Saturday, April 2, 2011

Thoughts on Revising My First Chapter

Ok, so March came and went, and so did my revised Chapter 1. I sent my revised chapter to my advisor at around 11:30 pm this past Thursday. I was mentally and physically exhausted. I had put in more time and more energy into revising this chapter than I did for the first draft. I guess that's why Anne Lamott calls them "Shitty First Drafts."

The chapter was not fully revised. In fact, there's a section there on Langston Hughes that is pretty much incomplete. It is the shortest section and it is the least developed section. I tried to force out something similar to coherent prose hours before the deadline, but it didn't happen. Instead, I added transition sentences and reworded parts of it. At 11:00 I decided it was time to let it go and move on. I was not going to produce 10 more pages on Langston Hughes. Not at 11 pm at night. I pressed "send," cried, and went to bed.

The problem was this: I worked on everything else in the chapter before I tackled the section on Hughes. In fact, it should've been the other way around. I should have worked on that section first and then revise, tweak, rewrite the rest. But I couldn't work on Hughes when I still had no clue what direction that section was going in. With Bremer and Perdomo, I (eventually) came up with some sort of focus that I sharpened in the revision. Hughes? Nah.

I've been struggling with that Hughes section, and it was only this Tuesday that I realized why. I was trying to tackle all of Langston Hughes's poetry. Yes. ALL OF IT. If you're wondering how much that would be, take a look:


So of course I had no clue where to go. But I thought I was just lazy: people write on huge texts like that all of the time. However, on Tuesday I had an epiphany. While reading some literary criticism on Hughes, I realized I should focus on Montage of a Dream Deferred. And suddenly everything was clear to me. However, I still had to sit down and revise the chapter AND write this whole new section from scratch. I panicked. Big time. (Actually, I was panicky all of last week.)

Yes, I should have done things differently. Yes, I should have had a plan of action. Yes, I should have handed in something more polished. Believe me, I had this conversation over and over Thursday night after I sent my chapter in. But I didn't do these things. Instead, I added new information to my chapter, gave it direction, and connected my ideas to a broader conversation. It's no longer at the "shitty first draft" stage. I can actually sit down to read it. And today's a new day.

My question is: should I continue researching chapter 2? I put that on pause to tend to the revisions to Chapter 1, and am eager to move on. (Rough draft of chapter 2 is due in two months.) Radioguy suggested I just take another week to work on the Hughes section, add it, then move on. But I'm not sure if that would be effective, since all I've been doing the past five weeks is chapter 1. So I'm torn here.

One thing I do know: I have a much better idea of how to work for chapter 2. It's okay if I start out with a shitty first draft, right Lamott?


  1. Reminds me of how many great unknowns exist in a process where- I think- there should not be so many great unknowns. Why is this the case?

  2. I think step away from chapter one--let your adviser make suggestions on where to go from here, that's what advisers are for! Give your brain a day or two to reboot, then jump into Chapter Two. We'll get there together chica!

  3. @ Busy: My thoughts exactly. I was just thinking about that the other day, how there is no format, no guidelines for how to put this together. There are plenty of unknowns. I guess we're "supposed" to know what to do in this project, but I don't. I am figuring it as I go along. I'm hoping what Suz and I are doing demystifies it for other people.

    @ Suz: Thanks for the kind words! I feel a lot more confident about jumping into #2 after my ordeal with this chapter. Once my advisor gets back to me, I'll have a game plan for ending that first one. And I am excited about working with #2, so there's that, lol.

  4. @Busy and @literarychica, I am so glad to see that there are other people as confused by the process of writing Chapter 1 as I am. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and yes, this does demystify the process.