Rewriting has been on my mind. This isn’t new. It’s an ongoing process that consumes the better part of my writing life. In fact, I’ve been rewriting a novel off and on for three or four years. But rewriting is also something I emphasize in the creative nonfiction class I teach for UCLA extension Writers’ Program. Writing, I tell my students, echoing so many other authors, is rewriting.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. Not even for me. Writing is personal. Deeply so. “If a teacher told me to revise,” the poet Naomi Shihab Nye said, “I thought that meant my writing was a broken-down car that needed to go to the repair shop. I felt insulted.” I know just how she felt. To see our poems or stories in a fresh light demands we are open, open to the possibility that what we’ve written can be improved, even significantly altered. Shihab-Nye realizes that revision can also be freeing:
I didn’t realize the teacher was saying, “Make it shine. It’s worth it.” Now I see revision as a beautiful word of hope. It’s a new vision of something. It means you don’t have to be perfect the first time. What a relief!
So why am I thinking about “rewrite” again? Once a month I meet with a small group of other writers to read new work, get feedback and generally talk about writerly topics. Thanks to the suggestion from Sue and Mary, we agreed that our first meeting of the New Year would focus on a shared exercise. Each of us would come with one word we’d chosen, a word that would act as our “guiding light” for this next year of writing. I agonized for days, filling my notebook with possibilities, consulting the dictionary, thesaurus, and anything else that might offer up that one word. Whether the fact of two months’ of grandchildren’s visits, a siege of illness over the holidays, or the damp fog of lassitude that enveloped me in the aftermath, I’ve been stalled. Stuck. And worse? In an outpouring of frustration written in my notebook, I confessed: I was sick of my story. Not just my novel, but my current life. “I need a new narrative,” I complained to the page. “I need a rewrite.” I scanned my bookshelf, hoping to find inspiration. And there it was a slim blue volume by William Stafford, entitled You Must Revise Your Life. I pulled it off the shelf and sat down to read.
An hour later, I had my guiding word for 2013: rewrite.
I’ve been working on my rewrite, that’s right
I’m gonna’ change the ending
Gonna’ throw away my title
And toss it in the trash…
(“Rewrite,” from the album, So Beautiful or What, 2010, by Paul Simon)
“Half my life is an act of revision,” John Irving said. Why should mine be any different? We are all the authors of our life stories. Each day is like a fresh page in our notebooks. Things happen, and we make choices or take actions that influence events and outcomes. Despite all that, our own story is often the most difficult to understand. In You Must Revise Your Life, William Stafford wrote that his life in writing came to him as parts,
… like two rivers that blend. One part is easy to tell: the times, the places, events, and people. The other part is mysterious; it is my thoughts, the flow of my inner life, the reveries and impulses that never get known—[it] wanders along at its own pace…
And it’s that undercurrent–the thoughts and emotions–that is the more difficult part of our story to write. Yet it is that deep river beneath the surface that holds the key to our understanding.
Writing helps us tap into that undercurrent. We weave the people, places and events of our lives together with thoughts and feelings, and little by little, create a rich tapestry of stories, ones that offer new understanding and insight. When we rewrite, we are doing what the artist does: we let the material of our life talk back to us. We see it anew and then have the chance to change the narrative, to come at it with a new slant, and, like Simon’s song, rewrite the ending,
Rewrite is more than just writing again; when you rewrite, you intend to alter or improve upon those first drafts. You revise. The word “revision” comes from the French revision and the Latin, “revīsere, meaning “to look, or see, again.” Look up “revise,” and you’ll find words like reexamine, reassess, rethink, alter, modify and change. It’s what we do naturally whenever we try to make sense out of something that has happened to us. Maybe “wisdom” or “understanding,” is really a process of rewriting and revision, of seeing something anew or at the very least, differently.
According to Stafford, revising one’s life as a writer involves embracing whatever happens—in things and in language. “The language changes,” he says, “and you change, the light changes…Dawn comes, and it comes for all, but not on demand.”
Not on demand. I have work to do. I’ve put my novel aside. It’s not lost, nor is all the time wasted spent writing and revising those 400 pages. But I need to see my story differently, looking back and into the present with new eyes. I have some choices to make about what’s next in my life, forks in the road ahead, and my story will surely change as I change. I want to be alive to it, to see it with clarity and without the weight of an old storyline dragging behind.
Thanks to my writing buddies, I discovered how powerful this little exercise can be. Searching for that single word led me into territory I might have not otherwise traveled, and from that, a new sense of energy and excitement, my early morning writing routine re-ignited as I explore what “rewrite” means in my life.
Why not try it yourself? What single word will be your guiding light, even a kind of talisman, a word that takes you deeper into your writing and, whether stated or implied, speaks to your intentions for how you want to live? I’d love to hear from you. I invite you to share your word and what it means for you in a brief comment on this site.