Mike’s note: This month, Speakeasy is highlighting the release of spiritual memoirist Elizabeth Jarrett Andrews‘ beautiful, illuminating guide to writing: Living Revision. Enjoy this excerpt as you reflect on the ways to revise your writing…and your life. Check out both Living Revision and her Spiritual Memoir Toolkit!
By the time a writer considers rewriting, the work of composing is familiar: a blank page, a tentative start, the splash of gladness when words arrive, the adrenaline rush of stumbling onto new awareness or memories or characters, the disappointment of seeing brilliant thoughts diminished in print, the satisfaction of penning that final period. We know this process. We’re attached to it, for good reason. Drafting is gratifying, fun, and full of revelations. While we may admit the draft is rough, it also sparkles. Often we’re reluctant to diminish that sparkle with the insult of revision. We hover over our first drafts, love and pride and self-consciousness tangling with our material. This is our baby!
Familiarity breeds fondness, along with peril. Sure, we say, the draft has flaws; sure, it’s only one of a dozen ways to approach this subject; sure, in places the language is shoddy. But look at this lovely twist! And this streak of fine prose, and this clever remark! Or (here’s a devilish defense) do you have any idea how much work I’ve invested? I couldn’t possibly change it.
Resistance to rewriting a project is often stronger than resistance to starting it. “This explains,” writes Peter Turchi, “why it can be so difficult for beginning writers to embrace thorough revision—which is to say, to fully embrace exploration. The desire to cling to that first path through the wilderness is both a celebration of initial discovery and fear of the vast unknown.” A first draft is a thrilling, frightening foray into the wilderness. Once we’ve bushwhacked that path, we don’t want to veer from it.
Attachment mires us. Most of us are committed to and therefore defensive about what we’ve created. Once we’ve taken one risk, we prefer not to take another.
But to foster lively, ongoing creativity, we must let the familiar go. Staying safe—the “better the devil you know” policy—does not serve anyone. We must learn a new way to work, with new material, in a new adventure. Revision is a whole different (and exciting) devil.
Change, on the page as in life, does not happen when we’re stubborn and clingy. Revision asks that we cast the small world we’ve created in words—and all it represents within our being—in entirely new light. As we learn to revise, we gain skills in listening, letting go, creating, communicating, enduring, and trusting our intuition. Our voice gets stronger. We honor the fullness of our creative impulses. We claim our stories despite their brokenness. We own our authority; we become authors. The changes we need to make in our text are miniscule compared with the changes revision demands of our hearts.
Good as this sounds, it’s also scary. “When we feel resistance in any form, it’s because we haven’t fully committed to seeing what’s true,” writes Rosanne Bane, creativity coach and author. “We want to be thoughtless so life can be fraughtless. We want to avert our eyes.” But self-deception hinders spiritual growth, and readers know when stories don’t ring true or when a voice isn’t authentic. Revision means drilling down to the hot core of our subject and bringing that burning substance to light. We have to face the truth, and this changes us.
No wonder we resist revision! Real creativity summons us to become more fully ourselves.
Uncertainty Is Our Friend
We humans dislike being undone. However much we enjoy writing, we find the disorderly process unsettling. We yearn for arrival or permission to quit. The state of incompletion is uncomfortable, as is vulnerability and unknowing. We have an unrelenting urge to wrap things up.
“During deep revision,” poet Mark Doty writes, “the longer we can stay in the state of uncertainty, of unfolding possibility, the better.” As in any prayer or meditation practice, we must learn to love, and stick with, the process. Once, when I was struggling with a prolonged depression in which I felt like I was groping my way down a dark tunnel, my therapist asked if I could see any light. I told her no. “Well, then,” she replied cheerily, “You’re halfway through!” Writers stumble through a lot of darkness before we begin to see our way out. It’s unnerving. It’s easy to despair.
Uncertainty, messiness, the sense of being overwhelmed—these states define creativity; they are signs that we’re in the thick of things. We can welcome them and proceed regardless, harnessing discomfort as a motivating force.
What project or what aspect of your current project do you consider rewriting but also resist? In one column, jot down all your reasons for not working on it. In another, list the reasons to revise. What are you afraid of? What are you hopeful for? Spend some time journaling: Where do these messages come from? Why do they come to you? Which are worth heeding, and why? Which aren’t, and why not?
Secret Writing Fantasies
What do you wish would happen when you sit down to write? Where do you dream your writing will go? What do you imagine would happen to you as a result? Play out these scenarios on the page. Then reflect on the origins of these fantasies. In what ways do they feed your ego? Are any parts of these fantasies born from your heart’s longing?
Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew invites the reader to explore with her the life of the Spirit—how we are each called into the fullness of our being; our responsibility to articulate personal truth and thus bring about justice and social change; and what it means to serve the source of love at the center of creation. She is the author of the spiritual memoir, Swinging on the Garden Gate; a collection of personal essay, On the Threshhold, which was a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award; the novel, Hannah, Delivered; and the writing guides Writing the Sacred Journey: The Art and Practice of Spiritual Memoir and Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice. She is a two-time recipient of the Minnesota State Arts Board grant.