Revision as speculative fiction
3 min read

Revision as speculative fiction

You don't cook with living ingredients/a manuscript is an atlas moth

The trouble with revision is that I was a different person a year ago, and so were you. We write books in a certain headspace. It’s made up of the things that we’re sure of (“I will never transition,” “I will never be satisfied with my work,” “I will always be healthy”). Years later, those certainties will all be different — “I will never remarry,” “I will always live in this city,” “I will never change jobs” — and we’ll have the insight to see that all this is transient too, but it won’t make it any easier to believe.

As a result, revision becomes a speculative act. To revise, we must think ourselves into the mind that wrote the story. We must create the fiction of being someone we’re not. Yes, we used to be that person — but it’s not a great leap to recognize that the person you used to be is often the most alien presence of all.

I’ve been thinking about this lately, as I’ve spent much of this year revising. I added substantial material to a novella I wrote a few years ago (2017 certainties: “I will always be married to Person X”; “Person Y will always stalk me, and I’ll always be as afraid of them as I am today”; “I am and always will be a woman”). I revised a book I had just written, and although the break between beginning the book and finishing it was only a few months, the certainties changed anyway (“I will not spend my thirties seriously afraid of illness”; “A character who can travel freely, and pursue a relationship without risk, but who can only go outside at night, will be significantly less free to act than most of my readers”).

For the second half of this year, I’ve been involved in a reworking of a much older project. Originally supposed to be a revision with a new framing device and significant cuts, it’s turned into a virtual page one rewrite. This has a lot to do with the fact that its certainties — “I will never transition”; “real political change is a fatuous goal and always leads to bloodshed”; “there’s a fairly pure division between commercial artists and artists who are driven to create” — no longer make any sense to me. I can only put myself into the head of the person who wrote that book for a short, shallow time. It’s like breathing someone else’s atmosphere.

I used to say that manuscripts had short lives. They were the ones that had very little air to breathe. I would put it in terms of the manuscripts dying, of the need to rush through the process while the manuscript was still alive, as if it were an atlas moth, or a head of living butter lettuce, or a crush. I still think this is true, but — perhaps because I no longer see a pure division between commercial artists and artists who are driven to create — the meaning of the fact has changed. Sometimes manuscripts die, and you can make something good out of their remains, is what I mean. After all, you don’t cook with living ingredients. Even the butter lettuce has to go sometime.

But they do die. It’s not the end of their usefulness, but they die every year or so, like we do. And if you’re not in a position to do a page one rewrite — if you can’t cook with the remains of the manuscript, but must operate instead, and yes, in this scenario you are either a tree surgeon who eats trees or a very unethical veterinarian — you must learn to pretend to be a person who no longer exists.

I can’t emphasize enough how weird this is, how especially weird it was to revise the novella, which was just old enough to feel like it was written by a totally different mind, but was alive, in the strictest sense. That is, I remembered how it felt to be that person, and I thought they were right about a lot of things, and I could have a go at pastiching their style. Because, of course, each of our past selves has their own style! These styles are family, but they’re not twins. I used to be a much more florid writer, and much more lonely.

What’s even weirder is that I succeeded. I really did write a lot of new lines, paragraphs, and scenes In the Style Of 2017 Isaac, like a karaoke singer with a limited range but a lot of flair.

(Do you want to see 2017 Isaac? Of course you do!

As you can see, he basically knew what was what. Also, his skin was incredible.)

Anyway, this was all very educational, and I do think that lipstick color is good on 2017 Isaac, and if that Western dress were a Western shirt, I’d wear it today.