One-Buttock Revision

by | Jun 11, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

Last week, I offered a Studio Friend coffee mug to anyone who replied with their favorite prompt. The offer still stands. The idea is, during Revision Month, I’d like to zero in on some of the prompts that you all are considering for revision (and–spoiler alert for next month’s topic–publication!). Reply to this email with your address and your favorite prompt, and I’ll send you a coffee mug and try to offer some tips for revising that very prompt in a future Write Away. 

First up, based on a reply I got early this week, is The Deceptive Cadence. This prompt arrived in OG subscriber inboxes back in January, and here’s a link to it again. For newer subscribers, remember to check out the archives for access to all the prompts so far. 

In the prompt, I pulled out four principles from Benjamin Zander’s brilliant TED Talk on the deceptive cadence, and I’d like to return to two of those principles as grist for thinking about revision. 

Limiting impulses: In the TED Talk, Zander demonstrates how clunky it sounds when a beginning player emphasizes–or places an impulse on–every note. It’s kind of the way little kids sing–adorable, but not very melodious. Or, in the case of year 2, when the impulses come every other note, it’s the way I read poetry aloud when I’m trying to teach my students about iambic pentameter.

In her famous lecture, “The Sentence is a Lonely Place,” Garielle Lutz speaks of her first encounter with the work of Barry Hannah, “in which virtually every sentence had the force and feel of a climax, in which almost every sentence was a vivid extremity of language, an abruption, a definitive inquietude.” For my money, that sounds a lot like what Zander meant when he said a piano student doesn’t become a more passionate player but rather learns to limit impulses to one per phrase. You can’t have “the force and feel of a climax” if you have too many impulses in one sentence.

Take the opening of “Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin:

On the twenty-ninth of July, in 1943, my father died. On the same day, a few hours later, his last child was born. Over a month before this, while all our energies were concentrated in waiting for these events, there had been, in Detroit, one of the bloodiest race riots of the century. A few hours after my father’s funeral, while he lay in state in the undertaker’s chapel, a race riot broke out in Harlem. On the morning of the third of August, we drove my father to the graveyard through a wilderness of smashed plate glass. 

So much happens in this short paragraph, and yet there is remarkable restraint. Every sentence starts with an introductory phrase indicating the timing of an event. That repetition subdues the emotion of these large-scale events (the father’s death, the birth, the race riots) until the end, when the private events and those in the news merge in a single resounding image. 

Look for your impulses. Figure out the one, per phrase (in the musical sense) that needs to be there. The abruption. Subdue the others, not necessarily by removing them, but by cooling off the diction, or conveying meaning, as Baldwin does, as aridly as possible. And let the one impulse pulse and roar. 

Be a one-buttock player: Think of each draft as a performance, the way a musician who plays the same piece every night for a new audience finesses or tries a new technique live at the next show. And revise with one buttock off the bench.  Revise with your gut rather than your brain–creatively, not analytically. 

I mean, revise big. Try a different point-of-view in a short story. Rewrite from the perspective of a minor character. In a personal essay, you might try a section in second person. Put the last line of your poem first and write from there. 

Rewrite a passage or a stanza from memory. Like, don’t look back at the previous draft as you write. Then compare the rewrite and the original and see what passed the memory test (and keep that!) and see where the new energy is (and keep that too!). 

See what happens when you resist settling comfortably in front of your draft. You aren’t some mechanic fixing something that’s awry. You are more like an electrician, rewiring the whole place so all the lights come on at once, all the radios blast.