Guest Post, Eileen Cunniffe: Revision, Like Launching a Marble Boat

Lately I find myself less intimidated by the blank page (screen), and more by the thought of revising something I’ve already written. Not something in the early stages—usually when I’ve got a new project underway, I can’t wait to get back to it. The revisions I dread—or at least postpone far longer than I should—are on work I’ve already sent out into the world, one way or another. Writing I’ve workshopped at a conference, with feedback that now must be weighed. Writing I’ve submitted to literary journals that has been rejected often enough—even if some rejections have been encouraging—that I know I must reopen the file, reread my own work and wrestle with my pages.

Of course the ease with which we make revisions these days—and here I am talking about the mechanical ease of editing a document through the magic of word-processing software, not the mental work that goes into rewriting—is something most of us take for granted. But it hasn’t always been that way. I used a manual typewriter—and gallons of whiteout—in high school. I pecked my way through college papers on an electric typewriter, which fortunately had a ribbon of corrective tape, because I’ve always been a lousy typist. My first job after college was as a medical writer in a teaching hospital, where I worked with staff physicians and visiting fellows and residents to polish their research papers, book chapters and presentations. We were lucky enough to have in our office one of the three word-processing machines in the hospital; it was about the size of a Mini Cooper, and only two people in our four-person department were even allowed to touch it. I wasn’t one of them—my job was to write on or mark up paper, sometimes to literally cut and paste (with scissors and tape), then turn the pages over to one of the girls whose job it was to type or revise documents. In the 1980s, this was cutting-edge technology. Our machine was a Vydec, and he (we four women all agreed the big lug was a “he”) was both a technological wonder and a highly temperamental co-worker. At least once a week, Vydec acted up and we had to call in a technician. Still, we cranked out a lot of medical papers on that old machine, and the doctors were not at all shy about asking for one more set of revisions before we sent their pages out into the world. They took to word processing like ducks to water.

With one exception—Tiger John, a surgeon from China who spent about three years with us as an international fellow. He was one of the first physicians permitted to leave China after the Cultural Revolution, and he was in the U.S. to learn about Western medicine so he could bring new knowledge back home. He couldn’t practice here, but he could watch surgeries, observe clinics, attend conferences. And since everyone around him was writing papers, he thought he’d try that, too.

Silk PictureEveryone loved Tiger, who was nothing like his name. He was gentle and polite. And he was constantly offering us small gifts from China. I’ve kept one of Tiger’s gifts for nearly 35 years, because in itself it is a treasure, but also because it holds a riddle it took me forever to solve. It’s a small rectangle of silk, printed with the image of a large marble boat. Tiger explained it was a real boat, made of marble, from a long time ago. But with his limited English (and my nonexistent Mandarin), he couldn’t make me understand how a marble boat could float. It was a marvel, for sure. But our conversation about it ended as many of our conversations did—with me nodding my head, him bowing, and both of us grinning, pretending we’d managed to communicate more than we actually had.

Lately, I’ve been feeling like making myself sit down to start a revision is like trying to make a marble boat float: impossible. The longer I wait, the more I convince myself I’ll be disappointed with my writing—and, because mostly I write personal essays—with my life.

Revision always reminds me of Tiger John—although not in the best way. Tiger took to word processing like a marble boat takes to water. He used a manual typewriter, and when he was satisfied with a draft, he would bring it to me, as if it were another of his gifts. His typing was worse than mine, and with little English at his command, his manuscripts were incomprehensible. I’d read through his pages, making edits and scribbling questions in the margins, drawing arrows to indicate which paragraphs might be moved where. We’d discuss—as best we could—what I had understood and what he had intended. Then I’d mark up the pages some more, and turn them over to one of my colleagues, who would sit down with Vydec and produce an almost-readable manuscript. Which I would proof, she would re-revise, and together we would present to Tiger—as if it were our gift to him.

Tiger, it seemed, had as much trouble grasping the concept of a word processor as I had with the concept of a marble boat. He just couldn’t make it float in his head. And so every time we gave him a neat new manuscript to review—and even after we’d let him stand near Vydec and watch as words were typed and came up on the screen and as pages with those very words were spit out of the printer—he’d go all the way back to the drawing board and spend days mistyping his next revision. Which he would deliver to me, smiling broadly. And we’d start all over again. If any of those papers ever got published, it was after he returned to China, and probably in his own language.

I’ve kept the little piece of silk with the marble boat—in a plain white ceramic frame—near at hand for all the years since I knew Tiger John. It’s a reminder of people I met in that hospital half a lifetime ago, people from across the country and around the globe. It’s also been a reminder that what seems impossible often can be done—I mean, if ancient Chinese engineers could figure out how to make a marble boat float, anything is possible, right?

Except that’s not exactly what happened. Not long ago while cleaning up my home office (a highly effective tactic for avoiding the work of revision), I dusted the frame around my silk marble boat and thought to myself, I should Google that. And I did, and discovered that while there is indeed such a structure on the grounds of the Summer Palace in Beijing, originally built in 1755, it is a lakeside pavilion shaped like a boat, not a vessel that was ever meant to float. The Marble Boat is sometimes called the Boat of Purity and Ease, which is what one can only aspire to when it comes to writing—and revision.

So lately, I’ve been thinking about the marble boat in a whole new way. I’ve been using it as a reminder that Tiger John made revision so much harder than it had to be. Like I do, but in a different way. Because when I do finally get around to rereading myself, I almost always find some things to like about what I’ve written, even when I also see ways it could be improved. And so I sit with my pages and start marking them up, and eventually I head for my computer, open the file, and begin revising in earnest. Perhaps not with purity and ease, but with every intention of making the work better, making it sing, maybe even making it sail.

Guest Post, Eileen Cunniffe: Trouble-Making

I was stuck. I’d written myself into a corner and couldn’t seem to find my way back out. The trouble, on that occasion, was one of structure. A piece of narrative nonfiction I’d been working on for ages had at last begun to take shape. But in the process of developing my story, I’d wandered off in a new direction—one I happened to like—then found myself struggling to build a bridge back to the point where I’d taken my detour.

While I was staring at the page on my computer screen, as if that had ever solved anything, the phone rang. My mother, checking in on a Saturday afternoon to see what I was up to.

“I’m trying to fix a problem with an essay I am working on,” I told her.

“Oh, that happens to me, too,” she said. “It’s funny when you think about it. As artists we create our own problems, then we don’t know how to fix them. There isn’t a problem there until you start working on a project, then before you know it you’ve made all kinds of trouble for yourself.”

I’d never thought of it that way before.

studioThe problems Mom creates are different from mine. She’s a visual artist, and her works are almost always abstract paintings. I’m a writer, and my works are almost always creative nonfiction. So in many ways we live at opposite ends of the storytelling spectrum. Except that we both always start with some variation on the blank page. And perhaps a vague idea of what we’re trying to say, although I think we’d both agree that at the outset, there’s a lot of experimentation involved, even when you think you know what it is you want to make sense of, or document, or just express.

The pleasure—and often the trouble—begins once you’ve made a first pass at the work, and then you begin “finding” things you didn’t know were there. The essay or the prose poem lures you down a path you hadn’t meant to follow. The painting or collage asks you to mind what’s going on in the lower left corner, or underneath that fragment from another piece that you just affixed to the canvas.

I suspect our troubles—mine and Mom’s—are more alike than our art forms. Troubles with composition and balance. Troubles with juxtaposition—whether in time or in space. Troubles with scale, with tone, with an overabundance of material. Troubles with revision—deleting, painting over, cutting and pasting; or tugging a bit too hard on one thread in the work and watching the whole piece unravel. These troubles are all self-inflicted, all clearly traceable to the moment when one of us picked up a paintbrush or a pen and decided to make some art.

And then there’s the trouble of naming the work—which we writers can’t help but do, or at least most of us, most of the time. Poets sometimes get away with “untitled,” and visual artists do it all the time. I don’t get that. I think every piece of artwork deserves a title. I won’t buy a piece of art if the artist didn’t go to the trouble of naming it.

Whenever Mom shows me one of her new paintings, I have a habit of asking, “What is it called?”

She has grown weary of asking me, “Why does that matter?”

And so more often than not she has a title ready when I ask; a few times I’m pretty sure she’s made them up on the spot, just to humor me. I’m only looking for a hint, a way into her abstract pieces. And she always does give them names, at least before she sends them out in public. Good names, too, often whimsical or even inquisitive. (You can see examples at here).

But she doesn’t like to tell me the names, at least not right away. She’d rather I find my own meanings in her work, and often I do, pointing out shapes or other elements she hasn’t put there on purpose. Maybe I insist on a title because I’m a writer, and I make sense of things through words. But I’m also curious to know what she was thinking about, or experimenting with, when she picked up her paintbrush; or perhaps more importantly, after she put it down, satisfied that her work was done.

If it ever is done. Because we both agree, even after we’ve sent our work out into the world, that there are almost always changes we’d like to make to something that’s now frozen in print/cyberspace or hanging on somebody else’s living room wall. Trouble we’ve made, problems we’d like to fix.

Trouble is, once it’s out there, it’s out there. Even if we’re the only ones who can see the flaws or, more kindly, how much better the next iteration would have been.

Mom knows my rule about not buying untitled art. But one day quite by chance we landed on a phrase that might make me bend that rule. Another call from her to see what I was up to—this one to my office, not my home. Instead of the usual “private caller” flashing on the screen when my phone rang, it said “name withheld.” We laughed about that, and I told her if I ever saw a painting with that label, I might be tempted to take it home. I’d like knowing that it had a name. I’d like living with the mystery of not knowing what that name was. And I couldn’t help wondering—every time I looked at the piece—what kind of trouble the artist hoped to avoid by keeping that name to herself.

Guest Post, Eileen Cunniffe: Interior Spaces

Eileen CunniffeBang.

Bang, bang, bang.

Another shelf pried loose.

Bang, bang, bang, bang.

Nails bent and hammered into the wood. Another careful trip around the narrow landing, down the stairs, through the front door, down the driveway. Another long plank deposited beside the telephone pole. Back up the stairs.

Bang, bang, bang.

It felt good to be swinging a hammer, good to be working my body, giving my mind a rest. I felt busy, productive. And oddly satisfied to be breaking things down, splintering wood and dismantling the dark-stained desk, the uneven shelves, the flimsy cabinets. Out with the old.

I knew my next-door neighbors would be curious about the growing heap of lumber near the curb. Good. Maybe that would keep long-retired, well-intentioned George from asking about my job search or commenting on how much I seemed to enjoy spending time on my porch.

A few months earlier, I’d given myself permission to take the summer off after leaving a company where I’d worked for 18 years. I knew I had to get serious about finding a new job. But first, I had to face up to the 11×14-foot disaster area that was my home office. I’d intended to remodel that room when I’d moved in four years earlier, but somehow the project never made it to the top of my home-improvement list. Now, before I pushed myself back out into the world, I had to take that room apart and put it back together again. At the outset, I didn’t appreciate how much the room makeover had to do with the process of reinventing myself and—at long last—carving out the space for my writing life to begin in earnest. And not just the physical space.

When I’d first seen the house, I’d fallen for the built-in bookshelves in the living room.  A ready-made office in one of the four small bedrooms—with a built-in desk in one corner and floor-to-ceiling shelves on three walls—seemed too good to be true. But now, lopsided stacks of books, boxes of photographs and seemingly every scrap of paper I’d amassed in nearly half a century of living had overtaken the office.

I’d started clearing out the room in July, when it was too hot for the demolition work. I’d dragged countless boxes and bags across the small upstairs hallway, covering virtually every inch of available floor space in two other rooms.

In July, I still half-believed I could salvage the built-ins with a fresh coat of paint, maybe some new trim. I soon discovered that like every other project in my 1923 house, there were no quick fixes. Once I’d begun, it was like pulling at a loose thread on a sweater—the entire room began to unravel. Empty, the shelves sagged and tilted. Exposed, the plaster walls had hairline fractures and deep gouges. And cleared of debris, the homemade desk from another era was an ergonomic nightmare for a computer.

And that’s just what was going on in the room; in my head, things were tilting and unraveling, too, exposing damaged surfaces and occasionally giving me nightmares.

By August, it was clear I’d have to demolish the built-ins and invest in new furniture.

By September, renovating the room—as exhausting as it was physically—had become the easy part of the project.


Bang, bang, bang.

It had been a long, hot summer, as evidenced by my sweat-soaked clothes, my damp hair, and the blazing sun that beat down on my freckled arms with every trip I made down the driveway with an armful of broken-up furniture.

All summer I’d been working out in my head—or trying to—who I wanted to be at the end of my mid-life respite from work. I’d been reading books and attending “outplacement” classes funded by my former employer. I was almost certain I wanted to find my next job in the nonprofit sector, although I hadn’t entirely ruled out starting a freelance writing business. I had a pretty good idea of what I didn’t want to do next—virtually anything I had done up to that point.  In August, I attended a nonfiction writing conference, although I felt like an imposter identifying myself as an actual writer; never mind that my summer of discontent had been punctuated with happy fits of writing, and I knew whatever I did next would have to allow for that to continue.

Still, I had more questions than answers about what my next chapter would look like. Until that September, it never occurred to me that some of the answers might be hiding under all that clutter from my office, or what I’d come to think of as The Museum of Me.

I dismantled the built-ins little by little. Early on each of my demolition mornings—before it got too hot in my un-air-conditioned house—I’d start with quiet tasks. I’d unscrew hinges or use a crowbar to coax strips of lumber and particleboard away from the floor and the interior walls of the cabinets below the desk. I’d tape  paint swatches to the yellowed walls or browse online for new, functional furniture. Then, once it was a respectable hour to start making noise, I’d let the hammer ring out against the wood, working as long as I could.

Then I’d shower, slip into clean shorts and a fresh t-shirt, and grab a pile of artifacts from one of the other rooms. I’d plunk myself down on the bare hardwood floor in the middle of the mess I was both making and unmaking. I’d wedge open a dusty box, a creaky binder or a long-forgotten journal—and there I’d stay for an hour, maybe three, right in the middle of some earlier version of myself.

Sometimes I felt guilty about all the time I was spending sorting through my archives. I should be writing, I’d think, as I flipped through speeches I’d written for other people, pictures of long-lost friends, copies of invoices from my days as a freelance medical editor. I should be looking for a job, I’d worry, as I sifted through airline ticket stubs, old performance reviews, or notes a younger me had made in the margins of her books. I should be getting out of the house more, I’d chide myself, as I reread papers I’d written in graduate school, flipped through postcards I’d collected while traveling, thumbed through the high-school and college yearbooks I’d helped to edit.

Yet day after day I stayed there, deciding what to keep, what to toss, what to shred; sometimes the shredding was practical (old pay stubs), other times cathartic (old boyfriends). Some items I kept to remind me of who or where I didn’t want to be anymore—a box of crayons from an absurd management meeting near the end of my corporate tenure. Some I saved because they made me laugh—a photograph of me and two co-workers in our 1980s business attire, on roller skates (it’s a long story); or because they made me cry—letters, obituaries cut from the newspaper; or because they helped me remember who I’d been—old business cards; or who I’d meant to be—scraps of poems I’d started, newsletter articles I’d written, words that had my name attached to them.


Bang, bang, bang.

All those exposed surfaces to spackle and sand. All the possibilities contained in a can paint. All the October days spent dragging newly delivered furniture pieces up the stairs and around the narrow landing to make a new desk, new bookshelves, new file cabinets. Some assembly required. All the nails driven into four freshly painted walls to hang photographs and artwork carefully curated from my collections—or purchased for my new space—to surround me, remind me, inspire me. All the talismans artfully arranged to keep me true to myself until I found my way back into the world again; and again, after that.

If anyone had asked about all the hammering—say my neighbor George—I would have said I was up to my eyeballs in yet another home-improvement project. Only I knew what had really been going on up there, under all that paper, over all that splintered wood and plaster dust.

Guest Blog Post, Eileen Cunniffe: Van Morrison and Me

It’s been a while since I ran out and bought a CD on the day it was released. Not because I buy music online and download it onto something that plugs into my ears. I don’t. It’s just that I already have so many CDs that I’m pretty selective about acquiring new ones.

But I’ve been waiting for the new release from Van Morrison for a few months, ever since I heard its title—Born to Sing: No Plan B. Those words got into my head, and got me thinking about the confidence it would take to substitute “write” for “sing” and claim that as my mantra.

Writing always was my Plan A. Anything else I’ve ever done on the way to becoming a writer, I stumbled into more than sought out, thereby proving—if you follow my logic—that I never had a Plan B.

So here I sit, listening to the 10 songs on the new album (his 35th!) for the third time in as many days. “Born to Sing” isn’t even my favorite track. I mean it’s still Van Morrison warbling and doing that thing he does with his saxophone, making me sway and swoon over my keyboard. It’s that idea of “No Plan B” I’m stuck on. I can’t help wondering how long he’s felt that way—since before his first album? Or maybe after his 10th?

“No Plan B means this is not a rehearsal,” Van explains in the liner notes. “That’s the main thing—it’s not a hobby, it’s real, happening now in real time.”

By that definition, I am indeed working my Plan A—in the odd hours outside my day job in a nonprofit arts agency, the one that pays the bills. It’s a job I really like, mind you—in part because it brings me into contact with other people who have given themselves over entirely to their art-making. But I take paid vacations to go away and write. I write on weekends, I write in the evenings, I scribble notes to myself on the train, I squeeze in courses and workshops whenever I can.

I’ve never thought of writing as a hobby. It’s real, all right; it’s one of the real-est parts of me. So what if I was nearly 50 before Plan A kicked in and my writing life began in earnest? There’s no turning back now, I’m certain of that.

And yet, I have my doubts. Would I, if I could, give myself over entirely to my writing? “Passion’s everything/When you were born to sing,” sings Van. Does my passion for writing run that deep, spring from a “sense of absolute conviction” (again, the liner notes)? Or is it fueled by a sense of urgency because I have to fit in around the margins of my other life?

Of course, Van Morrison has been making music forever. He’s allowed to exude utter confidence, and he’s got the resumé to back up his claim that he never had (or needed) a Plan B. And clearly, he doesn’t have to worry about a day job.