Creation and Revision: Letting Your Art Find Its Radiant Form

Creation and Revision: Letting Your Art Find Its Radiant Form

The process of revision or honing, polishing and shaping a work of art is one that often stumps creative people. Where to begin? How to go about making the work stronger, better, truer to itself? Will I ruin it in the process? What to cut, keep, add, change?

Some time ago I published a post on this Creative Sparks blog called “Creating the World We Wish to Inhabit.” That post came about in a surprising way that illustrates something about the mysterious process of creation and revision to allow work of art to blossom. I’ll share that with you here.

This applies whether you are creating a dance piece, a piece of writing or visual art or music or in some other medium.

The Birth of a New Piece

I held a free Write Together! gathering in June of 2020. The purpose of the gathering was to bring people together to use writing as a tool for helping us process the grief, anger and fear arising as a result of all that’s been going on in the world, and also to use our writing to begin to envision and create a more loving world. Words are powerful, after all, and so is gathering together with intention.

I wrote along with the participants, not expecting anything in particular to come from what I was writing, but open to possibilities.

The first prompt I gave was simple, to begin with the words “Right now. . . ” and just let the writing go wherever it wanted to go for five minutes.

As I wrote, I didn’t know whether it might be the start of a new essay or a poem or nothing at all.

One of the key guidelines of freewriting, as Natalie Goldberg says, is that “You are free to write the worst junk in the world.” You agree to suspend judgment in the first draft in order to allow yourself to blow past your inner censors and possibly stumble on something wonderful and surprising. This is wonderfully helpful permission to grant yourself in any art form.

I re-read my little piece more than a month after I wrote it and found that I liked it. So I started considering what it might want to become.

A poem? No, too wordy to be edited down into that. A personal essay? Maybe, but it would need a great deal added and more structure. Then, I had it! Creative Sparks, my blog, is a perfect venue for this soulful, inspiring, short piece, which became the post I mentioned at the start of this one.

Revising for Purpose

I began to revise my piece with that in mind. Knowing that Creative Sparks blog is meant to be a combination of inspiration, invitation, useful information and soul nourishment for creative people of all kinds helps guide decisions about how I structure and revise my posts and what I choose to share here.

First, I considered what the post was fundamentally about and what the key takeaways for the reader would be, and how I might frame it to give context to the reader.

I cut out anything that didn’t serve the basic gist of the piece or that weakened any part or created confusion. I listened to the lines, reading out loud, to make sure they flowed. And I added more paragraph breaks for easier reading online.

I decided to forego the typical blog format of having subheadings (like this post does) and just to let the piece flow. That was more in keeping with its nature.

Sometimes rules of form are helpful, sometimes they impede. Part of being an artist is knowing or guessing which is true for any one particular work.

Finding the Form

One of my favorite quotes about writing—and it applies to all art—comes from Jack Kerouac’s brilliant, weird list called Belief and Technique for Modern Prose: List of Essentials, which I keep on the bulletin board in my studio. The quote is: “Something that you feel will find its own form.”

I have to remind myself of this often when I have created the beginning of something that I don’t yet know what to do with. Many of my writings fall into this category at the outset.

Like this post today. It began as brief update to my patrons on Patreon, and suddenly I found myself creating a post for them on form and revision, which then got furthered revised into this post for you.

Listen to Your Art

Let your pieces speak to you and tell you what they want to be and who your audience might be. If you listen, they will begin to guide you.

Consider the needs and desires of your intended audience. Consider the expectations you are creating at the outset of your piece and how you fulfill these and/or create surprise. You don’t want to frustrate or lose your audience.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with different forms, to move things around, remove and add, and see what feels strongest. You won’t know if you don’t try.

Consider what the essence of the piece is, what it’s really about, how it moves, the tone, feel, world it creates. Strengthen that by removing anything that does not serve that essence.

If you have to take away things you love—”Kill your darlings” is famous advice for writers—you can always save them for another possible piece. Keep some sort of file or reference of these. They may provide the perfect starting point for your next brilliant work of art.

To your own radiant form, Maxima

Pam Houston on Writing and Creative Process

Pam Houston on Writing and Creative Process

A couple of weeks ago I went to a talk and reading by much-loved author Pam Houston and then took her writing workshop the next day.

I came away inspired, with her latest memoir, Deep Creek, under my arm, and new tools to use and teach, but I was also troubled.

Houston is an engaging storyteller, a riveting writer, and a warm, vulnerable human being. I’m thoroughly enjoying Deep Creek, which tells remarkable stories of her 26-years on a high-mountain ranch in Colorado, of her often-harrowing childhood, and how she holds onto hope while loving this Earth and watching so much of it die.

Houston’s prime creative technique

In her writing workshop, Houston shared with us the method she used to write Deep Creek and all of her books. It is a technique that is adaptable to many art forms, and there is much to be learned from it about creative process.

Houston collects what she calls glimmers from her life, moments that capture her attention, details from the physical world that brought up some resonance in her.

A glimmer might be a conversation she overheard or the experience of painting the UV protector on the logs of her cabin. It might be a mother hitting her child in the supermarket or seeing 300 elk cross her land in the snow or the time her father was so drunk, he rolled the car and the police had to cut her out of the passenger seat with a chainsaw.

Or, as she shared, a glimmer might be the centerpiece at a cocktail party that she couldn’t take her eyes off and didn’t know why, until much later she realized the bottle of vodka frozen in a mound of ice and surrounded by roses was a perfect metaphor for her mother.

She writes these glimmers down on her computer, describing the scenes in vivid sensory detail and eschewing, as much as possible, any commentary on the meaning of the events. In other words, she practices the time-honored creative writing maxim “Show don’t tell.”

Making a collage of moments

Later, she begins piecing together various glimmers that she intuitively senses belong together. In the process, she avoids the logical mind or trying to figure out or explain what the glimmers mean or why they belong together. Rather she approaches the process like collage, trusting her instincts and trusting her reader to draw connections to seemingly disparate events that may be far apart in time.

If she comes to a place in the writing where she needs a particular type of glimmer, she’ll do a word search on her computer for “ice” or “mother” or “inadequacy” or whatever it is she feels might fit with what she’s working on.

She lets the glimmers play off of and illuminate one another in surprising and interesting ways.

Giving the work a shape

For a book-length work, Houston chooses a form as a way to bring structure and coherence to her intuitive creative process.

For Deep Creek, the form she chose was a 12-sided Rubik’s cube.

The book is in 12 sections divided by short “Ranch Almanac” entries that follow the seasons in order. Each section, like the side of a Rubik’s cube, is made up of multiple glimmers pieced together like a quilt.

The glimmers are not chronological, but jump from her childhood to various points in her life to tales of ranch life. The pairings have intuitive, emotional resonance and also provide welcome contrasts and variety in the narrative.

Sensory detail for empaths and dreamers

Specific sensory details of smell, sound, taste, touch, sight, when vividly described, are what bring writing alive and draw the reader into a piece. They are a vital part of the art and craft of writing. Houston stressed this point in her workshop.

I know this. I teach this. But, as someone who experiences life through my inner experience, my feelings and intuitions, as someone who has always found the imaginal world and the unseen world, the world of spirits and dreams, to be more real and vibrant than the physical world, I struggle mightily with this in my writing.

So I practice. I practice waking up to the sensory world, noticing, paying attention, and describing. And it’s hard work for me.

As artists, we need to practice to strengthen our weaknesses, especially when those weak areas are vital to our art form. We need to keep learning and growing and expanding our capacities and our palette of possibilities.

But we also want to keep the process feeling good and build on our unique strengths. In this way, we find our unique voice and will keep wanting to return to our art. And our joy in making will infuse our art.

So, when I get tired or discouraged from practicing describing the physical world, I go back to my strengths as a writer. I describe my interior landscape. I practice capturing the ineffable. I let myself muse on the philosophical. I make unusual, musical pairings of words, summon beauty and wonder with language, create a kind of word magic, spell-casting.

What troubled me

What troubled me in Pam Houston’s workshop was not her methods, which were fascinating and useful. And noteworthy too because, if you study the methods of writers as I have, you will find an astonishing variety of approaches. There is no one right way to write a story, poem, essay or book.

What bothered me was that she emphasized what hard work writing is, how painful it is. She even said, if it isn’t painful, you aren’t doing it right.

I understand that she was pointing to being willing to delve into what’s uncomfortable and vulnerable and to bring that to the page. I agree this is important.

I understand, too, the importance of revising one’s work over and over to make it the best it can be, and how hard that process of revision can be at times, though I love revising.

The missing piece

But, I make my living teaching writers and artists of all kinds how to have more ease, grace and wonder in the process of creation, to step into that inspired state known as flow, and to enjoy it!

I get so tired of how writers, in particular, love to complain about how hard and painful it is to write.

Do dancers and musicians do this too? I haven’t heard it nearly as much in those realms. More often, I hear musicians and dancers talk about our love of the art form, our love of doing it. Why should it be any different for writers?

Yes, parts of the creative process are incredibly hard. They require us to stretch, to meet our fears, our doubts, our pain and insecurity, to be vulnerable and risk, to work hard to get something right that isn’t coming out.

At times, we meet disappointments and rejections. We come up against our own maddening limitations again and again.

But that isn’t the whole process.

Remember the joy and play

I left Pam Houston’s workshop wondering why writers have this habit of complaining about how hard writing is. I think part of it is because the dominant culture values work, not play. If we make it sound like hard work—and it is that too—then we can validate it.

Writing—all creating—is a tremendous gift. It is sacred play. We are blessed to be able to do it. Let’s not forget that, why we came to it in the first place.

You don’t see young children who are given paint and paper, agonizing over their work. They are at play, in delight, creating, exploring, experimenting. To me, that is the heart of art-making, the way it is meant to be.

And although there are days we sweat and bleed and gnash our teeth over it, we can love and enjoy the process overall. We can learn how to preserve the innate wonder and joy, surprise and magic that is creating.

That is my prayer for you.

To your joyful creative life,


Give Voice to Your Own Astonishment

Give Voice to Your Own Astonishment

Pearls from the Colrain Poetry Conference

I am just back from the Colrain Poetry Conference, this one held in Truchas, New Mexico. The conference is unique among poetry workshops in that it is an intensive weekend devoted to honing a manuscript of poems as a whole, rather than working on individual poems.

Two teachers and two editors of poetry presses lead the workshops. The conference is open to a maximum of 14 participants. We had ten in our group, and then were divided into groups of five each day to work on the manuscripts.

We stayed together in a big, beautiful, adobe house in a remote village at 8,000 feet in the mountains outside of Santa Fe. High desert ringed by the dramatic Truchas Peaks, incredible sense of deep quiet and the magic New Mexico is known for.

The days are long. We started at 9:00 a.m. and went until 9:00 – 10:30 p.m. each day, starting Friday evening and ending with a session Monday morning. By the end of each day, my head felt like it would explode from taking in so much.

The experience was wonderful—encouraging, inspiring, enlightening, humbling (in a good way). I learned so much, and I came home eager to dive into my manuscript again with new eyes and ears.

I’ll share a little of what I learned here.


Truchas Peaks in the distanceHow poetry editors read a manuscript

The over-riding lesson is your poetry manuscript must be deeply cohesive as a singular work and not simply a collection of wonderful poems. It was thrilling to witness how deeply the editors engage with every aspect of the manuscript, and they expect all of those aspects to make sense to the book as a whole.

The editors began by looking at the title and the table of contents as a map of the terrain of the manuscript—what the key themes, preoccupations, voices of the book will be, what the through-line or arc will be, how that line rises and falls throughout the manuscript, creating interest.

After looking at the title and table of contents, the editors thumbed through the manuscript, looking at the various forms used on the page, the use of white space, the visual effect of the poems, independent of content, and what that might suggest. In other words, they looked at how the poems looked without reading them initially. Are there poems in couplets, poems in a singular small block, ones that use white space inventively, ones with long lines, short lines? Do these forms recur? They look for both a variety of forms and a repetition of similar forms threaded throughout to give the book interest and coherence.

Then the editors read the first few poems in depth, looking to those poems as a guide to the book as a whole, how to read this poet, what the themes will be, what the voice(s) will be, what the approach will be. Those first poems need to be stellar and significant to the book’s themes. Many editors will read the first five poems, and if those poems don’t totally knock their socks off, they won’t read further. Often, they will turn to the final poem, as well.

These editors then read one or more poems from the middle of the manuscript, choosing those poems based on titles that intrigued them and/or titles that seemed important to the themes of the book or poems that were visually interesting on the page. And then they read the last poem of the book, which needs to both be a really stellar poem and one that works as a summation or final statement for this collection.


dandelion seedsLittle pearls to make your poetry book gleam

  • Every poem must be very strong, edited to its finest, and any weaker poems removed or any that don’t fit with this manuscript’s themes, voices and preoccupations. A leaner manuscript is definitely preferred to a longer one.
  • If you have many poems on the same theme—say about your mother’s death—each poem needs to approach the topic differently and arrive at a different place. Otherwise, choose only a few to include and sprinkle them through the manuscript, rather than place them one after another.
  • One teacher gave an example of a manuscript (not one at the conference) that was full of one fantastic poem after another, but they all progressed in the same way—thesis, exposition, epiphany—and had a similar form. The book didn’t work as a whole because there wasn’t enough variety. One editor said what she looks for is a “constellation of difference”—constellation suggests the poems belong together, but difference means there are various stars orbiting in the same galaxy.
  • Ask of each poem why it belongs in the manuscript and what it is doing there. What is this poem’s relationship to the title? What are the ambitions of these poems together?
  • Form is as important as content. Formal decisions are as important as content decisions.
  • The titles provide a map to the manuscript. Be careful of titles the feel pedestrian—will they draw the reader in?
  • Let the image do the work. Cut away explanation that is already inferred in the image. Trust your readers.
  • Always submit poems in PDF form, not in a Word doc, as formatting can get wonky.
  • Watch out for glosses rather than specifics, not “aging parents” but “my father’s arthritic hands gripping the bed rail.”
  • Once a voice is established, it sets the bar for the rest of the manuscript, and editors look for that voice and quality throughout. Voice combines who is speaking, how are they speaking, and who are you speaking to?
  • When writing about the natural world, locate the reader in a specific, particular place—not just any tree or river.
  • What’s at stake for the poet/speaker in these poems? One editor stressed the need to see the poet’s culpability in the topics being addressed, to see self-criticism, if there is criticism of our world, and in general to see the speaker’s vulnerability and responsibility. For instance, I write a lot about the limitations of language to describe experience. She said she wanted to read how language has failed me specifically.
  • Keep a rubble pile, a file of lines you love that you have had to cut from your poems (to make the poems stronger) to draw from for new poems.

And finally, a wonderful quote that was shared with us from Annie Dillard (from her essay, “Write Till You Drop”:

“You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.”


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