I'd like to share with you a writing experience I had a few months ago.
Here's what happened. Back in February 2010, after making a list of 10 literary journals I thought would be good homes for a particular piece, I submitted a 6,000 word segmented narrative essay to the first six. By June, three had passed (and so I promptly sent it out to the next three on my list). In September, on a Sunday morning, I received an email from the nonfiction editor of one of the journals – a biggie.
She loved the piece, she said, and was looking to fill a slot in an upcoming issue, already in full production mode, but that opening was for a 2000 to 3000 piece. If I wanted to preserve my piece in its 6000-word form, she'd hold on to it and put it into the next round of editor readings, to see if it would again make the preliminary cut for a future issue. But, she and another nonfiction editor were most intrigued with a particular 7 pages (out of 19) of my piece. Would I consider shaping an excerpt around those pages? Oh, and could I do so by Thursday?
This is a literary journal in which I'd feel honored to have my work published; it has a reputation for presenting finely crafted pieces by writers I admire. Of course I would do it. But. Going from a 19 page piece to a 9 page piece poses a boatload of prickly challenges. Then again, it was written as a segmented essay anyway, meant to be digested in chunks. How hard could it be? Huh.
She and I talked it over, and we decided I had two choices: Present the sections she liked most on their own, with no introductory or concluding text, just a line noting it's an excerpt from a memoir-in-progress; OR, lift the segments and create a new opening and a new, condensed ending. For various reasons, mostly to do with preserving the overall tone, I opted for the latter.
Fortunately I love revision. I enjoy deconstructing my prose and finding new ways it might also work. I like the challenge of saying more – or at least as much – in fewer words, and in a more finely fitted form. Give me a deadline, an editor who's sharp and supportive, the chance to crack an admired publication (and some dark chocolate) and I'm a happy camper. Still, you'd think it would be simpler. After all, we're only talking about writing a page or so new material, to be shaped around existing prose, right? Right.
Thing is, when I was able to see the 7 pages on their own, I realized that for a new opening and ending to work, I couldn't just condense the segments which had originally come before and after. I found I had to put aside the existing other 12 pages of prose, though they did guide me. In the end, when I got done hating every new word, I eventually loved (almost) every word.
The more I departed from my original words, phrases and images, and my original idea of just how long the piece "should" be, the easier it got. Which reminds me, yet again, how much more we are capable of as writers if only we can get out of our own way. Sometimes getting out of our way means starting with blank pages, new ideas, and fear.
I finished and sent the piece off. And heard nothing for days, then for two weeks, which surprised me only given the urgency the editor had initially implied. I sent a follow-up email and the reply seemed to suggest she'd forgotten what she had asked me to do. (Journal editors are busy and overworked, I get it, I do.) I explained again, and was advised to wait. I did, for another few weeks, and then was told it was going "up a level," for the approval of her editor-in-chief. It could go either way.
It went the wrong way.
I considered that I may have made the wrong choice, that I should have simply lifted the 7 pages she liked, labeled it an excerpt, and left it at that. Was it a case of my thinking I knew better than this editor, who perhaps was, between the lines, telling me what I should do? Then why had she given me a choice, I wondered. Because she's a good editor, who respects writers, that's why. And I'm a bit thick.
I pouted for a bit. Vowed to never submit there again, or to submit anything again, anywhere, ever.
Then I realized: Now this work has two incarnations, and I'll have two similar but different pieces to submit (again!) to another round of journals. Maybe the new, shorter form will open opportunities at journals that won't publish 6000 word pieces, which I had previously ruled out based on what I had decided was the piece's "final, finished" form. It took an editor I'd never met, who'd never read my work before, to notice something that was right under my nose – the clarity and tightness of those particular 7 pages.
In the end I had to admit I'd learned something (actually a few things) and not just about how to be nimble and flexible in the crazy world of literary submissions, but also about what it takes to re-imagine a piece of work, even after it's "done," and about how important it is to embrace the discipline of revision as something that not only gets the job done, but which contributes to one's craft.
The piece is still circulating to other journals in its original 6000 word form, AND it's also now circulating to other publications in its new 3000 word form, AND its been submitted also in its 2000 word excerpt-with-no-explanation form. And so we wait...