This morning I took a listen to a demo track on the Oysterband Facebook page: a really early version of “This Town.” Very different from the version which appeared on Here I Stand. The words are not the ones I know. The voice is not the one I know. The instrumentation is not what I know. And yet…in there somewhere are the bare bones of the song that I recognized. That made me wonder exactly how many drafts (if you can call them that) the song went through before Oysterband decided it was good to go.
A hundred years ago when I was in graduate school, I attended a seminar by the poet
Gray Jacobik on revision. At that time, I was callow, shallow and stupid; and when Gray said she adored the process of revision, I knew she was crazy. However, she had the big guns to back her up: T. S. Eliot, who revised “The Wasteland” long after it was originally published, probably right up to the day he died; and Robert Frost, who agonized over word choice in his very formal poetry. Imagine–in “Design” Frost weighed the word dimpled against the word dented to describe the spider. How careful–and how magical–is that? Dimpled is an adjective that implies a quality inherent in the spider, while dented implies damage by an outside force. Either way, that blasted spider still has that squished-in place, but what a difference in the baggage that a single word carries. After my afternoon with Gray, I suddenly knew the value, and the excitement, of playing with the tiniest bit of a piece. What would happen if…? Fill in the blank.
I am trying to recapture this now, as I revise yet again my magnum opus, that novel that’s been haunting me since the magnificent and beautiful Brenda Sparks Prescott gave the a title on a glassed-in walkway above a street in stormy Atlanta. The Book of the Mandolin Player, she said, describing a musician at one of the tables at the AWP bookfair. How long ago was that? Four years? I began writing the first draft immediately, got hung up on the sex, and had to be shouted at by Josephina Gasca, the sexiest writer I know. I’m now on the fourth or fifth draft–I’m so crazed by this that I’ve lost track. I’ve gotten to the point where I recognize the bones of the story, but I’ve been rearranging its musculature for some time now. Brenda has read drafts. She has critiqued my opening. She has questioned the value of a particular character: What would happen if you took him right out? (Answer: I had to re-imagine how to move the plot forward without him, which was a singularly interesting exercise.) She has made me consider the value of every scene. Do you need that? Every time, with every suggestion, I get bad-tempered and defensive. Then I slowly come to realize how right she really is. But I need her to make me see that, because I’m so incredibly close to this beast that I can’t see its warts. All the same, I shopped the last version out to various and sundry agents, and I have a response from one–extremely encouraging, though I didn’t understand that at first (just plunge that knife right into my heart and twist it!)–asking to see a rewrite. So I’ve been rewriting. And revising. And sulking at Brenda’s suggestions, and then employing them. Do you trust her judgment? asks my friend, novelist Stephen Benatar. I do. As much as I hate this task, I’ve been plugging away at this draft now for about a year (much of that thinking time, where I never looked at the manuscript at all); and there are moments when I see the puzzle as Gray Jacobik presented it: a word, a phrase, a passage, a scene which simply does not carry the weight I need it to, and thus needs to be removed or rewritten. A chore, and a joy. The absolute mixed blessing.
Speaking of Brenda, check this out:
Oh, and speaking of Oysterband, they released a Reverbnation widget today. For some reason, it wouldn’t embed here, the heathenous thing…