LIFE ISN'T TOLD IN REVISION
Updated: Feb 3
Letter from the Editor, Fall 2007 originally appeared here at Our Stories Literary Journal
LIFE ISN'T TOLD IN REVISION. REALLY, IT'S NOT.
This is new to me, a concept that I've found myself repeating to anyone who will listen. You're all stuck with hearing what I've got to say. You only get one chance to get it right and after that, well you just have to hope that you can try to make up for mistakes you made, or come to peace with them. After my father died last month and my life was thrown into chaos I began to realize we only get one shot to get it right, after that it slips away.
You see, I started my writing career as a poet--not a poet like I wrote love poems all day long in my journals--I mean I entered my MFA program as a poet and was very serious about the entire poetry thing. I still am. I just refocused my life after Richard Bausch pulled me aside one night at the bar and said, "Damnit you better switch to fiction," so under his wing I switched and said goodbye to the poetry department and moved my slippers to the other side of the hall.
I've written both fiction and poetry for years, but always thought that there was more of a poet in me than a fiction writer. In the end, who cares? They're just stinking titles. Let me not get off on a tangent here.
To me, the two forms are differentiated by the impetus I use to create, and the subesquent magic that emerges in the craft. You see, I can't stand revising poems (which may make me a lousy poet). I just think the stuff comes out and you can shape it up a bit but you don't change a poem about ice cream into a poem about your Oedipus complex, well maybe some poets do--but to me--the poem comes out and I just move on. I always saw myself as a conduit of the craft, rather than a master of the craft in poetry. Got me? Take this poem I published with Plum Ruby Review, it's entitled 'When We Fought With Radicals'. That all came out just like that, one day this poem just smacked me in the head, I wrote it down like that in a leaky green pen, and then blammo it gets published. Never been to Tora Bora. Sure as heck never fought with insurgents. Never heard a story like that. Just came out. Could it be better? Sure it could, but to me the poem was done. Again, maybe I'm a lousy poet.
Now when I turned over to fiction. Wow. We revise everything: sentences, plots, dialogue, grammar, beginnings, endings. There's nothing we should be afraid to change in a short story. Not only can you change an ice cream story into an Oedipus complex story, chances are it would be a much better story if you did. In my opinion, writing fiction is like playing God with a little world that you create. Some great poets do that, and I know that they deal with a special kind of magic too, but fiction is where I hang my hat; it's damn fun to be that much in control, have that much freedom.
I wish my life were more like a short story, or heck I think I've lived enough for a novel already--let me actively revise--I wish my life were more like writing a novel. I could change some details here and there about the last two months: I'd delete out the part where I lost my day job, yup, I'd still be doing cushy marketing work and getting paid gawds of money for not-a-whole-heck-of-a-lot. I'd take away the pain the main character of my novel has from his marriage ending, and he'd be able to have one of those TV ex's that was still buddy-buddy friends with him. And, of course, dad wouldn't be dead, and while I'm writing this, he'd be watching HBO on the brown leather couch, telling me another anecdote about his hunting trip to Africa, as I listened and caught glances, conjuring a few sentences for another letter from the editor about the craft of writing.
I'd do a big "strikethrough" on that van, the van he hit. It would've been long gone when he entered the intersection on September 18th, a clear day in upstate New York, unseasonably warm for the time of year. Or maybe, she would've looked to her left, looked real hard and waited for him to drive past her. Stayed at her stop sign while his Harley thundered by, the sound of the hog would've left a memory in her ears that only lasted a brief instant, instead of what will be a lifetime. I would stick with the details of leaves changing in a multi-colored array, a tapestry of fall coming on, a summer that didn't want to let go. My step-dad, or as I often called him, just dad, wouldn't have been lying in a hospital bed with a fractured skull and swollen eyes when I last saw him. I could just take out the part where I said goodbye to him, told him to go bag that elk he never got in Utah, and he woulda got up when I started to talking to him and said, "Sheesh, back off! You smell!" made him jump out of bed and we could horse around and swap stories from our day. Yet, the details of life are irreversible, unchangeable , uneditable. There is no revision in these threads that the fates laid down before us. The very nature of man is to stake out our individuality when we come upon these moments and face them with the self that brought us to that instant; the action that follows is thus our true self.
So maybe life is more like poetry to me, how in life--even in so much pain--even in the darkest moments there remains poetry. I moved back home in May and we spent the summer hanging out with my mom. We were friends. We told each other we loved one another, when we got pissed we talked it over. He talked to me about my life, and I talked to him about his. I was even going to go hunting with him this winter (which was a big deal for me). He was a father to me. I'll always love him. I can't change these details of his death, can't make it go away, he's gone now. I just have to move on.
Life isn't told in revision. In any situation there are dozens of ways to approach connection, ways to conduct yourself. If you're leading a lousy life--your own shitty novel--well, you can't go back and change around your mistakes, edit out the things you didn't get right. You just gotta move on, try to make peace and try to do better the next time. You get one shot at living your life in a way that includes growth, respect and honors those around you. I got it right with Dave, and that's the only thing that brings me any peace in all of this.
All you can do is push forward and try to get things right the first time, like I said, life isn't told in revision.
This is issue is dedicated to David E. Husted
June 9th, 1959 - September 19th, 2007