Revision is a big part of my life every day of the week. For the past several days, I’ve been “tinkering” with some poems I’ve been writing–changing words, reworking a stanza, even deleting ones that earlier, I liked, but now, seem trite or not quite what I wanted to express. Revision is an integral part of writing, one that takes up the greater part of my writing life, and requires much more time that the first full draft! I now accept that writing is really about rewriting, as many well known writers have stated. It is the necessary work that allows you to see your essay, story or poem in a fresh light.
Of course, revision doesn’t feel so good when we first get the necessary feedback on the need to do it. Poet Naomi Shihab Nye, who sees revision as ” a new vision” and meaning ” you don’t have to be perfect the first time, described how she once felt about the necessity of revision:
If a teacher told me to revise, I thought that meant my writing was a broken-down car that needed to go to the repair shop. I felt insulted. 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!
Open a dictionary and you’ll discover “revision” has been known about for a very long time. It’s borrowed from the French revision (1611), and derived from the Latin, “revīsere, meaning “to look, or see, again.” Consult a thesaurus for synonyms of “revise,” and you’ll find words like reexamine, reassess, rethink, alter, modify and change. Revision or “seeing again” is not limited to those who write; it’s a process we naturally undertake whenever we try to make sense out of something that has happened to us, like a job loss, relationship break-up, even learning to live with cancer. Maybe “wisdom” or “understanding,” is simply a process of revision, of seeing something anew or at the very least, differently.
Half my life is an act of revision. –John Irving
Look at it this way: You are the author of your life story. Think of each day as having a blank page in your notebook. Things happen to you—good things and terrible things. You make choices that will influence the events and their outcomes. Despite that, the story closest to you, your own, is sometimes the most difficult to understand. In his wise book on writing, You Must Revise Your Life (1967), William Stafford wrote:
My life in writing…comes to me 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…”
It is precisely that undercurrent of our thoughts and emotions that is the more difficult part of your story to tell, yet, it is that deep river beneath the surface that holds the key to understanding.
Writing helps you tap into that inner life. You begin to weave the people, places and events of your life with your thoughts and feelings, and a rich tapestry of stories is created, one that offers new understanding, new insights. Revision is part of a creative process familiar to artists and writers. It’s about letting the material of your lives talk back to you, to have the chance to see things 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.”
In a 1993 interview published in the Paris Review, Stafford was asked why he chose the title, You Must Revise Your Life for one of his few books of prose. He explained it this way:
“I wanted to use the word revise because so many books about writing make it sound as though you create a good poem by tinkering with the poem you’re working on. I think you create a good poem by revising your life… by living the kind of life that enables good poems to come about… A workshop may seem, to those who take part in it, a chance to revise the work they bring. I think it’s a chance to see how your life can be changed…”
Revision isn’t just about writing; it’s much more. It offers the opportunity to change your life. Every day, life gives you material—and not all of it welcome. Yet each day, each year, you “talk back” to life, ask questions, try to understand, and try to make sense of what has happened to you. Revision, as Stafford said, is a chance to see how your life can be changed.
- This week, try writing about how you’ve had to revise your life when the unexpected occurs, like a cancer diagnosis, or when you’ve begun something new, like a marriage, having children, or any new project. How have these events prompted you to revise your life?
- Another suggestion is to return to an earlier entry in your journal or notebook, something you wrote soon after your diagnosis, when you received unwelcome news about the prognosis of your illness, or during the upheaval of another difficult experience. First, re-read what you wrote, highlighting the phrases that or words that stand out for you. Now, write it again, but this time, focus on those highlighted phrases. “Work” with your material. Let it talk back to you as you recall the details of that event—sounds, smells, the quality of light, words said, what you were feeling–anything you can remember. Rewrite it and compare the two versions. What changed? What did you see differently as a result of revision?
- Answer the question: Is revision a chance to see how your life can be changed? What do you think?