Here’s one of the things they don’t tell you in writing class: It’s next-to-impossible to engage in any kind of substantive revision without experience more than your share of existential despair. I don’t care how well the work is coming along. If it will stand up to a heavy revision, it probably represents your best efforts to date; by the same token, it probably also isn’t ready for its close-up. So you get the lovely job of rolling up your sleeves and getting into the nitty gritty with what you hope might be the love of your life but will probably end up not looking so great once you’ve pulled back all that makeup and hair.
I wish someone had told me this before I set out to see a novel from start to finish, because I was sure I was crazy/not fit to write/doing something terribly wrong. In fact, I think I spent the first ten years of my writing career dreading revision, which makes perfect sense, given my pattern of thinking my latest draft was the bee’s knees just after I finished writing it, only to wring my hands in despair once I came back to revise it, shocked and embarrassed at how much I seemed to have beer-goggled my writing.
Fortunately, other, far wiser writers have come before me. One of them was Stanley Kunitz, who was filmed at the 92nd Street Y giving a lecture to a bunch of teenagers sometime during the mid-90s, which means he was in his mid-90s. But despite liver spots on one side of the conversation and acne on the other, the age gap seemed non-existent. One girl asked him if he ever got frustrated, and wanted to give up. “Always,” he says. “It happened yesterday. It happened last week.” A second astute teen pipes in. “Are you ever satisfied?” she asks. “The only moment of satisfaction,” Kunitz answers, “is the moment when I finish on the typewriter and I pull out that page, and I read it, and it’s four o’clock in the morning, and I say, ‘How wonderful this is!’ And I go to bed happy. Then I read it in the morning, and I want to tear it up, and I start over.” Sure, when he goes on to wax poetic about the perpetual discontent of the artist it may seem like this isn’t a happy ending, but if you look at his face while he’s talking about this discontent, it’s infused with this quiet joy and wonder.
Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have seen that quiet joy and wonder. I would have just rolled my eyes in solidarity. But now I know that the very discontent he speaks of is at the very heart of why we return, again and again, to writing. Why we fight so hard for it. And it’s not because we’re gluttons for punishment. It’s because that discontent is a huge part of the reward.
The way we generally speak about writing make it easy to forget that writing, at its best, is an act of discovery, both for the writer and the reader. The reader’s discovery begins the moment the book is finished, but the finished book represents the final stages of the writer’s discovery, which only can happen as the result of months, weeks, and days considering what has already been unearthed not just for what it is, but for what it might represent about what else is out there. Much as an archaeologist doesn’t consider a single coin out of context (even if it’s one of ten thousand, and looks like it was the chew toy of a particularly mangy ancient mongrel), we writers can’t get very far if we values our drafts as distinct entities. What’s more, if we do see them in this isolated way, our abbreviated journeys will feel as flat and demoralizing as our approach.
If, however, we understand that creative work is often a process of digging deeper and deeper into thought and insight, it makes sense that the first things unearthed, as shiny and sparkling and charming as they might have seemed initially, suddenly seem dull and uninspired. And, what’s more, if we see each revision as rife with clues as to where we’re going and how far we’ve come, we can see that not meeting our expectations can actually be incredibly exciting.
So as demoralizing as it will always be to come face to face with where we’ve been in an effort to find out where we can go, remember that this jarring awakening is no different than coming into new light, unpleasantly blinding though it may seem. Know that you will adjust, and in adjusting, will make yourself ready for the next level of your brilliance. And even if you never see what you expected to on the page, where’s the failure in that? Who wants to write what’s expected? Isn’t what’s to come far more inspiring?
Art: Winslow Homer, The Fog Warning