AWP2015: Revising the Personal Essay

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMPanelists: Penny Guisinger, Sven Birkerts, Alexis Paige, Sarah Einstein

“Wowee,” is what Penny Guisinger began with, happy to see such a packed room. She said that there are many metaphors for revision – layers of lasagna, a spider web, 5000 arrows pointing in 100 different directions – but the metaphor she wanted to use was that of a rock band. Sven Birkerts, lead guitar, would give us the view from the plane as the band flew into town. Alexis Paige, player of a shiny white piano, would give us the view from the hotel penthouse. Penny Guisinger, manager, would give us the street view and Sarah Einstein, bass, would get closer still with venues, transportation, strategies, etc.

Sven Birkerts claimed that “revision is part of the medium of thinking, moving towards writing, and writing.” There’s a myth of writerly inspiration (Zhigavo, Keats) but revision has rather an “unsexy custodial aspect.” He gave a “Philosophy 101 overview of how it worked for [him],” summarizing that Plato was all about existing forms and Aristotle was all about making and creating. His own allegiance is with Plato: “Something needs to be said the way it needs to be said.” He said that “when the impulse hasn’t arrived I can’t write; when it has I can’t not write.” He tries to follow “the feeling of the shape.”

Alexis Paige began with a William Stafford quote from A Way of Writing: “A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.”

She claimed to be “a big messy drafter” and believes that “writing happens in the act of writing itself.” She tries to find what she calls the “magic” and what Dinty Moore has called the “invisible magnetic river” that shows where a draft needs to go. She tries to rise “to meet the new possibilities the draft has created.”

Paige then projected an early draft of her essay “The Right to Remain,” recently published in The Rumpus. It was full of cross outs and green and red track changes. She said that she wanted to say everything in this essay because whatever we’re working on “feels like it’s the last thing you ever write so it’s hard not to cram everything in.” But even though “we want to reach and leap and say more than we’re capable of saying,” we need to trust our editors and ourselves to recognize and curb our less-helpful writerly tics.

Penny Guisinger then took us down to the word level. She projected an example of her own work, which, alas, I couldn’t see because it was on the other side of the room and the room was too crowded to move (which is actually a wonderful thing – all those essayists in one spot!). Guisinger then gave us three helpful rules for revision:

  • Practice efficiency of words
  • Know your own tics
  • Work to get maximum impact

“Each sentence is like a mini essay in your piece,” she claimed; they should all build towards the larger meaning. When you revise “go on a verb hunt. Are they doing the job they’re hired to do?” “Follow your curious impulses, even on the third draft.” And remember that “feedback in this process is a really precious thing” – don’t ask for too much of it. “Choose your reader carefully.”

Sarah Einstein greeted the room with a warm, “Hello, my people!” and shared these practical suggestions to tackle revision:

  •  Look at a piece in more than one physical form – change the font, print it on rag paper (like a journal’s pages).

She then turned to ask Sven Birkerts about his similar process and he said that he wrote longhand, typed, copied and then faxed it to himself. [The audience laughed appreciatively.]

  •  Use a screen reader and the computer’s monotone voice to really hear your words and keep yourself from falling “in love with crappy stuff when you read it out loud to yourself” using your vocal own inflections.
  • Have someone else read it out loud to you and notice where they stumble.
  • And the biggest rule she follows herself: when she thinks it’s done she puts it aside for three months. Let it marinate, let yourself fall out of love with it. Then read it with fresh eyes.

Einstein left us with this powerful directive: “Think about time and distance.”

Memorable moments from the Q&A session:

  • “I don’t think [useless crap] really ages like wine.”
  • We all need time as writers to be interesting.
  • Audience member, asking for a quick repeat: “What was question?”

Panelist, already answering, now laughing: “Uh, I don’t know!”

  • When the issue of factuality came up: “In another room at AWP Dinty Moore just fell down and died.”
  • Sometimes to be hesitant about a fact is more exciting than being certain of it.
  • When picking a reader it’s often a matter of trial and error. Consider picking someone unlike yourself. But be sure to pick someone who wants to push you and not just affirm you.

This was a wonderful panel that moved from the general to the specific, like a CSI camera zooming deep into the very guts of the revision process (but without the yuck factor). They acted as a band but one without divas or roadies. They were –and are – all rock stars.

Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times, The Millions, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, The Rumpus, Brevity, Fourth Genre and elsewhere. She is a nonfiction reader for r.kv.r.y quarterly and Reviews Editor at PANK. You can read more of her work at


Visit Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies to browse our recent issues (Fall 2014 and Spring 2015), explore our classroom resources, and to subscribe to the journal (it’s free!).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s