Teacher as Writer Teaching Writing

Radical Revision Strategies: My Road from Fairy Tale to Catharsis



Why do I put off telling the story?
It’s sitting here on my brain
begging to be told
and yet I don’t, I can’t, tell about you.

Sometimes, when I tell something, I forget about it.
Am I not letting the story come out, because if I tell, I’ll forget?
But don’t I want to forget?

So begins the poem containing memories of my dad’s mother. The poem came about as the result of a radical revision, a technique demonstrated by Travis Cearley, a teacher in the Missouri Writing Project (MWP) Invitational Summer Institute, which we both attended in the summer of 2002. I never anticipated this poem spewing forth as I worked to revise a simple fairy tale I had been writing.

As Cearley explained, radical revision requires that a writer take apart a piece of writing and then come at the same subject from a different direction. He described how he helps his students view their writing in a different light. This technique, he said, is a way of clarifying thinking and, sometimes, alleviating writer’s block.

…For example, if one of my students is writing a story about the experiences she and her father had in Italy last summer, and she is struggling to write her father’s thoughts and feelings, rewriting parts of that story using her father as the narrator may help her pinpoint where her original piece is lacking. Eventually, the student can place those thoughts and feelings back into the original story (if she chooses to return to her own voice). This radical revision process could be repeated over and over until all characters in a story have well-defined and unique voices.

Cearley indicated that Barry Lane in After The End suggests radical revision in a freewriting exercise labeled “The Shotgun Revisor.” Lane suggests writers completely revamp their approach to a specific subject: “…Tell students that one way writers revise is by writing an entirely new thing. Like a person with a shotgun, they blow off revisions in different directions. Each one often gets closer to what they really want to say…students [should] write in different genres; that is, write a story as a poem and a poem as a story (1993, 138).”

Lane explains that the thread that runs through a series of radical revisions can be one of mood or concept as well as one of subject matter: “For example, my first story is a ghost story, my second revision is an essay on fear, my third a poem about a haunted house. The writer’s struggle to find meaning often transcends genre and even subject. Students need to be taught that revision can mean starting something new (1993, 136).”

During Cearley’s presentation, participant Laurie Kingsley agreed with him that radical revision is helpful as a way of getting students to reenvision their writing. She used radical revision with fifth-graders, asking them to write their thoughts as a poem, then convert this writing to the first person, then to a letter, etc. She said many students were amazed that, when pushed to try something new, they found a genre that was just right for what they were trying to say. She said when students complained about trying their writing in different genres she would say something like, “What’s your favorite candy bar? Snickers? Well, not trying this is as if you never tried Snickers! You’d just go through life thinking that Almond Joy was your favorite candy bar, when really, the Snickers awaited!” Just as there are a lot of ways to turn chocolate into candy bars, there is an infinite number of ways to write about the same subject matter.

Cearley offered the following outline to assist us in our own writing and to help our students rethink their writing:

Radical Revision Possibilities

Change the point of view.

  • Be a different person, sex, or animal.
  • Pick a different narrator.
  • Write the same story as many times as you have characters, catching only what they see.

Change the chronological order of events.

  • 1234 becomes 3241.
  • Focus on the middle, beginning, or end only.

Give the piece a new ending or beginning.

  • (This works great when practicing with someone else’s writing.)?

Change the tone or voice of the narrator.

  • Make the timid, shy kid the bold, brash hero.
  • Change the voice of the twenty-something heroine into the voice of the emotional child within.

Completely alter the genre.

  • Poem to essay
  • Essay to newspaper article
  • Newspaper article to one-act play

Alter the focus (usually done while altering the genre).

  • A story about a rock star develops into the tale of an obsessed fan.
  • The sights being described by an informative essay about tourist possibilities in Maine develops into a poem in which the coastline of Maine laments the off-season.

In the guided practice portion of Cearley’s presentation, participant Morgan Parrish worked to revise a narrative she had written about attempting to find the perfect tacky tourist outfit for a Hawaiian luau she would host later in the summer. In the narrative, she describes how difficult it was to find a plain straw hat and pair of sandals due to the embellishments added at the factory. During radical revision she wrote from the hats’ and shoes’ perspectives. They were rightly insulted by Parrish’s comments as she picked up and then rejected each, and their sullen personalities surprised and delighted us as listeners to this “inside story.”

Several days after Cearley’s presentation, following his direction, I decided to add characters to a fairy tale I had drafted. The tale had begun, “Once upon a time, a fair maiden toiled the soil wishing for a cottage garden of many colors…” and so continued, based on my experiences in creating a free-spirited cottage garden. What I didn’t expect, however, was that this revision would eventually take me not only to a new genre but to deeper and more significant subject matter.

While response to my garden tale from my writing workshop small group had been positive, I asked Laura Lipsett, the institute facilitator, to read my draft and comment. She liked the descriptive colors and the use of the word rhizomes in a seemingly simplistic story, but she also asked questions: “Who is the maiden? How did she get there? Does she garden alone or does she get help? Why is this all she does—that is, garden?” Apparently it was not clear that I was the “fair maiden” in this tale. Thinking about Lipsett’s questions, I decided to try Cearley’s radical revision technique. I would change this piece from a tale of a single maiden to a sweet story about a small child visiting her grandmother’s garden. I would have the grandmother patiently and lovingly tell her grandchild the stories held in the many different flower faces. Since I have difficulty creating new characters, I decided to fashion the child after myself and the grandmother after my own grandmother.

This turned out to be a disastrous piece of miscasting. What I wanted for the grandmother in the garden piece was a warm, loving person who would naturally put her hands on the shoulders of the child, adoring the child, delighting in conversation with the child. What I had in my memories, though, was a stern grandmother, critical in every way to everyone she came in contact with. Hugs? Kisses? Forget it. That wasn’t her.

But it was this woman—my real-life grandmother—who was to come to dominate my story. In my garden story, the child would ride her bike over a mile of slippery gravel road to her grandmother’s house, unbeknownst to her mother. The grandmother’s greeting was hardly cheery. “What are you doing here?” she wanted to know. Immediately she phoned the mother, “Don’t know what was going on in your head to let this child ride a bike in this heat…could’ve got heat stroke…not a stitch of brains….” Now that sounded more like my grandmother who rarely had a pleasant word to say to my mom. But it was not the grandmother I had intended for my story.

I found myself ending my story with these lines referring to the grandmother: “…she was standing there in her faded-out dress, beside her faded-out roses, in her faded-out life.” But, I didn’t want to write that story. I wanted to write a pleasant story. Returning to my fairy tale about the lovely maiden and her lovely garden, though, proved difficult now with ugly memories creeping into my thoughts. Once again I felt the dark criticism of my grandmother spreading an inky blotch on my life.

I fought a battle between truth and betrayal. Then, knowing I could not get past this wall of emotion to return to the fairy tale, I reached for fresh paper and wrote furiously what I was feeling for my grandmother at the moment. Twenty-five years in the grave and still she had the ability to wreak havoc on my emotions. An angry poem was emerging. This was a radical revision for which I had not bargained.

May you always be reminded
That your constant critical ways
are burned into your granddaughter’s memories
…I reject your example.
I will not live my life like you did yours.

I wrote these furious words, and I began to feel a relief. Working through my feelings, I ended with a cathartic poem that I eventually titled “Rejection.”

Don’t I want to forget your insults, your hostility,
Forget your rejection,
Forget that you couldn’t…say one nice thing to me or my mom or anyone.
Don’t I want to forget how malicious your words were,
how hurtful?

My daughter read my poem, paused thoughtfully, and asked for the story behind the poem. Emotionally, I blurted out the story of my grandmother.

You were supposed to love me
All grandmas love their grandkids
But you didn’t
You didn’t want me around
Don’t I want to forget that by telling my story?

My writing group listened as I broke out of my usually reserved writing style to use words that named the fury I felt.

That’s your legacy, may it be your Hell until the black hole
Your memory has made in my heart heals over one day….

They, too, asked for the story behind the poem. Encouraged by this response, I shared the poem with the whole group from the Missouri Writing Project Summer Institute. At the conclusion of my reading, a silence; and then members of the group commented on the courage required to write with honesty and without inhibitions and then to read that writing with such emotion. They, too, asked for the whole story. I felt proud of “Rejection” even though it had taken a huge toll on my emotions.

Eventually I will return to my garden fairy tale, forming the characters this time after my daughter and her grandmother—my mom. The two of them enjoy an easy, loving relationship about which I am both pleased and jealous: pleased my daughter has a grandmother who loves her, and jealous because she has a grandmother who loves her—a relationship I didn’t have growing up.

I hadn’t started out that afternoon to use Cearley’s radical revision technique quite to this extent. However, if I hadn’t decided to change characters in my garden tale, the end result, the poem, could not have happened. Radical revision allowed me to find a story inside that I didn’t know was hiding there. And now that I’ve told my grandmother’s story, maybe I can begin to forget the sadness of those memories. In the meantime, I will certainly use this revision technique in my future writing and recommend its use to my students. Transforming a cute little fairy tale into an angry, powerful poem—I would definitely call that radical revision.