talk about going to school for creative writing and how important that was for me, that I had dabbled in the idea of astronomy enough to look it up in college catalogs as a high school senior. That was important because that interest in astronomy comes back and fuels the major movements in the latter half of the manuscript, and because looking it up in the college catalogs was true.

By early this month, actually I know it was by April 5th because of this post, I had done all of the above. I just had to write one paragraph about music, and then I would be done. I figured that I’d write that up, print out the chapter and look over all my changes, adjust a bit more and be done. It was already feeling so grueling and I was looking forward to moving on.

Yeah, no.

That one paragraph about music ended up being three pages. And it ended up being the key to the chapter. It’s funny, because I hadn’t realized before then that it was missing a key. I kept going on this chapter that had these disparate parts and I kept seeing it as one chapter, connected somehow but I couldn’t figure out how. For a long time, years really, I didn’t even worry about what held it together–it all takes place on the same college freshman orientation adventure and that seemed enough.

But once I wrote about music, the connection became clear: I was writing about how things I loved were dying. Not that music itself was dying, but the kind of music I grew up on was, at the time. And when you’re younger and discovering music for the first time, it just doesn’t occur to you that that can happen, and it felt like a big loss when it did. I felt unmoored. And the other thing I was writing about was the ocean, which is dying in its own way.

Maybe that’s being a little too dramatic. What I think it was actually about was loving these things–music, ocean, landscape–before I realized that they might change, and then, at eighteen, adjusting to the fact of change in things I had assumed were constant. And it was at a time when my life was changing a lot too, moving away to college for the first time and all. Even the parts about the climbing elements fit somehow, facing unexpected challenges, finding that inner something to persevere, and that seemed to have something to do with continuing to hold fast to my love for things even as they changed.

And once I figured that out, I sort of had to restructure the chapter. For one thing, those three pages about music stuff were a problem. Too long a detour in a chapter that already has a detour about the ocean, so I spliced it up and dispersed it throughout the chapter. I also spliced up another (shorter) section and put half of it somewhere else. And I worked music into the alpine tower climbing scene (it was already in the zipline scene). And the music fit, a little different in tone for a less scary but much more challenging challenge element. Plus it sort of leads in, musically speaking, to the next chapter. And I had wanted that.

So there was discovery, for me the writer, along the way. It’s easy to forget that while slogging through revisions, that sometimes it brings clarity of artistic vision. I have a clearer idea of what my book is, what I want it to be.

So I thought I would finish up on the 5th of this month, after slaving over the chapter awhile already, then ended up spending two more weeks writing the new stuff, splicing up and reorganizing, cutting and stitching and editing.

And now? Well, I don’t know. The skeleton of the chapter is still there, like you could trace its evolutionary lineage from its past to its current state, but it’s now an entirely different animal. A lot of the writing is more precise. It digs into some more interesting territory, but it’s hard to get real perspective on the newer material. My guess is that I’ll distill down some of the music-related sections further, maybe shift some parts to later chapters. But for now, I need a real rest from this chapter. It’s been a month of toiling on this one section, and it’s time to put it away for awhile.

I need the forward momentum of moving onto the next chapter, which luckily is much, much more straightforward in its revising needs.

Or so I think now.

~EJ

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One thought on “The Chapter Two Curse – An In-Depth Look at Revision

  1. Pingback: ATOM - Chapter 1 Part 1 - The Last Days Of Planet Earth

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