Another good reason to get those 10,000 hours of practice

by | Aug 19, 2016

Photo by Sara Vandenberg Boc

Photo by Sara Vandenberg Boc

Here is a Water~Stone Review legend: about ten years ago, long before I came on board as poetry editor, the journal received a two-page prose-poem submission from Naomi Shihab Nye.

The then-poetry editor called Nye and said that she couldn’t publish the poem as it was, but there was a three-sentence segment she’d pulled out, lineated, and turned into a seven-line poem. Could Water~Stone publish that?

Nye said she would think about it. A couple of hours later, Nye called back and said, Sure.

It’s important to point out that this editor was very experienced and good at what she did, and that she and Nye had a decades-long relationship – in other words, this wasn’t just anybody calling up to suggest a radical edit.

Yet I think another element is at work in this story, and it’s that writers with a lot of hours behind them trust they can bend their work without breaking it.

Often, when I work with a beginning writer, that writer can hardly bear to change a word; or, they’re willing to spot-change here or there, but seldom are they willing to break open the draft and crush entire stanzas into a ball, to see what else might come of it.

Then I work with a poet for Water~Stone, one who’s published multiple books to great acclaim, and that poet has no trouble whatsoever with at least seeing what would happen if she were to dramatically move around lines or axe entire stanzas. In fact, that writer is not only willing to try it, that writer is excited.

What makes such ruthlessness possible for a pro? It’s not that established writers change their work willy-nilly according to editors’ whim — they shouldn’t, and they won’t, and a conscientious editor wouldn’t ask for that. And it’s not that established writers don’t care about the details. On the contrary, they will happily weigh the merits of a word like “come” versus a word like “arrive” for several minutes. One editor tells a delightful story about the time he worked on an article with David Foster Wallace, and the humility and openness with which Wallace wrestled over every last comma.

I’ve been on both sides of the desk, and one of the great rewards of a long writing practice is a highly-developed sense of the malleability of language. Experienced writers can smash and remake the clay in their hands, trusting they’ve not destroyed something they can’t rebuild.

I just came across this lovely remembrance-appreciation of poet and teacher Agha Shahid Ali, who died nearly fifteen years ago. Take a look at the comments Ali’s made to the student (who saved them all these years). Ali’s not saying to his student, “You should or must rewrite it this way.” He’s saying, “Look at this great clay you’ve got. What happens if you do it like this?” What a gift — how exciting for a beginning writer to take these ideas home.

By the way, here’s the poem, from the 2007 issue of Water~Stone:

Read Me (Naomi Shihab Nye)

Watch us humans

as we enter our rooms,

remove our shoes and watches,

and stretch out on the bed

with a single good book.

It’s the honey of the mind time.

Lights shine through our little jars.

 

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