Monday, January 7, 2013

Taking Down the Tree--A Study in Revision

by Julia Buckley

I had to take down the Christmas tree yesterday, which was sad because it was one of the nicest trees we ever had.  It stayed fresh and fragrant for more than a month in our living room, not dropping a needle until a few days ago.  Our cats came to drink from its water base like little deer lapping at a fresh stream.  For once none of the light strands went out, and somehow we arranged the ornaments in a way that was almost perfect.  We found joy in the tree, and we enjoyed looking at it every night as it glowed in our midst like a beacon of happiness.

Naturally taking it down seemed like a sad endeavor (and a lonely one, since everyone disappears when I need it done), but I tried to link it to a new start, a clean sweep, and a chance to re-imagine the corner in which the tree had stood.

Then, being a writer, I likened it in my mind to the process of revision.  Removing the tree is analogous to Hemingway's advice to "kill your darlings."  There is no going back, after all; the tree cannot reclaim its old glory, just as the deadwood in my sentences will never bring those sentences to life in the way that removal will.

And what of the wonderful characters on the tree?  Every year I put up not just the Nativity scene, but Bob Cratchit with Tiny Tim, several whimsical Santas, various gnomes and elves, a reindeer wearing jeans, two smiling snowmen, baby pictures in "First Christmas" frames, lovely-faced angels, and more. Sometimes my books have a jumble of characters, too, and not all of them belong.  Recently an agent gave me some notes on my latest work, and among the comments was the notion that one of the characters had no real purpose in the story (other than the fact that I liked her).  I realized immediately that this was true, and I took her out. Sure, it was like sending away a friend (or taking a favorite ornament off the tree), but in the end it was for the best.

And what of the garlands and the strands of lights that made my tree so grand?  Ultimately when I stripped them all away, the tree was still beautiful--perhaps more so in its honest and dignified natural state--and I took comfort in knowing that it had a new function now, in my back yard,  as a home for birds keeping warm in its branches.  So does revision produce something new--a different text which will function differently for an audience--especially when one strips away all unnecessary garlands like adverbs and adjectives that don't really belong on the basic branches of the story.


Sheila Connolly said...

I look on our annual tree as a living memory--I can tell you when I acquired each and every ornament. I'm lucky to have several boxes of ornaments I grew up with, with notes in several hands on the original boxes (now sporting much tape).

I wish my family was more enthusiastic about this memory-sharing. My husband brought no ornaments from his side of the family; my daughter participates sporadically, usually with the last couple of boxes.

I put together a folder with pictures of all the past trees that I can find, going back for decades, including the one that my college roommates and I scavenged (illegally), and the one in my first apartment, and the one where an upstairs neighbor who was an orthodontist hung several large plastic teeth... All special memories.

Sandra Parshall said...

Some people complain that their houses look drab after the Christmas decorations come down. So why not start a new tradition of decorating for the rest of winter? You cold still have fragrant evergreens, frosted pine cones, whatever cheers up during the long, dull days of January and February.

Julia Buckley said...

Sheila, what a great idea! You can look through your memory book at any time of year.

Sandra, this is so true. And I usually do try to come up with some sort of winter centerpiece that still has a warm feeling.