Monday, June 17, 2019

Revision With An Eye Toward Connecting With Readers

At our June Women’s Writing Circle read around, I read a piece about walking the same path that Virginia Woolf did before she committed suicide. The path in Sussex, England, leads down to the River Ouse where in 1941, Woolf drowned herself. I had blogged about this “Virginia Woolf’s Room of Her Own—a Writer’s Journey” after I returned from England in 2015. Now, I decided to use the piece in my new book about how writing and sharing stories lead to a freedom of being and meaning. So, I was seeking a little input from our writers...what resonates, what needs clarification, what needs revision?

Part of the piece read like this:
I walked the long and winding path from her quiet literary retreat down toward the river.
The wind blew through the may trees, just as she described it, “like the sound of breaking waves”...toward the River Ouse where she filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in 1941. It is a good 20-minute walk, a long time to ponder one’s own suicide, I thought. How unhappy she must have been! But as the sun shone on the fields that day, I soaked up the source of inspiration that all writers feel when in the ghostly presence of a literary icon

After I finished reading, one woman said, “You’re holding back. I want to know more about that walk...what were you feeling?”

She was right. I had left myself out—call it the journalist in me, always the observer. Or maybe until I got feedback, I wasn't considering that my readers would want the “symbol” of that walk—one that they could apply to their own lives. If I dig deep, I'm not just writing about that path leading to the river, but the path of life

In literature, symbolism can take many forms, including: A figure of speech where an object, person, or situation has another meaning other than its literal meaning. The actions of a character, word, action, or event that have a deeper meaning in the context of the whole story.

I went home after read around and here's the revision.

I walk the long and winding path from her quiet literary studio toward the river. The wind blows through the may trees, just as she described it, “like the sound of breaking waves”...down toward the River Ouse where in 1941 she filled her pockets with stones and yielded herself to the river’s icy depths.

It is a good 20-minute walk, a long time to ponder one’s own suicide, I think. An eternity, even if she planned it. While I have experienced depression and regret, it is never truly lasting. As I walk toward the river, I realize I’m a coward. I don’t want to die. I have, however naively, always hewed to the notion that each day offers a moment of the extraordinary―and so it’s worth it to keep going. The brush of Lily’s soft muzzle against my hand, moonlight on the ocean....

In Wild Mind: Living The Writer’s Life,
Natalie Goldberg writes this about revision.
“There is a quiet place in us below our hip personality that is connected to our breath, our words, and our death. Miriam’s second piece connected to that place, because she slowed down. In her first piece, she was scared, so the piece was glib. We are often funny to cover up fear, but this quiet place exists as we exist, here on the earth. It just is. This is where the best writing comes from and what we must connect with in order to write well.

This quiet place opens writing to heart and soul—to connecting with readers and a basic emotion—wanting to live—not cowardice or fear of dying, as yet another writer pointed out to me at read around.

This is why I am a great fan of reading my work to others, or offering it to them to read. Readers sense something is missing. They want your heart, your soul, the bones of your writing. Symbols which spark their own imagination is one tool to achieve this. Anything less is pabulum. That's what makes revision so exciting. 

What about you? Does input from others and revision help you improve your work?


Marian Beaman said...

Beautiful revision, Susan! A memoir novice, I knew from the beginning I'd need others' input to learn the craft of writing memoir. I posted some vignettes on my blog, which became scenes in my book. Readers wanted to know more, so I expanded scenes into chapters.

Knowing I wasn't "there" yet, I exposed my work to beta readers, one of whom asked, "What is your story about?" not a good sign. Then followed more revision and developmental editing, copyediting, revision ad infinitum!

If the toll on my body as I wrote scenes is any indication, readers will be able to connect to my story.
Thanks for this timely post.

Susan G. Weidener said...

Marian, Thank you for sharing your own experience with revision. I agree that digging deep can be mentally and physically exhausting. Our readers want so much from us! Your memoir Mennonite Daughter: The Story of a Plain Girl details many crucibles. When is it coming out?

Sandy said...

I am drawn to your account. I first read The Waves when feeling depressed during early college days. Woolf’s use of language has inspired my own writing ever since, so I envy your walk. Thanks for sharing your call to revision. Sometimes we need to say things like, “I don’t want to die.”

Susan G. Weidener said...

Thanks, Sandy. I'm glad the revision resonated, as did the scene of being there at her house. I never read The Waves, but will check it out. I remember reading Virginia’s novel Mrs. Dalloway and thinking how brilliant it was to craft an entire book around one day in the life of an eccentrically amusing and smart woman. But it was her autobiographical writings, especially about her parents, which most struck a chord with me.