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What Revision Is Teaching Me

Life has been hectic for the past month, so I’ve been away for a while. Just got back from Louisville, Kentucky and managed to mix a lot of pleasure with work. Got to spend extra fun time with the hubby and kids and got to hang with some colleagues/friends that made it easy to smile.

I needed the break. It reminded me of what was beyond my small town in PA. Still, in the midst of the tall buildings, the cars zooming past, the music, the great food (too much great food), I missed home terribly. I longed for the trail, the smell of the honeysuckle, the birds soaring ever so dangerously into my path. Mostly, I missed writing. My plan was to spend all of my free time during that week camped out in my hotel room, plugging away at my memoir revision, making it the masterpiece I’m certain it wants to be . . . I wrote once that week.

There was so much to see, so much laughing, living to do done. I felt as if I’d been given a weekend pass from jail and it didn’t seem right to create a cell around myself when I was able to walk free. Not to mention I was grading about 500, 3-5 page, sometimes poorly written, papers for seven plus hours. I didn’t want to read anything after working a full day.

So, I wrote once, but I believe I am better for it. When I returned home, I couldn’t wait to write. I couldn’t wait to sit in my office and lean on my pillows, watch my fish in my aquarium, burn my candles, sip my coffee, listen to my music, and look at my baby’s drawings on the wall. The same place that had once haunted me because I HAD to write now welcomed me because I COULD write. Oh, what a difference time away makes.

So, last night I was working on this problematic section of my memoir. I’d plugged away at it every day and no matter how much tinkering or rewriting I did, I couldn’t get it right. I remembered a visiting poet at LHUP, Jamal May, saying (and I’m paraphrasing here and in all of the following quotes) “The first draft for writers is like the gathering of tools. Unlike the painter, who is able to gather his paints, brushes, canvases, pictures, all a writer physically has is her pen (or laptop) and a blank page.” He was essentially saying there could be no inventory of tools locked within one’s memory and imagination. I loved that, but I never got it until last night. So, I was plugging away at this section, trying to make that first draft, those many tools that had flowed out of my mind, fit into the story I was trying to tell. Then I had an epiphany. I’d written a piece, one which I believed to be unrelated to the section I’m currently working on, and it seemed to want to be there. The gaping circle I’d been trying to plug with a square had its other part in another file, from another story, on my computer’s hard drive. And it fit so perfectly, I found it hard to believe that tool had been sitting there all along, waiting to be found.

In that moment, I remembered Sue William Silverman telling me, gleefully, “Revising is the best part of writing. It is where you are free to go deeper.” I remembered Rigoberto Gonzalez asking, “Why are you showing people your first drafts? You’re nowhere near being finished. So stop!” And I remembered Diane Lefer saying, “You will be able to fix these issues. Your story is good and once you finish the first draft, you will have everything you need to begin.”

I remembered all those things and for the first time in this revision process, I rejoiced. What they had taught me time and time again was in fact true. I was enjoying the revision process. What I needed had been there, waiting to be found, if only I could be diligent, curious, dedicated enough to find it.

But this revision also taught me something else. Something I must remember for this life I am living. No matter how hard I tried to make that section of the memoir what I thought it should be, no matter how many times I rewrote and tinkered with the wording, nothing every fit. No matter how many times I worked to patch it together with the tools that were readily available to me, my creation fell apart as soon as I stepped away. In fact, I had to step away, to see things with new eyes in order to find what had been waiting to be found.

In my life, I’ve often tried to force that square into that circle, believing fitting something inside was better than the obvious void. But some things must remain empty, so you can remember they need filling, so you can continue searching for what is missing, for what might already be part of your mental and emotional inventory. That is what revision taught me today. And what is every day of our lives but a revision, an opportunity to make better what we had, what we were the day before?

This writing thing is hard, but not doing it is harder. I remember Nathan McCall once telling me, “You will write when you have to.” He paused as I took in what he was saying. Then he continued, “You won’t have to write because you need money or you need to write for your career. You will have to write because your emotional and physical well-being will depend on it. Then you will write well because you have no choice.” Kind of like living, right? When it becomes too difficult to stay the same, then you change. I am rejoicing this revision. I am enjoying living in it.

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