Invisible Engineering: The Fine Art of Revising “The Fine Art of Sighing”

[First posted at Essay Daily and since revised.]

If you don’t already, you should know this essay by Bernard Cooper, for its pleasures will make you a connoisseur of the art in question: “Poised at the crest of an exhalation, your body is about to be unburdened, second by second, cell by cell” (“The Fine Art of Sighing,” in Truth Serum: Memoirs, 111). Its concise and lyrical prose, its brevity and effect of effortlessness, the constructed undertow of its associative method, an inventive demonstration of how a writer’s thoughts shape a piece—these qualities make it an exemplar of the contemporary essay.

Behind the ease of “The Fine Art of Sighing” is the writer’s art of revision, and that is what launched the inquiry I am about to describe. Can we detect the steps toward its art? How did Cooper shape the breath of its sentences, its elegant respiratory system, the suspended movement of the climax, and the expelled throb of the conclusion? Out of its beginning, how did he craft its final finesse?

 * * *

For me these questions first emerged from pedagogical concerns—specifically a moment when, huddled in my cold office on a winter afternoon, the graduate assistants in an introductory creative writing course turned to the problem of revision.

“How do you incorporate revision in your courses?” they asked. “What are your approaches?” In their voices was a yearning for answers. They had only recently encountered what all experienced teachers of writing know: the difficulty of pushing students forward from their current mark. There could be no writing without revision, we all agreed. However, our students did not necessarily see it that way. Some of them positively bucked revision, as if we were trying to cage their noble and wild words.

One GA in particular, Christine, was perplexed by her failure to communicate to students the importance of revision. She had developed a series of systematic steps they should follow, yet these novices resisted them, or implemented them without improving their prose. Students tend to believe that good writing comes out whole. No, we teachers insist, writing has a history. Revision is an essential return, even if only an hour has elapsed between the first version of the words and the second. Students needed to grasp that idea conceptually and experientially. How could we get the point across?

Christine Wilson is a Lecturer at Wright State University–Lake Campus, where she teaches English and directs the Writing Center. She received her Ph.D. from Michigan State University. Her essays and criticism have appeared in Legacy, Popular Ghosts, Universal Vampire, and Red Cedar Review.

A thought emerged in that frigid room: It might be enlightening to show students the revisions that an admired essay went through to arrive at its final disposition. We had found that students liked “The Fine Art of Sighing,” which displays a deceptive ease. It seemed an ideal pedagogical tool, highly wrought, of manageable length, and appealing to the apprentice writers we wanted to help.

Christine and I decided to email Bernard Cooper, saying we wanted to document the various stages of “The Fine Art of Sighing,” to analyze patterns, methods, specific changes, and authorial choices during revision. We wrote out and sent detailed questions—the mass of which embarrasses me—helpfully categorizing the topics on which we were requesting enlightenment: General writing practices (ten questions here), Conditions of writing (six questions), Specific practices in “Fine Art” (four questions), Revision of “Fine Art” (four questions, the second of which had eight parts), Content of “Fine Art” (two questions, one a two-parter), and “Fine Art” in the context of your other works (two questions).

Rather than shake his head at our presumption, rather than politely decline or—more what we deserved—press the Delete key with a stiff middle finger, Bernard Cooper wrote back, answering our questions and betraying not a sliver of irritation. His responses blossom with personality, generosity, and vividness.

* * *

When we contacted Cooper, we were operating under certain assumptions—that “The Fine Art of Sighing” went through many drafts and that we could, with his help, map out the revision process. We proposed to look closely at his drafts, analyzing why he chose this word instead of that one, this paragraph ahead of that one. Christine was prepared to undertake a close reading of Cooper’s changes and their significance, and to create therefrom a useful tool for teaching revision. She hoped that “he would create an order within the mystery,” that “he would give me a way to teach my students how to revise, a way that I could say, ‘Remember that great essay we read the first day of class? Here’s how he revises and writes. You should do that too.’” As teachers, we wanted to identify definite steps, from idea to draft to final version, that we could pass on in the classroom.

We were in the grips, that is, of a fetish of the draft. This is not to say that writers don’t revise, or sometimes hold onto versions of a work as it stood prior to its published form. Obviously, writers often do. But the real process of composition is more fluid, interior, hesitant, oscillating, obsessive, and charged than is represented by black text on white paper or by a file bearing a precise time stamp.

The draft is a pedagogical fiction, a frozen moment when fixed words can conveniently be assessed by an instructor or by peers in a workshop, suitable for classrooms, places where, in the last moments of a session, a teacher raises her voice over the hubbub as students grab their backpacks and pull out their phones, to announce those familiar final words: “Drafts due on Tuesday!”

* * *

Cooper’s essay, it turns out, was inspired by a friend’s query: was he aware that he sighed all the time, “big melancholy sighs”? (This and subsequent quotations come from Cooper’s email correspondence, specifically the answers he graciously provided to questions.) No, he was not:

I was stunned that a routine physiological response as fundamental as sneezing or sweating had escaped my attention. From where, in my body and temperament and history, did all this ponderous heaving arise?

He began to pay attention. The process of writing had begun.

I started out, simply, by attempting to describe the intake and exhalation of air, the metabolic and emotional release. The rest followed. Note that I do not say, the rest “flowed.”

A sigh is invisible, of course, but that never stopped me from turning it over and glancing at its facets as though it were a solid object. I was exploring a simple phenomenon—it is the nature and meaning of the essay to conduct this kind of verbal exploration—instead of setting out to make a point. The point made me, so to speak.

The result was one of his shortest pieces, written in a relatively short period of time.

The first half of “Sighing” came fairly quickly (if only every piece of writing would drop off the tree like a ripe fruit!), the rest over the course of two or three more days, then three weeks of small changes.

He also revealed that he had kept none of the working drafts for “Sighing.” He had no paper trail to provide or consult. He might temporarily retain a draft of a longer essay

to keep a record of the narrative. With long stretches of prose there’s too much to keep track of and it’s harder to assess in a glance, so to speak, and so I like to read long stretches in hard copy.

However, when he finishes an essay and sees it into print, even the long ones, he usually gets rid of the drafts.

This was a blow to our hopes, and there was more disappointment to come. We had pointed out, in one of our bloated questions, that “some writers keep their papers (lying in their treasures) with an eye turned towards posterity and history, perhaps assured of their place therein.” Cooper responded,

I don’t mean to sound too humble-pie-ish, but I wince at the thought of that kind of close scrutiny being devoted to my work; it leads to just the kind of self-consciousness I try hard to avoid.

His reluctance to keep his drafts, and hence expose them to scrutiny, arises from a desire to make his writing a “source of pleasure for the reader rather than … an academic or analytic labor.” Cooper works to immerse himself in the process and to avoid, as much as any writer can, worry about the destiny of his writing. As he put it, “The fate of my work will unfold on its own. I’m happier when I can stand apart from how my work is received, or from how it might be compared to the work of other writers.” In short, the absence of a paper trail, of the very drafts we were after, was central to Cooper’s efforts as a writer.

Its hull damaged by these rocky shallows, the ship named Cooper Project finally ran aground on revision itself. As a teacher, one tends to separate revision from composition. Cooper makes no such distinction.

Writing, for me, is revision. I generate an inchoate blob of language and then try to shape and polish it till the words make sense, though I may not know what sense I was aiming for until revision shows me.

* * *

It was now clear Cooper was not going to provide us with a methodical approach to revision. Christine bemoaned what seemed a nil payoff: “His answer didn’t chart out a practice of revision that I could teach.” “Where were the steps?” she asked.

But there were lessons a teacher could learn nonetheless. A writer in a classroom is different from a writer outside of one. The process I offer my students and the process a writer like Cooper follows are separated by an impassable river. Consider the workshop, that classroom fixture. Before he’s finished with a piece, Cooper sometimes shows it to a few friends whom he has cultivated over a lifetime. Although he’s participated in a couple of writing groups,

It is a daunting task to absorb a great deal of commentary about one’s work all at once, weighing which suggestions to dismiss and which to implement.

Think of the often contradictory responses students are bombarded by in workshops, and think of the context: they must by a fixed deadline cough up a rough draft for exposure to near strangers whose comments are often untrustworthy.

Many of our students see themselves not as writers but as students, with limited time to write outside the classroom. The can’t call themselves writers. They do not compose every day for three or four hours in the morning, as Cooper does. They do not go back later in the day, every day, to edit the morning’s work. They do not lie awake at night and think about an essay “with a mixture of excitement and apprehension,” as Cooper does. They do not beat their heads against “the metaphorical brick wall for quite a while” before they show their work for feedback. Obsession cannot be their method.

We began our project thinking that revealing how Cooper writes and revises would be instructive and encouraging for students. But what emerged is the gap between my own expectations for my students and the actual conditions of their writing. Much of what Cooper models—his philosophy of writing, the intimate relation of an artist to his work, the essay as an aesthetic object brought to vivid realization, his method of revising through obsessive practice, the protection he affords himself until he is ready to release his writing for commentary, his emphasis on the reader’s pleasure—does not help bridge the gap between writers and students. Rather, it maps differences. It confirms the distance between a professional, accomplished writer and a novice who dares not even claim the title.

While Cooper’s work takes its place in public, his writing process remains a secret I still don’t know how to whisper to a listening ear. How can students become so tied to writing that, driving or sleeping, they turn to each facet, over and over, looking hard at image and word until something emerges that pleases?

Far from producing a guide to revision, I think I’m better off going back to where I began—in moments of reading pleasure produced by “The Fine Art of Sighing.” Maybe it will inspire the young writer, who will inhale and exhale the sigh of writing: take a deep breath, I will say, release with feeling, attend to its passage, its history, its future. That is the fine art of writing.

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3 Comments on “Invisible Engineering: The Fine Art of Revising “The Fine Art of Sighing””

  1. This is lovely, and helpful.

  2. He reminds me so much of Verlyn Klinkenborg in his new book on writing. Likewise, K. does not believe in the separation of the critical and creative minds.

    • I haven’t read Verlyn’s new book on sentences although I read your blog post or posts on him. Bernard Cooper’s thinking is compelling to me–all the more so because look at the results. Such an extraordinarily fine writer. Congratulations on your memoir being accepted.


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