Writing's Secret Ingredient

Posted on Fri, Sep 22 2017 9:00 am by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew


Contrary to what writers learn in writing workshops and MFA classes, there really is a single, secret ingredient to creating work that comes alive. Along with the more obvious items in the recipe—basic literacy, paper and pen or laptop, an idea, motivation, and stick-to-itiveness—without this one ingredient, nothing much happens. Sure, you might write a piece. It might be skillful, with a fresh voice, and gripping plot, and clever insights. Or not. It might be successful in others’ eyes. Or not. Your finished product might be a stack of effort filed under a bed, or a self-published booklet circulating within your family, or a packaged product gaining accolades in the marketplace, and still, without this element it will make no real difference in the world.  

Maybe this satisfies you, but if not, read on. The secret ingredient that lends a creative work its spark, that makes it a dynamic, engaging presence, is the writer's willingness to be transformed. Or to participate, if you prefer a more technical term, in revision.  

“Writing is revision,” experienced writers often say, but what they really mean is: Writing moves the writer, who keeps moving the work forward until it moves readers. Robert Frost said it more simply: “No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” Transformation is both the means and end.

This is really good news, folks. It means that each and every one of us who writes has the potential to move a reader. Writing is fundamentally egalitarian. Genuine engagement—what Minnesota’s literary matriarch Brenda Ueland called “interestingness,” other writers call passion or ache or curiosity, and I call open-heartedness—is foundational to a fruitful creative process. Have you ever sat through a memorial service at which a grieving grandchild read a coarse but genuine rendering of the departed one’s life and set everyone weeping? Have you ever received a card that touched you so profoundly you saved it for years? When I taught seventh grade, my struggling students floored me with their poetry; it was raw and real because they put their hearts into it and spoke the truth. “Interestingness” comes naturally, if we let it. And it’s infectious. “The reader has a feeling and utters it from his true self,” Ueland teaches. “The reader reads it and is immediately infected. He has exactly the same feeling. This is the whole secret of enchantment.”

Sure, literary skill, effort, a lively voice, a sharp wit, wild imagination, sheer talent, and any number of other qualities increase the effectiveness of our writing. But they’re all gravy. The meat and potatoes, the substance that feeds both writer and reader and without which there is no meal, is an open heart. Why? Because when our heart is open, we’re open to change. Re-vise, re-spect, see again: Revision is the humility to receive what we’ve seen and represent it accurately on the page; it’s the willingness to change how we see, the patience to look again, and again, and again; it’s the fortitude to honor something beyond ourselves with our complete, sustained attention.  

Writing is revision when the writer is revised. The teenager eulogizing her grandfather revises a lived relationship into a printed story. Because she’s put her heart into it, the writing process moves her; she’s changed for having written. Then she revises again by reading it aloud to others at a significant moment. The story becomes a living dynamic in the room. The granddaughter becomes a spokesperson for a life and its loves.  The audience witnesses these changes; we participate in them by remembering the departed and we see him with new eyes. We’re revised. Interestingness, open-heartedness, revision—they’re infectious in a way literary flourishes will never be.

Are you open to change? Are you open to changing your work? When writing is revision from the get-go, the whole process becomes a feast of transformative possibilities. We writers need this deep, sustainable nourishment, as does our hungry world.

Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew is the author of the forthcoming book, Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice, as well as the novel Hannah, Delivered, a spiritual memoir Swinging on the Garden Gate, a collection of personal essays On the Threshold: Home, Hardwood, and Holiness, and Writing the Sacred Journey: The Art and Practice of Spiritual Memoir. She is a recipient of two Minnesota State Arts Board artists’ fellowships, the Loft Career Initiative Grant, and is a Minnesota Book Awards finalist. You can connect with Elizabeth at www.spiritualmemoir.com and www.elizabethjarrettandrew.com.
Elizabeth will be teaching the class "Living Revision: A Writer's Craft as Spiritual Practice" at the Loft on Oct 27. Learn more here!