DOING REVISIONS THE WORLD CAN SEE
Writers are notorious for being protective about their process and while we're happy to discuss our writing desk or favorite type of tea, we become a little more quiet when it comes to the actual process of editing and revising. There's no secret as to why. Coca-Cola protects its recipe (or it tries to) so why wouldn't a writer do the same?
Yet things fall through the cracks. We can get a glimpse into Shakespeare's editing process thanks to the variations in texts printed in the Bad Quarto, the Good Quarto, and all those pesky folios. Hemingway's original endings for A Farewell to Arms were released to the world and Stephen Sondheim has reworked the musical Merrily We Roll Along so many times that musical theatre fans have to specify which version they prefer (if you're interested, I still like the original 1981 version best).
My own story of public revision began with The Venereal Detective, a piece I published in The Antigonish Review in 2005. Told in first person by a female narrator who, following her lover's death, attempts to find the source of the chlamydia he left behind. It was a good story and highly representative of my own development, which I can see bleeding out of the first paragraph:
"The day Harris Jonathan was buried, my chlamydia was at its worst. Since Harris was the one who gave it to me, I took it to mean that even his bacteria mourned him. This didn’t surprise me; Harris had always been very popular."
I'm a fan of the three sentence opening paragraph. The first sentence is the hook; the second introduces the character's central dilemma; the third is their comment on this dilemma, indicative of their personality and voice. The opening also introduces the story's two main characters. When I changed the story to Scenes From an Epilogue, which appeared in Descant (RIP!) in 2009, the content changed but the style remained the same:
"Lorean would have hated her funeral. She disapproved of any event that put men in black or forced her mother to wear sensible shoes. “She’d have preferred for us to skip the formalities and go drinking,” remarks Jonathan."
In three sentences, I attempted to set up the story's main characters and their problem: one of them is dead and one of them isn't. (Talk about a problem!)
I don't remember exactly why I changed The Venereal Detective into Scenes from an Epilogue: it certainly wasn't just so I could toy around with the opening. I know it wasn't selling and I saw an opportunity to make the story more autobiographical than it originally was. "My relationships always come complete with epilogues," writes Lorean in Scenes, and I can tell you this is a statement that, in my love life, has always been true.
The Venereal Detective is a much more straight forward piece. Scenes, written a few years later, betrays a bit more literary ambition. Ostensibly, there are two voices: the third person narrative, which tells the story of Jonathan; and the first person, told by Lorean who is already dead. In fact, I've always considered them one voice. Lorean's relationships always had epilogues - and is there an epilogue greater than the one you write in the afterlife? She is serving as both historian and memoirist, both outside her own story and still a part of it. Show me a ghost that isn't.
I like that there are two version in existence, although my preference is that people read the latter one. I have a deep affection for Scenes from an Epilogue. The Venereal Detective may be technically sound, but it strikes me today as being a little cold. Then again, only I can see the true stories lurking between the lines of Scenes: my preference for it may be entirely based on the fact that it reminds me of a love life I left behind.