On the first day of my Topics in Publishing class in DePaul University’s M.A. Writing and Publishing program, we watched The Five Obstructions, a documentary about Danish filmmakers Jørgen Leth and Lars von Trier. Leth had been von Trier’s mentor, but von Trier wanted to put Leth to the test by asking him to revise one of his films, The Perfect Man, five times in five different ways.
As a writing student who had never seriously revised my own work, this seemed like a daunting task. How could Leth recreate, and really re-envision, a movie he had already completed? It was finished; what more could be done? Leth seemed to share my sentiments. When he was given his first obstruction (or revision assignment), he said it would be “totally destructive.”
As Leth went through the process of creating these five revised films, however, he learned something new from each one. Leth acknowledged that he would have to be uncomfortable because he was destroying something he had already created; von Trier told him that he shouldn’t “try to be too good.” Leth subsequently decided that it was important to try something even if it “turned out to be crap.”
By the end of the documentary, Leth came to the conclusion that these obstructions were actually a gift. They allowed him to see his work in a new light and figure out the story he was trying to tell. Although it was difficult to see the original film in the fifth revision, it was clearly the same work.
My class—a group of aspiring writers—realized many of these lessons learned by a filmmaker could be brought over to the writing world. The main idea I took away from the documentary was that revising is really re-envisioning. Revising isn’t just tweaking a word here or there and correcting a few misplaced commas. I needed to get to the heart of my story and determine what, exactly, I was writing about. Then I needed to re-work my writing in order to get that story across. Of course there’s more than one way to tell a story, as Leth and von Trier so clearly demonstrated. I had to be open to these infinite possibilities in order to see my own work clearly. It was these infinite possibilities that could lead me in a completely different direction than I had originally planned—which could, in the end, make for a better story.
One of the assignments for this class was to revise one of our own stories, and during a one-on-one meeting the professor gave each of us our own obstruction (borrowing the term from the documentary) to work around. The obstruction given to me was to delete one of my main characters—in effect, deleting all but one page of my original story. I left that meeting feeling both excited and nervous. I felt like I could do what the professor asked me to do, but I was unsure of how to actually do it and how it would turn out compared to the original.
The edits I focused on were intention, character, and structure. When I wrote the very first draft of my story entitled “Peruvian Pictionary,” I had no idea what my intention was. I wanted to write a story different than anything else I had written recently, and I wanted there to be a happy ending for the main character. I’m still not entirely sure what my intention is, or at least it’s difficult to put into words, but I feel like I’m on a better track now.
I have only kept three characters from my first draft. Some characters were deleted; many more were added. By keeping my main character and changing almost everyone he interacts with, I was able to learn more about him. He was more likable in the first draft, but he’s more of his own person now, and I like that.
My first draft was told through a series of flashbacks. None of them applied to the story now that I had deleted one of my main characters, so I changed the structure to tell the story in a more linear way over the span of several months. The last suggestion my professor gave me was to narrow the story down to just one day (an edit I have not yet attempted to make).
Self-editing was, perhaps, the biggest part of the entire editing process. I received feedback from my professor and my peers, but I was the one who actually had to go back through the story and figure out where and how these suggestions could be implemented. With each revision, I felt like I was learning more about the characters I had created. I can really see the story’s setting as I write now, and I believe that helps with the authenticity. If I can see it, hopefully my readers can see it as well.
The obstruction my professor gave me may have been, as Leth said, “totally destructive” to my first draft, which can barely be seen in the current (fifth) version, but I’ve decided that completely destroying a story doesn’t have to be such a terrifying experience. I may not be telling the same story I originally meant to tell, but I am pleasantly surprised with the story I have rebuilt.
Amy Sawyer is currently pursuing a Masters in Writing and Publishing from DePaul University in Chicago, IL. She is an aspiring young adult fiction author attempting to finish her first novel. She works as an editor for a communications company and also writes the dog blog for a local animal shelter, which is how she met her Beagle/Basset Hound mix, Cooper.
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