I'll admit it: Revision used to terrify me. When I was a new writer, I mistook revision for something that interfered with the creative process, rather than the only way you get what you want from it. I wasn't alone in that thinking. In my teaching now, I see young writers continue to butt their heads against the idea of revision. Either they mistake real revision for something that fits nicely into a sentence like this: "If I just change this one sentence, then it'll all be fine"; by thinking this way, they fail to take advantage of the opportunity to truly re-envision their stories. Or they think, as I once did, that revision "ruins" the spontaneity of their writing. The general fear of revision is, of course, simply our fear that what we want from our stories cannot be achieved.
Over the years, most of what I've learned about revision, I've learned from someone named David. First, there was the novelist and teacher David Bradley, who gave me permission to write a crappy first draft and then decide what I wanted from it. In David's words: Revision makes it possible to have what you want. Revision is not like writing again. You know what you're doing this time.
I learned my latest lesson in revision, oddly enough, from my engineer friend David. During the fall of 2008, David's son, Tim, enthusiastically volunteered him to build voting booths for Tim's fourth-grade class so that the kids could participate in some way in the historic 2008 presidential election. Tim's teacher envisioned a cardboard booth, a handwritten paper ballot, the basics. But she didn't know David. He took on the task with his customary ingenuity and enthusiasm, and before you know it, those simple voting booths were hooked up to a circuit board that David designed to record and tabulate each child's vote electronically. I haven't seen the voting booth—and David is as modest in describing it as his son is ebullient—so I can only imagine the stunned look on the teacher's face when she saw her simple cardboard booth outfitted with sophisticated electronic capabilities.
I asked David why he'd taken on such a lofty project. He's a busy professor with a young family and tons of other responsibilities. Wasn't this just one more burden for him? No, he assured me, it was fun. The joy of it, he says, was coming up with his design, beginning it, and anticipating what would go wrong. He told me that in any project, once he hits the thing that won't work as he imagined, the question then becomes, how will he get what he wants anyway?
His answer clicked with me immediately, and I said, "That's revision!"
He said, "Yeah. That's what you do when you write, right?"
Well, yes and no. I hardly approach the revision process with that much joy—but why shouldn't I? If I understand that the process really is about learning who your characters are, digging into the heart of the story you've created, and seeing what the story has to teach you beyond your initial expectations, then I must be open to giving over to the unexpected. So why fear revision? I am essentially asking the same questions when I revise that David asked in building his circuit:
- What was I thinking when I set out to build this?
- Can it work?
- Is it working?
- Have I discovered something better during the creation process?
In essence, writing—apparently like engineering—requires that we invite the gap between possibility and reality, the possibilities that led us to the stories in the first place and the real world of those stories once they are created. What I discovered from my friend David the engineer is that his creative process allows for failure, for the unknown, for that moment when he feels, "This can't be done." Not only that, but he embraces that moment as one of greatest possibility and discovery. It is the moment that moves him most outside of himself and most truly into the realm of creation.
How often do we approach revision fearing what we'll discover about our stories? What if at the moment when we begin revision, we allow ourselves to dwell most significantly and earnestly in the possibilities of our stories? As I've come to think of it this way, I've found that the moment of revision is in fact the most exciting time. David Bradley's right: You know much more about what you're doing by that time. Your characters have already revealed so much of themselves to you. What you bring to that knowledge then, is the clear-eyed reader, the one who asks the hard questions of each moment and line of dialogue, the one who turns over each gesture looking to see what is unearthed, the one who both embraces the failure of a scene and wards it off by relentless questioning and re-envisioning. The way that we serve our stories best in revision is in that spirit of expectation, wonder, and, yes, enough fear and trembling to invite the unexpected.