The Life-Changing Magic of Revision

This one is for you diehard perfectionists out there. You know who you are. You haven’t finished that novel because you “just haven’t gotten around to it,” though it’s been sitting on your desk/computer/chest for the past ten years. You can’t write because all your youthful talent has disappeared, leaving only stodgy half-starts and depressingly mediocre early drafts. You won’t show anyone your work because “it’s not ready yet,” though you yourself are terrified to reread what you once thought was the best thing you’ve ever written, and are sure you’ll explode in a high-strung-meltdown of neurotic doom should you find that it’s not quite as good as you once thought.

There’s this wonderful video of the late, great poet Stanley Kunitz meeting with a group of teenagers at the 92nd Street Y. He’s about 98 and they’re all about sixteen, and this one girl with sky high hair and blue eyeshadow asks him soulfully if he ever writes something he thinks is really good, only to find he doesn’t like it later. And he replies, just as soulfully and without missing a beat, “All the time!” He then goes on to describe how he writes every day in the wee hours of the morning, and how at 4:00 AM that which looks like genius looks decidedly different in the brutal, bright light of day.

It’s what he doesn’t say, though, that really sticks with you. It’s the undeniable enthusiasm in his voice, the tenderness toward this imperfect and glowing soul, the gleam in his eye that tells you that it’s those brutally bright days that challenge him to start anew, that have, perhaps, fueled him for the eight or more decades he’s been writing.

I wish revision didn’t have such a bad rap, didn’t have such a second fiddle, sloppy seconds, Skipper to perfectionism’s Barbie kind of street cred, ESPECIALLY among the more talented, less experienced writers. They are the ones in the worst trouble. If you’re young and gifted, you’re not used to the seasoning failure gives your work, you have no trust in the process, you probably aren’t brave enough to share what scares you about writing, so no one’s shared what scares them, and you get all tangled up in this huge net of self-loathing and frustration. Your only exposure has been Hollywood movies in which musicians take dictation from God and men pen masterpieces with one foot. And not just any foot – the non-dominant one. It’s the artist’s equivalent of only being exposed to NBA players and confusing their performance on the court as the everyday norm of basketball players everywhere.

Thank God for basketball, for all the amazing gifts we do bring out into the open, the talents we encourage young people (and by young, I mean in spirit, not numbers) to develop through practice and practice and then some more practice. We tell the young athlete that sore muscles mean she’s growing stronger, that a day of poor performance is just an anomaly, that if she shows up and dedicates herself to his art, she will see results long term that daily performance alone might never predict. We tell the young chef that his hard-won but botched dough will inform the next one even better; the young mathematician how long geniuses worked on single problems; the young carpenter that callouses need to be developed before a hand is truly strong.

But we don’t do this for writers. Writers, after all, are plagued with gifts that hit them like lightning at birth, causing them to act weird in groups and ostracize themselves and maybe get a hair or shank too far into the sauce and work in isolation if they can manage not to throw themselves into traffic first.

I’m here to tell you that this couldn’t be further from the truth. On the daily level, I moan and groan and roll my eyes and would rather do the dishes and clean up under the boys’ beds and empty the cat litter before I start writing. And sadly, for many years I thought that avoidance and fear was a sign I should never begin, was it was an advance-warning that I would never amount to anything. But then I got a little older and wiser, and I remembered how afraid I used to be before going out on stage, how nervous I was before seeing a loved one after a long absence, how tension and anticipation and the unknown were signs of caring enough about something to risk putting the entire contents of your heart out there on its behalf. I also made the astonishing mathematical discovery that a beautiful novel is made of up of individual sentences, and that sentences are made up of words, and that words can be organized, free of charge, into any number of strange and compelling combinations. I spent ten years working on a book of sixteen poems. I wrote a dissertation so dense physicists are forming new theories about the existence of intellectual black holes. In other words, I wrote a lot, and most of it didn’t see the light of day.

What’s more, I realized that Keats was an anomaly – a wonderful anomaly, to be sure – but for every Keats there are thousands of writers whose work isn’t rich until their lives are, and they’ve had some time to reflect on those paradoxically mundane and unique riches. Writing responds incredibly well to maturity, both in content and approach. It likes a grizzled, black-humored sea captain with twenty years of dark empty nights under his belt much more than it likes a dewy eyed freshman. It much prefers a mom who’s raised a dozen kids and grandkids and has stretch marks and weird, as-yet-to-be-defined curves and lumps, yet goes out running every morning anyway, and loves every minute of it to the starving supermodel. It much prefers Stephen King to a virgin.

And I promise, I speak from experience. I was a terrible writer until I actually wrote. I was hugely talented, but a terrible writer all the same. And it was the writing and revising and falling down umpteen times and getting back up umpteen more that forged that bone-deep relationship to writing that I know cannot do without, not to mention a few life lessons as well. I became a writer by writing, and 99% of writing is revising. It’s considering and reconsidering and shaping and chipping and getting one’s hands dirty in the miraculous, frustrating medium that is language. It’s a puzzle that will never be solved, a goal that can never be reached, and it reminds me, every day, that fighting the good fight is always a thousand times more rewarding than leaping into victory.

So with apologies to all you freshly minted knights ready to slay the dragon with one fell swoop, I can’t WAIT to meet you after you’ve been knocked to the ground so hard you can’t quite breathe, but then you do, and it makes you laugh, and you reach out a hand for help. I can’t wait to meet that character. And I’m absolutely sure I won’t be alone, that we all ache to read things written by other bloodied and dirty and strong-hearted souls, that so many other hands will be reaching toward you, too.

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