Revision Control

I’ve had a blog post percolating in my head for a while. It hasn’t quite taken form yet, but meanwhile it’s been gathering related ideas like iron filings to a magnet. So here’s a companion piece to the post I haven’t written.

Agent Nathan Bransford wrote a humorous take this week on the maxim that “writing is rewriting,” which reminded me of a story that anyone who reads my writing should hear at least once:

In math class, my sophomore year of high school, we sometimes did proofs. Putting axioms in the hands of adolescents can be a dangerous thing. Give them a few equations and the transitive property, and there’s no telling where they’ll end up. Whenever a student was called to the board to share his solution to a problem, and reached Q.E.D. but kept going anyway, our teacher would interrupt and say, “Stop right there. You’re fingerpainting.”

He wasn’t ridiculing anyone but himself.

This was the story he would tell, by way of explanation:

It was fingerpainting day back in kindergarten for young Warren (for that was my math teacher’s name). Each kid got a large piece of paper and the teacher had squirted generous amounts of paint on each one. Then, along with the rest of the class, Warren got to moving the paint around on the paper. After some time he stopped, but it didn’t look right, so he kept working at it. A while longer and it still wasn’t quite there. The paint was beginning to dry by now and getting harder and harder to push around, yet he continued, undeterred.

Meanwhile the teacher was walking around the classroom looking approvingly at each student’s artwork. At last she came to our hero, who was still wrestling with the muse. “That’s very good, Warren,” she said, picking up the paper to admire it. She held the paper upright as if to display it for everyone.

All the paint slid right off the paper onto the floor.

Now, it’s a lot easier to tell when you’re done with a mathematical proof than when you’re done with something less exact, like a fingerpainting. (Another maxim: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” — Paul Valéry.) If writing is rewriting, part of the mastery of the art is to know when to abandon a particular piece, before the words completely lose their shape.

The other part of mastery — to stretch the metaphor even further — is knowing how to get all the paint in the right places before it starts to dry. Or even squirting the right blobs of paint on the paper to begin with. And when it comes to learning that, there’s no substitute for trial and lots of error. (“Fail again. Fail better.” — Samuel Beckett.) Or as my cohort Duff notes, open yourself up to criticism so that you can get an understanding of how to improve.

So, at AE, we’re running a contest. We’re looking for exquisite short stories on a very small canvas. Choose your paint wisely. Use it well. And be sure to submit it before it slides off the page.

About Helen

Helen spent ten years in the trenches of book publishing, where she wrote things longhand, wrestled with fax machines, and learned the true meaning of "cut and paste." As a writer, editor, and all-around person-who-builds-things-with-words, she now works at a small software company in Cambridge, Mass. with one foot in the future and the other stuck in a peat bog of legacy content, technology, and methodology. Which is not to say anything against peat bogs.

One Comment

  1. I can’t remember where I heard this, but my daughter just reminded me that I once told her that her art project would indeed be finished when she couldn’t remove anything further from the design, or something like that. đŸ™‚

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