Kate Racculia on Teaching Practical Revision Tools
This is the latest in a series of guest posts on teaching creative writing. I asked novelist Kate Racculia if she might write something about the online revision course she teaches at the Grub Street Center for Creative Writing in Boston.
As always, if you’re interested in contributing to this series, email me at m [dot] salesses [at gmail etc.].
Kate Racculia is a writer, researcher, consultant, and teacher. Her second novel, Bellweather Rhapsody, was a 2015 ALA/YALSA Alex Award winner, and her first, This Must Be the Place (2010), was named a Must-Read by the Massachusetts Center for the Book. She is a manuscript consultant and itinerant instructor for Grub Street, Boston’s creative writing center, and currently lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with two ridiculous cats. She can be found online at www.kateracculia.com and on Twitter at @kateracculia.
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After copyediting, Pamela Painter’s revision workshop was the most practical course I took in graduate school. Short story workshops had taught me how to produce, how to be read in a room, and how to give and take criticism. But in that revision class, for the first time it felt like the intangibles of creative endeavor had been distilled into actual tools. With revision, I had a way of looking at my writing diagnostically, retrofitting the close-reading tools I had acquired in undergrad literature classes for use on fresh prose, examining new stories, my own and others, for their component parts (voice, character, setting, plot, tone, the very sentences they were built from). Mastery over the parts allowed me to diagnose what ailed the whole, then excise and remake those parts without the paralyzing fear of destroying something mortal. Revision was the first time I took my own work seriously, because I could see just how unserious it was. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t precious. The act of writing was demystified; the reality of being a writer, deromanticized. I’ve always felt mildly allergic to the word ‘craft’—it can sound so pretentious, unless you take it on very literal terms. Writing is just as much a craft as woodworking, painting, knitting. It’s a skill. A trade.
We workshopped each others’ revised stories, but the larger lesson of that revision course was one of self-empowerment. For those earliest drafts, the story belonged to me; whether or not I had the talent didn’t matter. I had the tools, and I could build.
I’m teaching a new novel revision class for Grub Street this summer, an online version of a course I taught in person back when I lived within striking distance of Grub’s writing center in Boston. It’s meant for writers who have completed a full draft, or several drafts, and are at sea. Readings include a selection from Stephen King’s On Writing, Jane Smiley’s “A Novel of Your Own (II)” from Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, and one of my all-time favorites, Nelly Reifler’s essay on “Endings that Hover.” I’m asking each writer to print out their manuscripts, read them in their entirety, and perform a series of qualitative and quantitative assessments on the whole, to break what can feel like an overwhelming behemoth—the shitty first (second) (third) draft—into its basic units. Chapters. Movements. Acts. And also: characters. Settings. Conflicts. Sentences; words. Choices they may have made intuitively, without much thought (or perhaps with too much thought)—but in any case choices. That can be analyzed. Re-made. There are writing prompts and exercises, but the true focus of the class is energizing and empowering the writers with tools to make sense of their own manuscripts.
It is not feedback-focused. In fact, I’ve done everything I can think of to push the onus away from me, the instructor—as pronouncer! affirmer! arbiter!—and back on the writer as primary owner of their choices and intentions. It’s incredibly difficult to provide constructive workshop-model feedback on a novel in parts, over the course of six weeks. But it’s also difficult, I find, to provide feedback online, period; it can derail as often as inspire. When you post writing online, no matter how draft-tender, it has the unfortunate burden of looking—like everything else (arguably) on the Internet—finished. Ready to be tackled and tucked into, rather than questioned and redirected. It’s a matter of tone and nuance, all the nonverbal, non-textual cues we use in communicating that are lost once the subtleties of our bodies are flattened into words on a screen.
There’s an apparent paradox here. We should, as wordsmiths, be able to say exactly what we mean, convey using only words a precise tone. But that supposes we spend as much time firing off comments in forums as we do drafting and redrafting a scene in a novel. And that ignores the essential truth we’re always facing as we write (and exist): we can only manage how we think we’re coming across, what we believe to be our intentions. We cannot completely control how we are read, or what our words say to others.
Obviously there is a time and a very real need to hear feedback on our work; it’s how we check our assumptions, uncover our biases, discover how we’re being read versus how we hope to be. Opening the door on our drafts brings our stories out into the world, where they ultimately belong. But they begin as our stories—as they should—and feedback is not helpful at all stages of the process. Feedback can be like Twitter (Twitter, I love you but you’re not always good for me): a giant freaking distraction. When you’re revising a novel of your own, trying to make sense of what you’ve done, thinking is helpful. Focus and attention is helpful. Reading and digesting applicable advice is helpful. Being handed a box of practical tools, and encouraged to use them, is helpful.
Not feeling alone is helpful.
As I prepare to teach this class, I’m in the final stages of a first draft of my fourth novel (the draft I wrote before this one, that heartbreaker, is cooling in a drawer). I’ve published two books successfully, had a positive experience both times, and yet find I am increasingly anxious about calling myself an expert. I don’t want to be an expert. The apprenticeship, the honing of an expertise, is a far more interesting and sustainable state. But if I am not an expert, I do have experience. I do have tools that I have used, that have worked for me. I do have love and hope, for words and stories and that moment, that wonderful moment, when something that has vexed me for days or hours or weeks snaps into perfect place.
Revision, in writing and in life, is humility and possibility in practice. It’s the developed skill to read a story or a situation, assess and analyze it, and imagine other futures. It’s the best method I know for calibrating how seriously I take my writing—not so seriously that I smother it, and yet seriously enough to let it guide my life. Writing is a craft that can rise, like all crafts, to the level of art. But if I can demystify the process for another writer, demonstrate the use of tools that could help them understand and develop their own talent, that is a good day’s work.