“Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”
― Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
Note: I began a draft of this post on January 18th. Today is June 10th.
I have a little more to say now.
Earlier in the year, I asked my students to write about revision. I gave them no parameters, but asked them to explore the concept in a free-write activity.
As I read through their semester portfolios, I was amazed at how many students chose to continue this prompt, and to explore the many things, for lack of a better term, that can be revised. Especially as it applies to life, decisions and ourselves.
My students said powerful things about the concept of re-visioning anything. Today, though, I am in the middle of a down and dirty revision. I’m feeling like maybe I’ve been asking my students to do this really really incomparably difficult thing without knowing a true thing about it.
The thing, of course, is the act of revision itself. I’ve been working on an essay as part of an independent study since January. I had a comprehensive (read: overkill) list of ideas I wanted to explore over the course of the semester, but I settled on one that I couldn’t shake. I was still recovering from the most serious depressive episode I had experienced in many years. I thought it would be cathartic for me, and helpful to others, if I could communicate that experience as it really and truly happens. I may have been wrong.
My first draft came out like it was a self-propelled grenade. I wrote it down on legal paper, page after page after page, while watching tv on a Sunday night. I couldn’t believe it! I read it over and made notes and more notes and then finally typed it up and proudly sent it off to my advisor.
He replied with some basic feedback: clean up the story, keep writing, look for inconsistencies, keep writing. So I did. I dug up a folder of handouts from a memoir class and decided to plot out my story. I color-coded, I plot-graphed; I revised and typed again. I sent it out, he replied suggesting I review the very same handouts. WHAT? I thought. I used those to drive the entire story! I went back into the essay, read it through (orange marker in hand), and felt myself circling the drain. Passive voice at one turn. Unspecific vocabulary at another. Split-infinitives. Narrative break. Inconsistent title. Tense shifts. Lack of focus. Swisshhh.
I put the draft away. When the semester was about to end I, ashamed, asked for an ‘Incomplete’. My advisor accepted. This was all good, but I still had to complete the essay. I asked then, and continue to ask now: Why didn’t I just write about the motherfucking pie crust?
As much as I just.want.to.quit, I can’t quit this. But I have figured a few things out along the way:
- If you are a teacher, you should experience the act of dirty and personal revision once a year.
- I let my essay turn into a story which I now need to let just be an essay.
- Life is harder than it looks. So is writing.
So back to the writing porch I go, but this time without the bajillion drafts.
So what if I opened my new issue of Brain, Child to find my essay (yes, same topic, setting, context. same same.) already written, and written well? It may tell the same story, but not my story. I keep thinking of the Annie Dillard quote that I use to tell my students to write anyway. I must listen to this.
The confession is this: revision is incomparably difficult. Whether it is in writing or in life, going back to a thing, daring to imagine what it could be in light of what it is; this act requires a courage as flexible as it is strong.