Thursday, May 31, 2012

Advice to Writers: Revision and Deconstruction

I'm currently involved in a project that has nothing to do with writing, and yet it does. Our pastor called me yesterday saying that he had a project for me that involved using my unique skills. No, not whatever writing and editing skills I might have, but the skills I have to take things apart. How he knew I could do this and do it well, I have no idea. Word gets around.

As far back as I remember, I loved to take things apart to see how they worked. I took apart (mechanical) clocks, radios, bicycles, whatever came my way that was no good or didn't work or that I just wanted to see how it worked. And so I took all manner of things apart. I didn't necessarily put them back together, and if I didn't, I had a lot of cool parts I could do something with some day. and some of those parts actually came in handy to fix something. You never know. Of course, sometimes I did succeed in putting something back together, occasionally with some bits left over, and even less occasionally, the thing worked! Miracles never cease!

What our pastor wanted me to take apart were three study carrels that were put in when our church housed the Mayfield Middle School fifth grade when their roof threatened to collapse under a snow burden the winter before this past one. I think the school was there for about a quarter and the arrangement worked well.

The carrels are located in what was the main office of the school. The church is moving all the children's ministries, including our preschool, to our second building, "The Rock," which started out life as the Marsteller Intermediate School. We've been in the Rock for ten years now: it houses the church's administrative offices and several ministries, including a senior adult day care center, our ESOL classes, various meetings and church activities, as well as a Christian school (not ours) and a Montessori school. It's a happenin' place.

So, I went over one morning this week with all the tools I thought I'd need (and found out I needed more--my dad says that when you've pulled out every tool you own, you have what you need. That's about right) and set to work. The challenge in taking apart something is trying to divine how it was put together. Once you've done that you can "reverse engineer" the thing and put it back together after you've taken it apart. This construction, though, was diabolically assembled, using glue, philips head screws and my nemesis, square drive screws. And some of the screws were hidden, that it is, behind other parts. I had to take the first carrel I worked on completely apart to take it off the wall.  I also had to take the wiring for the light out and since I didn't know where the breaker was for the circuit, ended up shocking myself as I usually do when I mess with electricity. It wasn't the worse shock I've ever gotten and my hair lay back down on my head after a while.

And so, using my cordless drill, a variety of bits, Vise-Grip pliers, a pry bar, a hammer, a slot-head screw driver, a phillips head screwdriver, a flashlight, good old American know-how and a couple of choice words when I whanged myself in the head with the pry bar, I got the first carrel disassembled in about three hours. I learned how it was put together, though, and the disassembly of the next two should go much faster. Then I get to reassemble them in a room down the hall. I've found that destruction is much faster than construction, but I'm taking notes and pictures to be sure I get it right.

Now, there are metaphors for writing and revision in here somewhere, as there are in most activities unrelated to writing. Here are some thoughts that occurred to me while I was testing my brain to see it it still worked after giving myself the aforementioned whack in the head with a pry bar.

1. Experience counts. If you want to learn to take things apart, take things apart. If you want to write, write. Simple, huh?

2. Sometimes what you write just ain't what you want. Could be anything wrong with it, like the carrels. Wrong time, wrong place, outdated, out moded, out of style, out of fashion, doesn't work, too short, too long, just don't like it. And so...

3. Take it apart. Deconstruct what you've done. What can be used? What needs trashing?  What can you learn from what you've done about how to do it right the next time?

4. Use what tools you have. I wrote during the bad old days of paper and leaky pens. I also wrote on a typewriter using that horrid erasable paper. The word processor has made writing (and revision) so much easier. It hasn't necessarily made the writing any better. That's still up to us. But it's easier to do what we need to do.

5. Have a plan for reassembly. I don't have a memory to speak of, so I have, as I noted, pictures and diagrams of how the "revised" carrels will take shape. And I'm having to make some changes, some revisions if you will. With your revision, think about what you can use and what needs to depart, what needs to be moved around and what needs to be polished. Be your own best critic. Your readers will praise you for it.

6. Enjoy the process. I don't know of any writer, other than possibly Shelby Foote, who wrote five to six words at a time with a scratch pen (he said, "It sure makes me think about what I'm going to put down"), who gets it right the first time. Join the club. I even revise certain emails twenty times. Posts on Biscuit City are revised about the same amount. My column for the Observer is gone over about fifty times. I want it as right as I can get it before I send it out the door. There's no telling where it will go and who will read it.

And so: Write! Revise! Enjoy!

1 comment:

  1. YES!!!!!!!!!!! LOVE METAPHORS! (Hate taking apart or assembling furniture, however.)