Today I begin a new round of revisions, and so it is inevitable that events of world are heavy on my mind—the revolution in Egypt, the political tension in our own government, my friend returning from Afghanistan, right down to my own self-centered problem of how to say what I want to say in my tiny little book. I pull Lillian Hellman’s book Pentimento off my shelf and read the opening paragraph for the thousandth time:
“Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter ‘repented,’ changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.”
p class=”MsoNormal”>Hellman uses this descriptive passage about fine art to describe changing approaches in a book that is essentially about people. She was an author and a humanist who recognized ongoing revision. Lillian Hellman was blacklisted in Hollywood in the mid-twentieth century. She was part of an embarrassingly long list of people whose social, political and/or personal lives didn’t fit the current mode of “proper.” She survived that difficult time to teach at Yale and UC Berkeley and to win awards for her work in literature and theater. Her work was valued, then it wasn’t, then it was valuable again as time and circumstance, and various small- or large-minded people had power.
Revision is seeing things in a new and different way and it goes way beyond our own writings.
Yes, this is the best kind of painting. I love to take an old canvas, even not mine, and paint thin layers on top, leaving unexpected colors and shadows underneath. I get new suggestions I could not have come up with on a blank canvas. I guess that's why I enjoy revising over writing too. There's more texture to work with, and I can see where I am and where I have to go. Poetry is my favorite. One line from a bad poem might finally help me get to the threshold I was feeling for with a toe in the dark. Of course you're talking to someone who made art out of candy wrappers, onion skins, and lost coins run over by trains. Poverty means instead of the blank canvas at 59.99 from the store you get an old board out of the dumster and we all know which is the better story.