Revise, Revise, and then try Revising

[img_assist|nid=841|title=Aimee Labrie|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=86|height=100] Years ago, as a graduate student in writing at DePaul University, I took two fiction classes from Phyllis Moore. She had long, white hair, a gentle Southern voice, and a way of critiquing short stories that cut straight to the quick of the story’s problems. Her sweet-sounding critique had an iron backbone—it could make you consider never writing another word. Unless, that is, you could find a way to separate yourself from your writing; to not consider her critique of your work a personal assault. It took me awhile to get the hang of this skill. 

In my second class with her, I wrote a short piece about two estranged sisters. I thought it was pretty good—it had a lot of physical detail about Chicago (which I knew well). Phyllis thought it was okay, but a little too precious. She questioned every part of it. What was the deal with the paper dolls? How long had it been since these two sisters had seen one another? What happened to this phantom mother who is hinted at throughout the story? How much time is passing in the world of the story?

I wrote the story again, deleting the scene where the narrator reminisces about a bad haircut. I added a paragraph describing the sheet of ice covering the window of this South Chicago apartment, which then logically led to a flashback about the sisters ice-skating as kids. Phyllis read it again and, in her sweet way, asked me why the story still read as if it were written by someone who never had a sister in her life (how did she know that I’m an only child)? She said, “Oh, some of it is so precious…Get rid of all of that.” 

I wrote it again. She critiqued it. I rewrote. She said I was getting closer…but really, did I need the scene about the Singer sewing machine? I started to get angry. I looked at the story again. I forced myself to strip it bare—to ask the important questions: what is at stake? What does the narrator want? How will she fight to get what she wants? I turned it in to her again, daring her to find fault. She did. I revised. This back and forth continued until I was on the twelfth draft and the story had been cut from its original 5,000 words to a mere 2,500.

She read it carefully in front of me after class had ended while I kneaded my fingers together underneath my desk. She said, “Okay, baby doll…I think you got it.”  She sent my story in to Scribner’s Best of the Fiction Workshop, 1997.  The editor of that edition, Carol Shields, chose to include my story. I know she wouldn’t have if I had sent the first version. Or the seventh. Or the eleventh.

My teacher forced me to look very, very carefully at every piece of the story. Every sentence, every word, every description, every flashback—and to also look at what was missing.  She made me see too that the first few stabs at a story are just the beginning. The real writing, I learned from that experience, comes during the revision. It happens when you are forced to examine the story in the same way you would a new building; checking for leaks and unfinished parts, places where the structure is vulnerable or faulty. This does not mean that you need to go through a dozen drafts before the story is successful, but it does mean that the first draft is often just the beginning.

Aimee LaBrie received her MA in writing from DePaul University in 2000 and her MFA in fiction Penn State in 2003. Her collection of short stories, Wonderful Girl, won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction in 2007 and was published by the University of North Texas Press.Other stories of hers have been published in Minnesota Review, Pleiades, Quarter After Eight, Iron Horse Literary Review, and numerous other literary journals. Her short story, “Ducklings” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Pleiades.

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