Discovering the Story Beneath the Story: A Generative Approach to Revision

by Arya Samuelson

Aside from simply sitting down to write the damn thing, revision is often considered the most challenging part of writing. That’s because revision is such a nebulous, amorphous process. Everyone can agree that revision is necessary for helping a story or book become the strongest version of itself, but how do we accomplish that? How do we see our work with fresh eyes again and again? How do we find the deeper story – the story beneath the story, longing to be revealed?

Let’s start with some common misconceptions about revision:

People often conflate the revision process with polishing. Certainly, there’s the stage of revision where you end up agonizing over whether a comma belongs or not, spell-checking everything, and concluding the repetition of the word “superfluous” three times on the same page is, in fact, superfluous. Those are the very final steps of an editing process. In contrast, revision is the messy, sprawling process that takes up the majority of your time when transforming sloppy first-draft words into a compelling, cohesive story.

We perpetuate the “cult of genius” by assuming that the path of revision is self-evident. We need tools for revision that help us squint and see the work differently. After all, isn’t it hard to scroll through a piece of work and not feel attached to exactly the way you’ve already written everything? Or to look back at something and just feel this vague, overwhelming feeling of dissatisfaction, without any idea of where to go next? Sound familiar?

Another typical way of viewing revision is “fixing problem spots.” Traditional writing workshops can be big culprits of this. People sit around a table and point out what is and isn’t working. The temptation for a writer, then, is to go home and try to turn those critiques into a checklist – i.e. take out the dad joke; re-write the sex scene; swap out the word “superfluous” with “redundant” – then BAM, you’re done! While these very straightforward to-dos are sometimes all a story needs in the polishing stage, I think there’s something crucial that this checklist approach really misses, which is that there is often a deeper story buried or brimming beneath the surface, and we must keep writing to find it.

This is where generative revision comes in.Here’s an explanation of generative revision from the brilliant Lidia Yuknavitch: “instead of looking for ways to fix or edit or constrict meaning, processes that may indeed serve your work at a later stage, we put our creative labor toward locating what the voice and vision of your work is inside the creative process and how we can help you amplify, explore, and develop your narrative strengths, strategies, patterns, and innovations. Where the energy lives, deeper narrative opportunities are also alive and waiting.”

I love this approach to generative revision because it is all about discovery. It isn’t about fixing a piece of writing, because art doesn’t need to be “fixed.” The true story is likely hiding inside the work and waiting for you to notice it! Instead of looking from the outside-in, we are attuning ourselves to what is most alive in the work and how to let it radiate as the North Star for the rest of the story.

In my upcoming class, Unearthing the Deeper Story on January 14th, we will practice transformative revision practices that will help you revive any writing that feels stale or stuck. Bring in up to 5 pages of writing and I’ll teach you generative revision tools to use with any genre. Together, we’ll engage in writing portals, breakout rooms, and read our work aloud to help each other discover the rich, brimming underworlds of our stories. Using these concrete techniques and the supportive container of the group, you’ll walk away with new insights about the story you brought in, renewed energy around the revision process, and revision tools that you can use anytime to become your own best editor.

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