Tuesday, February 21, 2012

laistrygonians and cyclops, wild poseidon: on difficult revisions

Thus far, INTERN has been rather shy about discussing her own novel-to-be on this blog, in part because she is wary of writing too much about herself, and in part because until recently, she would often wake up in a panic that she Won't Be Able to Pull It Off (the novel) and should therefore refrain from mentioning it until it's safely done.

INTERN's has not been one of those manuscripts that slips and slides, barely tinkered with, from writing desk to agency to publisher to bookstore. On the contrary, the number and scope of changes (and change-backs. and changes-again) has been dizzying. Although INTERN is increasingly stoked with the way things are coming together, she has felt, at other points in the revision process, like a wretched third grader held back after class to struggle with a math problem she just can't solve, long after everyone else has finished and gone out to play.

Panic. Despair. Self-laceration. Improbable solution after improbable solution, none of them surviving the delete button for more than a day. Googling, for chrissakes. Googling.

What finally turned it around for INTERN was some good advice from her editor (of which more in a future post), and an ultimatum from Techie Boyfriend: you are creating a Work of Art, not engineering a septic system. Act like it.

In short, it has been an Interesting Process, by which INTERN means an embarrassingly emo process, and while INTERN is happy to report that the panic and despair are safely behind her, going through them was an experience she will never forget.

Then late last night, while unwinding after an (exhilarating and productive!) revision session, INTERN came across this poem that seems to explain EVERYTHING. In his poem Ithaka, the poet C. P. Cavafy writes of the creative process:
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Perhaps it was the 4 AM, post-revision high, but this poem seemed to reframe everything about the revision process in such satisfyingly mythical, Hero's Journey, psychoanalytic terms that INTERN read it ten times, in total wonder.

Of course! The Cyclops of the dozen placeholder endings (= unwillingness to confront the fear of death!), the Laistrygonians (whatever the heck those are) of the bungled character arcs (= the writer's inability to understand where her own journey is taking her!) etc. etc. etc. Every problem in revision was really a Struggle With the Self! How meaningful and even necessary all that wretchedness can seem in hindsight, with the help of a dead poet!

This whole adventure—for it has been an adventure—has lead INTERN to wonder: is there inherent value to suffering over the course of a creative endeavor? How much of it is meaningful and growth-inducing, and how much of it is avoidable and unnecessary? Is a difficult manuscript a kind of hero's journey, or is that just a story you can tell yourself as a consolation prize for things not having been more of a breeze?

INTERN would also like to know: are panic and despair something you grow out of as you become a more experienced novel-writer? Or are they more of a constitutional thing? To what extent does one doom oneself (by having the wrong outlook, or not enough confidence, or whatever) and to what extent is a particular manuscript doom-causing?

Wishing you all good luck with your Cyclops.


  1. ...now why does this blog post immediately make me think of Sisyphus?

  2. My friends who have multiple books out tell me that the highs and lows continue with each book, because each one and the work necessary for them are so different.

    I don't have enough publishing cred to say for myself, sorry. :)

  3. Panic is something I feel on a regular basis. I think it's hard to revise partly because, like you said, revising is a struggle with the self. For example, when you choose to take out certain scenes or even entire characters, it's very difficult to do so because they either have become a part of you or they already were a part of your personality or past experiences.
    One thing I do like about revision is that it gives me the chance to come up with new ideas to replace ones that weren't necessarily working very well. But I keep all the stuff that I edited in an "extras" file; I read somewhere about a writer who did that because this person didn't want to throw out anything that could be used in a different story someday.

  4. I recently attended a dinner with Jayne Ann Krentz who has written a few books. Her admission was every book is a struggle, and every time she sends the final for publication she is sure it is the worst she's ever written and it will kill her career.

    However, just because others feel that way doesn't mean you can't have a different journey and every future book will become easier and faster. But then we need to consider that if the angst and drama are not real in the creation how will they may not be in the story - and who wants to read one of those?

  5. Agh, I feel for you. I'm going through revisions with my agent right now. Not, "Hey, wouldn't a comma be great here?" But rather, "Hey, why don't we drop this POV character and fill in that third of the novel with something entirely different?". While I completely agree with the suggestions and the novel is stronger already, it has been agonizing wondering whether I can pull it off.

    Something my husband said helped me, maybe it will help you. "Think of it this way,"he said, "you have people who already believe in you and who won't let you fail." The same goes for you. Your agent, your publisher and everyone else along the way already believe in you. They are your safety net.

    Hope this helps!

  6. It seems some authors can go into their yards and clap their hands, and a cougar walks out and nuzzles their leg.

    But for most of us, we sling on our packs and trudge through brambles into the mountains, scouting for tracks. We get low on supplies, get lost in caves, slide down scree, and post long night vigils, waiting for the faintest call. And after all that, spend months trying to coax it back with all its wildness and beauty intact.

    So yeah, I'll go with the heroic journey. :-)

    P.S. Richard Wilbur isn't dead yet, but these words may resonate for you.

  7. um, yes. Panic and despair. Yep. Lots of that.

  8. PAH. I haven't even waited for the revision stage to make friends with Panic and Despair. They're right here with me, in the second chapter, sitting alongside my coffee and poking me with sharp sticks.

  9. I'm guessing that it never gets easier. NEVER.
    Just like labor. Metaphorically, of course. If writing a book was like a real labor, I'd never pick up a pen.

  10. I loved this post (and that Richard Wilbur poem; thanks maine character). I finished a tremendously difficult revision right around the time you posted this, in fact (but my book comes out this fall! cutting it close!) Anyway I definitely vote for hero's journey, but I think you know that really. Thank god for green tea, chocolate, red wine, and crying, or I'd never have gotten through.

  11. I'm an illustrator, not a writer, but am currently experiencing the PANIC AND DESPAIR. So I really enjoyed this post. Especially the wisdom " you are creating a Work of Art, not engineering a septic system" and the knowledge that I am not the only one who gets embarrassingly emo. So thanks for that :)