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Peter Ho Davies Believes Revision Is a Mindset
In this interview, Ruth Joffre talks with Peter Ho Davies about his craft book ‘The Art of Revision,’ how to interpret feedback, and how to navigate the pressures of publishing.
The Art of Revision
Ruth Joffre: is the latest in the “The Art of . . .” series from Graywolf, which explores important and, often, abstract topics related to writing, such as recklessness, subtext, and death. At first glance, revision would seem to be one of the more tactical subjects in the series. Yet, as you write, it’s more about one’s mindset than specific tips and tricks. How did you come to select this topic and to approach it in this way?
RJ: The foundational example of revision in your book is of a moment from your childhood, a moment you have returned to several times in the course of your career, rewriting it in a number of different ways. This process happened naturally but could also be useful as an exercise: to deliberately write a scene or an image multiple ways. What strategies do you have for making content drawn from the same well feel fresh each time and for keeping yourself interested as a writer?
RJ: In the first chapter of the book, you revise the famous dictum “Write what you know” to “Write know.” This speaks to an approach that I often take in my work: writing from a place of unknowing or not yet conscious intent. This can be scary for writers, especially when staring down a blank page. What are some of your favorite strategies for starting to write without knowing what you want to write?
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RJ: In several places in the book, you note that writing in general and revision in particular often require certain luxuries the industry takes for granted: time, space, a computer (to say nothing of internet bills, submission fees, subscriptions, and so on). What advice do you have for those who do not have these luxuries or are navigating revision with limited time, space, and resources?
RJ: In the second chapter of the book, you note the importance of being able to see your own work through the eyes of a reader and point to workshops and editors as a helpful way of hearing from readers. However, not all feedback is useful. As a creative writing teacher, how do you prepare students to give and receive constructive and relevant feedback? Are there particular models or examples you find most effective?
RJ: In the book, you relate how your experience studying physics at university has helped you to approach revision as an experiment, the process of asking “what if?” and exploring the different potential paths for a story to see what works. This process can take time, and for some writers the pressure to produce and publish can hinder such explorations. How do you overcome this pressure, and what advice do you have for those trying to do the same?
RJ: One of the metaphors you use in discussing drafts is that they are living creatures—they breathe in, breathe out, expand, contract. By the same logic, drafts can age (sometimes well, sometimes not) and reveal how our thinking has changed along the way. When you look back on your early writings, do they feel like they were written by a younger or a different version of you? And how does that experience of looking back inform your writing today?
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RJ: The epilogue includes the only two footnotes in the book, one of which offers a brief but tantalizing look into the work of revising . Can you tell us a bit more about that process? What did you learn? How did the process shape and reshape your own understanding of revision?
RJ: In the book, you do in-depth studies of a few revision examples from women and BIPOC writers, such as Kirstin Valdez Quade and Jorge Luis Borges. What additional examples from women and BIPOC writers would you suggest for those studying revision?
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RJ: What are you working on now?
Ruth Joffre is the author of the story collection Night Beast. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Lightspeed, Nightmare, Pleiades, khōréō, The Florida Review Online, Wigleaf, Baffling Magazine, and the anthologies Best Microfiction 2021 & 2022, Unfettered Hexes: Queer Tales of Insatiable Darkness, and Evergreen: Grim Tales & Verses from the Gloomy Northwest. She co-organized the performance series Fight for Our Lives and served as the 2020-2022 Prose Writer-in-Residence at Hugo House. In 2023, she will be a visiting writer at University of Washington Bothell.
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