beyond revision?Posted: February 2, 2009
This moment from chapter 7 of The Gutenberg Elegies engaged me, but also jarred me. I think it sheds light on where he is coming from in his vision of reading, and why he views books (or at least, books he thinks we should be reading) as though they were sacred objects. I also think it offers a view of writing that is, simply put, unsustainable. In other words, I will urge you in this course (and beyond) not to follow Birkerts’s vision of how one writes.
First, here is the passage in which Birkerts describes a vision of writing that is “beyond revision.”
When we begin to write our description, then, we find that we already have a sense of the kind of shape we want, and some intuition of the pace. This is not because these are necessarily properties of the reality we would render; rather, because we have a very particular expectation built up from everything we have read and internalized. We know just the feeling–the effect–we want. In a sense we proceed toward our expression by trying to read in ourselves the very prose we are about to write. Writing, then, becomes a kind of matching up of the right words to the specific word-impulses that are lined up inside. This is all very Platonic–to see the act of discovery less as an inventing than a recovering, an anamnesis. In writing we grope toward what we think of as the inevitable wording, as though the prose were already finished in an inner place we can just barely reach. And when we do succeed, when from time to time we reach it, we know we are beyond revision. 
The reference to Plato reiterates Birkerts’s vision of perfection: writing, or at least what he implies is successful writing, writing that is worth our time and attention, is discovered or recovered whole (Plato’s notion of the ideal–coming out of the cave and into the light of truth); writing is thus not invented (rhetoric) or made (poetry)–Plato banishes the poets and rhetoricians from the republic of letters, or wishes to. Put another way, Birkerts believes that true writing is not made through the process of revision. I would most directly disagree with Birkerts here by asserting that writing and revision are synonymous, that there is no beyond revision, that the ideal is to make and invent the discovery of writing through the process of revision. To that extent, I suggest that Birkerts, oddly–but perhaps the strangeness can be located in his strange family dynamics with reading?–defines a vision of writing that seeks to remove much of the material, even mechanical, process of writing from its view. Wanting to be a writer without having to write.
This, I would argue, is a perfectionist vision of writing that we get from reading great books. The vision is misleading if we believe that those books dropped from the sky. If we don’t get behind the curtain and see the not-so scary man (who doesn’t look that different, when you think of it, from the guy back home in Kansas) working the machinery of poetics and rhetoric. If you wait around for the right word to come, you won’t do much writing, possibly won’t write at all. Perfectionism, it seems to me–and this comes from my own experience, from the voice of a recovering perfectionist–might lead to perfect writing but it also leads to lots of weakened writers, writers afraid to get messy in writing, unwilling to write if they have to revise–in other words, leads to writers who don’t write.
A better goal, the one we are after in this course: to go through revision, get a better grasp of the poetic and rhetorical potential of writing, of mediating our thought through language, print, electronic signals–through various processes of mediation. And perhaps in that better grasp, to become stronger writers in knowing where and how to revise; and perhaps even, therefore, needing to revise less. But wanting to get ‘beyond revision,’ since very little writing takes place there, at least on earth.