A week after the corner of Lake and Hiawatha burned—the consequence of a conflagration of justified anger, righteous protest, anarchy, and malicious racism—my family and I walked the sidewalks. There was the precinct, the brick scorched, the premises barricaded. There were the blackened remains of our post office. And that gaping half-block hole of mangled steel and charred remains—what had been there? We couldn’t remember.
Those buildings still standing are boarded up. Artists render plywood into fierce declarations about Black lives mattering, while behind the scenes insurance wheels grind and business owners puzzle over what comes next. The city council, despite enormous counter pressure, is working to overhaul the police department.
How will my city rebuild? How will the police regain citizens’ trust? How will systemic racism be dismantled and an equitable new world rise from the ashes?
None of us know. A more answerable question is this one: How can I as a writer best contribute to this overwhelming and badly needed revision?
While I know precious little about righting social wrongs or reconstructing neighborhoods, I do know how to revise. As a writer, I revise constantly. Here are a few items on my revision résumé:
- The editor of my first book requested (wisely) that I simplify the memoir’s structure from three interwoven time frames down to two. Tearing the narrative apart at the seams, tossing chunks of text, and generating new connective tissue took me a year.
- My writing group frequently responds to early essay drafts by saying, “Your ending is too tidy.” Invariably I’ve chosen the pat conclusion over a nuanced rendering. I must return to the piece not to manipulate my language so much as to see my subject more honestly.
- In writing even this little piece you’re reading, I’m 300 words in and have already cut 600. By the time it’s complete, I will have given it at least four hours, most of that time spent revising.
Writing is revision. Revision literally means seeing again; it shares with the word respect that sense of returning for a second look. To bring fresh eyes to a subject, we must treat it with ever-deepening respect. The ability to step back from a creative work and re-see it isn’t a literary skill; it’s a spiritual capacity. Here are a few muscles we must exercise in order to revise:
Readers know when stories don’t ring true. They can tell when a voice isn’t authentic. Writers are obligated to be truthful (which, in creative writing, doesn’t always mean factual). But we humans are great deceptionists! And the people we most frequently dupe are ourselves. Revision asks writers to drill down to the hot core of our subject and bring that burning substance to light. We have to face the truth. The process is almost always painful and liberating.
“The impulse to improve is . . . a sign of humility, of bowing one’s neck before the humbling undertaking of learning how to be worth one’s salt as a writer,” offers poet Richard Tillingast. In religious traditions, humility is the awareness of oneself as one is. This direct, realistic gaze does not come easily, as any writer who’s experienced the highs of inspiration and the crashing lows of rejection can attest. An ongoing practice of gazing at what is supports the development of our stories and our spirits. “In humility is the greatest freedom,” Thomas Merton writes in New Seeds of Contemplation. “As long as you have to defend the imaginary self that you think is important, you lose your peace of heart.” When we humbly acknowledge our limitations, stop feeding the ego, and apply energy to the task at hand, we unleash huge potential—for our creative work and beyond.
When I can’t fathom what to do next with a project, usually I’ve pushed my agenda so hard it’s hit the wall. My ego has the upper hand. I like Peter Turchi’s analogy: A first draft is a thrilling, frightening foray into a wilderness, but once we’ve bushwhacked that path, we’re reluctant to veer from it. We grow attached—the draft is brilliant, familiar, ours. We’re also afraid of the unknown just beyond the thicket. Revision is an ongoing practice of releasing our needs for security, control, and affection by stepping away from each draft and continuing the exploration. For all we know, a more spectacular or efficient route might exist just out of sight. As Alice McDermott observes, “There comes a time in the composition of a work of fiction when the writer must put aside all plans and intentions and preconceived notions of the work at hand and simply proceed, blindly, if you will, with the writing itself. It is the most difficult aspect of craft for a young writer to learn—this letting go.”
Revision is an ongoing practice of releasing our needs for security, control, and affection.
New writers assume that writing is like talking on the page; seasoned writers know writing is deep listening. An early draft, Patricia Hampl says, isn’t yet what it wants to be about. “Note: What it wants, not what I want.” The central work of revision is heeding the will of the story. To do this, we attune our inner ears to sounds of life emerging from within our own voice, often in defiance of our agenda. We learn to listen.
Unlike Elizabeth Gilbert, I do think of my writing projects as my children, and as a mother I am qualified to do so. Remember Kahlil Gibran? “They come through you but not from you. / And though they are with you yet they belong not to you. / You may give them your love but not your thoughts, / For they have their own thoughts.” The dynamic, relational work of revision is, at its core, love. Effort, attention, commitment, nurture, structure, education, encouragement, release, play…These acts of love help raise our creative offspring and launch them into the world. They also strengthen our heart, which is the source of courage.
Honesty, humility, nonattachment, deep listening, love…these capacities, among others, are exactly what’s most needed in public discourse and societal problem-solving. With intention, writing strengthens these within writers’ hearts; with intention, we can then use these muscles in other arenas of our lives, like our personal relationships or community activism. The good workout we get in a writing studio’s privacy has implications for the public arena.
If we’re going to eradicate racism, if Minneapolis is going to discover a humane manner of policing, if my neighborhood is going to be rebuilt, the best contribution I can make, I believe, is to practice revision. What and how we revise in our beings can’t help but be reflected in what and how we revise our communities. And if the product of our creative effort, the final published piece, supports our collective revision as well, then that’s a happy bonus.