Embracing Revision

If you haven’t read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, you might want to stop reading this post right now and bury yourself in the book instead. It’s a book I’ve been avoiding for a while, having heard so many good things about it. Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life is my all-time favorite book about writing, and it’s held my loyalty somehow. I didn’t want any other book to take its place. Fortunately, Bird by Bird is not better, just different, and wonderful too. The book is filled with anecdotes and proverbs I’d love to scrawl on the wall above my desk. Here’s one that took me by surprise. Lamott quotes E. L. Doctorow, who says that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

It’s a wise instruction not only for writing but for life, just as the subtitle of the book promises. But for me, it was a hard pill to swallow. First of all, I hate driving at night for exactly that reason. I am forever worrying about what’s just beyond the headlights. I am satisfied with nothing less than a full panoramic view of the horizon.

And when I read a book, it takes all of my willpower not to peek at the last pages. If an important character is going to die or a plot twist lurks toward the end, I would very much like to know about it up front. You know, before I get all involved and everything.

It is the same with the story of my own life. If only I could see the whole arc of the narrative, I could prepare myself in advance for comedy and tragedy, heartbreak and delight, and all (my subconscious believes) would be well.

In fact, being the curious (i.e. nosy) person I am, I would also like to know what’s going to happen next in everyone else’s life (and I bet you would too). It’s why we refresh our social media feeds countless times a day. It’s why we ask newlyweds, “When are going to have kids?” and first-time parents, “When are you going to have another?” and college freshmen, “What are you going to do with that degree?”

I think this speaks to our collective anxiety about doing things “right” and in the proper order. It’s as though we believe that life unfolds along a balance beam, laid out for us in a clean, straight line. Best to train our eyes on a clear destination; one misstep could be disastrous. But, of course, our lives are not so linear and predictable. And thank goodness for that.

Erin Loechner wrote recently about life (and art) as a cyclical, rather than linear process. She put it this way: “we’re continually refining and transforming and backsliding, hoping that we’ll end up a little closer to B than A. But oh, there are times when we’d rather be A. Where we aim to experience rebirth, rather than death—a starting point instead of a finish line. And I suppose that’s the beautiful thing about life—it’s a series of circles, not lines, isn’t it? A continuous spiral, cycling around and around until we reach a new point of view, a new dot to spiral from.”

If I have learned one thing about the practice of writing, it is that the magic happens in revision. It is in returning to words that have already been laid out—turning them over, taking them apart, and rearranging them—that I discover what I really meant all along. And if I have learned one thing from this book thus far, it is that revision is a thing to embrace in life too.

We cannot tell where we are destined to end up and who we are destined to be. Yet, we can count on returning, again and again, to some of the people and places and ways of being we have already encountered. Each day is not simply a new bead on a tenuous string of life. Rather, each day is a revision of the last, and today is a first draft for tomorrow.

A sustainable practice

The most effortless project I’ve completed was the writing of my senior thesis, a collection of poetry and translation relating to the book of Genesis. I suppose it’s no coincidence that I was fixating, even then, on beginnings. I spent some time in the summer doing a bit of research, and when I returned to school in the Fall, I had no idea what the actual writing process would look like over the course of the next six or seven months. I’d spent many sleepless nights wringing academic papers from my brain over the previous three years, and I knew I needed a more sustainable process if I was to make it to the finish line, sanity intact and thesis in hand.

In my first meeting with my advisor, he gave me a piece of advice that, at the time, I found funny. In retrospect, I think of it as earth-shattering. He told me to write first thing in the morning.

I must have asked what he really meant by “first thing,” because I remember his insistence: DO NOT brush your teeth, DO NOT eat breakfast, DO NOT get dressed, DO NOT do anything before you sit down to write. OK, you can have coffee. But everything else will get in your way. Just write, first thing.

This advice must have been personal, because, at the time, I didn’t drink coffee. He must have been sharing what worked in his own practice. In any case, I took his advice very seriously, and I’ve thought about it a lot since.

I arranged my course schedule so that I had a couple of mornings free during the week, and I did my other work at night. I took his coffee exception to mean that I could choose a couple of my own non-negotiables, as long as I could do them on autopilot.

So for a few mornings a week, before my anxiety or inhibitions could get the best of me—in other words, before I had a chance to get in my own way—I did what I needed to do to feel vaguely human, and then I wrote. Later on, I was editing or rewriting, but the process was the same.

I didn’t start by searching for inspiration or thinking particularly hard about what I needed to do. I just showed up at my table for a couple of hours, did what I knew how to do, and then, for the rest of the day, took care of the business of living. It was like starting the day with an offering to the muses. You can sleep in, I was telling them. I got this.

It reminds me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on creativity, in which she emphasizes the importance of simply showing up and doing the work. I also think of the recent New York Times article on working less and accomplishing more when I consider the relatively limited number of hours I spent working in comparison to the amount of material I needed to produce. It was all about the quality of those hours, not the quantity.

Since I’m no longer a student, it’s been a process of trial and error trying to reestablish this sort of practice in my differently arranged life. The peculiar blessing/curse of the student is that she tends to have a great deal of control over her schedule. But even in my post-student life, I am comforted by a sense that the process of setting a goal and actually accomplishing it depends very little on talent or magic or circumstance and very much on creating rituals and habits that support simply showing up and doing the work over the long haul.