Acts of Revision
by Elizabeth Solar
John Irving said ‘Half my life is an act of revision.’ He’s got company. Our writers group has experienced change from bustling household to empty nest. From wedded partner to singleton. Struggling new writer to struggling journeyman. Passage from one career into the unknown. It’s an adventure.
At first, we don’t usually see it that way. Change is hard, no matter how exciting the journey ahead, or the promise – and in writing, it’s a long shot – of reward.
Consider the expression, ‘The physics of art mimics the physics of life.’As we change, evolve, maybe even improve, so does our work. Don’t believe it? Pick up that absolutely brilliant piece of your writing from last year. Not so shiny now, right?
Do something long enough, and you’ll gain proficiency, maybe mastery. That’s called practice, and you can’t get enough of it. The rest is evolution, a process as slow and sure as the earth’s rotation on its axis.
Perhaps whether out of necessity or convenience your story changed: A character exited, or became more integral to the plot. Maybe the entire plot changed. Or, you decided to scrap the whole thing, and start something new. It could happen.
Maybe the story you’re writing feels like a literary albatross, suffocating you with a sense of dread and obligation you reserve only for things like visiting in-laws and jury duty. Well guess what? You can always change course, abandon ship. If this boat ain’t taking you to pleasure town, (or worse, it’s sinking) it’s time to disembark.
If the prospect of taking that novel – or short story, or essay –into revision land inspires fear and resistance, there’s some soul searching to do. The best writers talk about revision their work in the double digits. Ha Jin claims he revises his stories about 30 times. I heard Ann Hood state an editor eviscerated her novel in its 15th Incarnation, then tell ‘great work, looking forward to Number 16.’
When tweaks, re-fashioned pages serve the text, or story better, we confidently write on. Procrastination and whines of‘Do I have to?” never work. Trust me on this point.
Change, revision, and edits are not mandatory, or even recommended unless your goal is to to publish your work. If that's not the case, file that manuscript in a drawer, or on your desktop folder to review once in a while, and reflect, ‘Wow, I coulda been a contender,’
It’s okay for your novel to change course. So can you. Writing is hard. No one will ever judge you for walking away. But if you get judge-y with yourself, take stock: Decide you’re all in on the writing journey, put on your big girl (or boy) pants, pull out the red pen, and have at it.
Margaret Atwood wrote “We were revisionists; what we revised was ourselves.” We may never be satisfied with what we write, but if you work toward ‘good enough,’ and fight the good fight, you’re on your way. Untether yourself from expectation and perfectionism. Dive into the wild blue yonder of your own radical acts of revision, and enjoy the ride.