Romping Through the Revision Wilderness
To get a rough draft onto the page, we writers have already bushwhacked our way through the woods. We've had a great adventure, and, as Peter Turchi writes, “The desire to cling to that first path through the wilderness is both a celebration of initial discovery and fear of the vast unknown.” The path may be narrow, it may have missed some spectacular scenery, it may go the long way, but gosh-darn-it, it arrived!
Here's the thing, though: The wilderness you've crossed in your first draft is far more spectacular and significant than you yet know. You need a way to go deeper, to find the best material. You need a friendly guide.
Let me introduce you to revision. Revision is the work of seeing with new eyes. Creativity is the ability to make new things or think new ideas; it’s the capacity to see or make newness. Revision is the flourishing of creativity.
A word closely related to revision is respect, whose Latin roots mean “look back at” or “regard.” Revision is the work of respecting creation.
Contrary to our assumptions about revision, we revise as soon as an idea pops into our heads. A creative concept changes how we’ve previously seen the world. An initial draft takes that concept and gives it form—revises it—by embodying it in the printed word. When we lead curious, open-hearted lives, revision is a natural consequence of growth.
Revision is messy. Often our first drafts are so chaotic we’re eager to clean them up. True revision makes them into an even bigger mess. It demands of us patience with the continuing chaos of creation.
Revision magnifies inspiration. When we assume the dynamic discovery process is over with a first draft, we foreclose on creativity. But lurking in the untrod regions of our draft are millions of surprises. Here’s Dostoevsky’s take:
Believe me, in all things labor is necessary—gigantic labor. . . . You evidently confuse the inspiration, that is, the first instantaneous vision, or emotion in the artist’s soul (which is always present), with the work. I, for example, write every scene down at once, just as it first comes to me, and rejoice in it; then I work at it for months and years. I let it inspire me, in that form, more than once (for I love it thus); here I add, there I take away; believe me that the scene always gains by it.
First drafts do not have a monopoly on the muse. Done with a willing spirit, revision can be more fun, creative, and insightful than drafting.
Revision includes generating. This way you continue investigating the wilderness, growing more familiar with your material, before inviting anyone along. Our initial seeing is usually shallow, stereotyped, incomplete. To borrow Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s term, a first draft is a “single story” and therefore an insufficient truth. Re-seeing a story, “re-specting” it, reveals its glorious complexity.
Over time and effort, revision changes the writer’s role from explorer to guide. If a first draft is a private romp through the woods, consequent drafts teach us about the flora, fauna, geology, contours of the landscape… Only toward the end of a lengthy revision process, once we thoroughly know the material, ought we turn our attention to the needs of our readers.
So revision invites revelation. We must not just write what we know, as the old writing maxim advises, but continue throughout the entire process to write toward what we don't know. The unknown is too vast to conquer in one draft. To write in a way that moves others, writers must repeatedly delve into mystery, risking tears and surprise. There’s a direct link between the sustained openness of a writer’s heart and the creation of enduring literature. Fortunately, we've got revision to show us the way.
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 a class on revision at the Loft this fall, titled "Living Revision: A Writer's Craft as Spiritual Practice." You can learn more about this class here.