Sifting

My daughter, who is almost a year-and-a-half, has discovered the joys of sifting sand.  She shovels it into the colander and watches, fascinated, as it streams through, leaving behind the pebbles which she promptly puts in her mouth.

After completing a draft, a writer’s task is to construct a new colander, a tool strong enough to strain out what is no longer needed and leave behind the essence of the story.

The challenge in revision is to set aside our attachments to text.  We’ve written scenes, characters, expository passages that we assume, by virtue of our effort, must belong.  In the last draft of my novel, I included almost twenty pages of conflict around an insurance salesman; these pages were climactic, I thought, and illustrated the hardships all health care workers endure within our insurance-governed medical system.  But when I looked closely at my heartbeat, newly articulated, I was forced to admit the entire conflict did nothing to serve my story.  I’d created it to serve my own agenda rather than to help my main character move through her struggles.  By these new standards, the scene slipped through the holes back into the sandbox.

My colander is the story’s heartbeat more clearly defined.  Once I’m revising a piece, the bulletin board over my writing desk always has an index card pinned to it with one or two simple sentences—my latest articulation of the heartbeat.  I post it front and center so with every sentence, paragraph, section, and chapter, I can ask, “How is this serving my heartbeat?”

Once a writer constructs a colander and shakes out the sand, he or she often grows aware of pebbles that ought to be in the mix but aren’t.  The scenes that remain don’t add up.  The text doesn’t reveal the author’s latest insights.  That’s when we have to generate new material, which inevitably is rough and contains lots of sand.  The new material usually shifts our understanding of the old material.  It demands that we integrate the new characters, events, and themes with the old.  Thus we sift and sift again, until what remains is pure story.

I know a revision is worthwhile when I experience movement—that is, I might grieve the passages falling back into the sandbox, but the stones left behind taste better than any before.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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