Falling Safely: Building Revision Bravery through Flash
I’m 45 feet off the ground, strapped into a harness on a molded indoor climbing wall. Even though the only reason I’m up here is to fall off, I’m stupidly, nervously putting more and more chalk dust on my hands so they won’t slip. I’m being certified for lead climbing, a style of rock climbing where you clip the rope to increasingly higher bolts as you go. It’s notorious for long, nasty falls, so I have to prove that I know how to fall properly: arms clear, knees bent, balls of the feet poised to catch me. I had expected each fall to get easier. But here I am, two sweaty-palmed falls later, and I can’t force myself to let go for the requisite third. I keep thinking how lucky I am that I didn’t twist my ankle, destroy my knee, or shatter my face on the previous two. I can imagine only the possibility of disaster.
Revision is scary in the same way that learning to take falls was scary. Developing writers worry that they’ll make the story worse. Or they can’t envision a better version of the story. Or they’re afraid that revision is a shameful admission of imperfection or artistic failure.
Even for developing writers who have had a positive revision experience, it can feel like a fluke. The writer feels she was lucky that time, and next time will be a failure. Flash fiction, however, offers a place to test strategies and approaches to revision that feels safer. It’s a prime stretch of cliff from which to take the fall, and that’s how I use it in my own creative writing classes.
For many students, revising a story of 10, 15, or 20 pages is terrifying. That story may be the longest single piece of writing they have ever completed. And then asking them to not only revise it, but to do a major revision (whatever that means)? Paralyzing. Lots of students turn in revisions with comments like “I like it the way it is” or “I fixed some spelling and grammar errors.” That’s the kind of revision I did in my first workshops as a student, so I know what’s lurking behind those “revisions”: I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to start. This is too scary. It’s too much work with too much risk. I’ll make little adjustments. I’ll re-chalk my hands, but I won’t take the fall.
Revising flash still requires the dedication, the wrestling, the soul-searching, of a longer piece. But especially for students, flash fiction feels safer and more manageable.
As with many workshops, we read stories (both flash fiction and longer) and discussed the authors’ craft choices. I then asked them to make large-scale, specific revisions to their own fiction based on the choices we’d examined in class discussion. Because of the length of their pieces, the changes felt small and achievable. Yes, they said, I can rewrite the entire story from a new point of view. Yes, I can rewrite the story in a different setting, or with a different voice, or I can re-start the story from the current ending, because look how tiny it is. Rewriting it is nothing at all. The students believed the revisions were easy because the stories were short, usually 500 words or less. They were willing to take that fall and see where they landed.
In being asked to make huge revisions to tiny pieces of writing, my students were not only willing revisionists, they became eager revisionists. I asked them to add a second plot line to one of their drafts and use it to make a modular structure, and suddenly some of them were rewriting all of their stories as modular stories. There were similar flurries of rewriting stories backward (based on “Currents” by Hannah Bottomy Voskuil), or from an unexpected point of view (“Naaa” by Diane Williams), or centered around a specific, vivid image (“The Kind of People We Are” by Devin Murphy from NANO Fiction 2.2). My students discovered all these different ways the story could be told, each with a different experience and nuance for the reader. That was the point: once they tried the possibilities, they could choose the one that worked the best. They could even articulate why their craft choices “worked” for a given story once they tried out different versions and saw the effects their revisions created. They could examine where their falls had taken them.
Focused revision creates the possibility for the story to move in new, unexpected, delightful ways, but you have to take the risk in order to find them. For the developing writer, this realization opens the craft of writing. It reveals that the risk of revision can and will render great reward. The revisions that don’t work are still worth it, because each one still teaches you. In my class and in my own writing, flash fiction has been integral to this process of learning that when you finally take the fall, you can find a way to catch yourself safely.