I think it’s safe to say that a writer can’t get very far without developing some kind of relationship to revision. Unfortunately, this relationship is often fraught at best, dysfunctional at worst. I’m pretty sure I was writing daily for more than a decade before I could return to my work without developing hives on the way to the computer. Even now, I have to remind myself of several key things in order to avoid giving in to the kind of feeling I used to get when looking at old prom pictures of myself: braces, pink taffeta, the permed wreckage that was my hair, etc., etc. I’d thought I’d share a few of these coping mechanisms with you today, in the hopes that maybe I can help a few of you resist the temptation to rip up old photos of your beaming, imperfect self.
First of all, it’s impossible for your ego not to be involved. You’re not a monk, you’re a writer, and you care about how your writing turns out. No way around that. By the same token, there’s also really no way to avoid the fact that you’re going to see a few things that make you squeamish, especially if you wrote something in the midst of a creative fervor last night that you were sure was divinely inspired and also your best work. [Side note: High expectations, or maybe expectations of any kind, are the creative equivalent of putting a muzzle on a hound. Please, just let yourself run through the woods unchecked.] Anyway, the trick isn’t to try to find your way around your constantly alert and frequently yammering ego; instead, you’ve got to figure out a way to put it into a drastically different context.
Again, I’m going to return to one of my favorite writing lines, one of those jewels I keep by my desk to slap me back into shape when I’m digressing into Poor Writerly Habits: “What have you done lately with the garden entrusted to you?” First off, I love that it’s a question. Unlike many motivating words, it doesn’t just tell me what to do, it asks me how I plan to do it, making the good little student in me sit up and try to provide an answer, and sometimes sitting up and paying attention is all you need to get out of your own wallowing. But I love this question in particular because it reminds me that my writing isn’t really about me, in the sense that it isn’t about upholding a certain way I see myself or want others to see me; instead, it’s about what I do with it. Another way to see this distinction is through the work itself. It’s not about how good it is; it’s about what you’re doing to help it flourish.
It’ll always be easy for us mere humans to fall into the trap of wanting to lie in the street after rereading a few flat sentences or paragraphs we were sure were at the heart of what we most wanted to say. But lying in the street does nothing for your garden. If you can take a step back and think instead of those sentences as begging to be weeded, for example, it’s far easier to slide your ego in your back pocket and get some actual work done.
This gets easier with practice, which is another way of saying that it might feel nearly impossible the first few times you try it. But even when we revision revision, we must be vigilant about our expectations getting in the way. You might start by asking yourself to just sustain the approach for five minutes a day. Eventually, you’ll be able to work yourself up to ten, and so on. Sooner or later, you’ll begin to see for yourself that approaching revision with an eye toward germinating what’s working and composting what isn’t is a far more productive and satisfying act than that dance macabre you’ve been engaging in for so long, flip-flopping between self-demonizing and self-aggrandizement with head-snapping speed.
And if that doesn’t work, get thee to a real garden. If you’re so stuck in your own head you can’t even find your own garden, you need to go out and use your hands to help someone else out in any way and as best you can. Who knows; it might turn out that your garden isn’t where you thought it was, or your soil is ripe for another kind of planting. Not everyone can grow celery, peeps. Or cabbage. It might be that you’re a rutabaga kind of gal. Or that you find yourself mystified by worm casings once you give them a chance. But whatever your garden might look like, it’s out there, somewhere, and if you stop beating it down with all your great ideas for a moment and just have a little faith that it’s growing something under all that dark soil, you might actually give it a chance to bloom.