Consciousness Is Revision
(3-17 May 1994)
This stream of contents is only rather like a narrative because of its multiplicity; at any point in time there are multiple "drafts" of narrative fragments at various stages of editing in various places in the brain.—Daniel C. Dennett Imagination is a revision of the future; history is a revision of the past; consciousness is a revision of all three—future, past, and present. Revision is a basis of consciousness. Continually and unconsciously, we revise our memories, experiences, and plans. At every moment we are altering multiple drafts, as a dream alters reality, as a figure in a dream, first perhaps your mother, then a girl you knew at school, changes character. Although it might not seem so because our voices are flutes, playing only one note at a time, our minds are pianos played by several hands. The poem on the page is also deceptively single-voiced; it is a palimpsest of two efforts: the poet’s effort to write it and the reader’s effort to understand. To perceive with understanding is to consider one’s perceptions in the light of one’s experience, applying what one finds to what one seeks. To read with understanding is to alter the text. With writer’s block, one cannot fix words to one’s thoughts; one cannot find definite words or phrases in any certain sequence to fit the purpose. Emotionally attached to one’s writing, one is afraid how others might react. Words appear fixed on paper only after many starts and restarts, approximations, trials, experiments. Look up a word in the dictionary; change that; strike out this; move that word before the other. No, that’s not what one meant to say. Writer’s block can teach us about the nature of writing. The process that puts the poem on the page is not sequential; the sequence in which it is written can bear only an accidental relationship to the sequence in which it appears. The ideas and emotions it expresses only a partial set of the thoughts and feelings that were layered into its making. One gets writer’s block because writing is not just words. Sentences, stanzas, essays, chapters, are not just word structures. Words can go wrong more easily than right. If they touch on anything personal, they can be embarrassing. If they express religious conviction, they can be wrong or right with the force of insanity. They can be silly, insipid, selfish, cruel. If they linger, they can bore. It is a marvelous testimony to humanity that writers over the centuries have left such a great body of wonderful things to read. Consciousness is not order imposed on chaos; it is tied to the unconscious process of revision. Revision informs mental processes both hidden and obvious, sophisticated and fundamental. Revision structures interpretation, and it governs the shifting focus of our attentions. After the piece is written, it is apparently more stable than the processes that engendered it. Now it is a public offering, not merely the record of a private struggle. No matter how I twist a poem in my mind into something I can use, I can apparently start over with the same words tomorrow. Because writings are public offerings, readers should be less inhibited dealing with them than with their relations with persons, who have feelings more delicate than words on a page have. Instead, we measure our success by how comfortable we are with our friends but feel that words are sacrosanct. The work of words is to leap into the mind with some of the energies that engendered them. The energy lost in the translation must be supplied by the reader. What happens to words that get in the mind, in the best of circumstances? If they do not in their swirling swirl anything else up with them, they fall lifeless back onto the page, the product of a foreign and unimaginable culture, not the reader’s. What to do? One can give up, start over, or pick it up again to revise.