Take a little break (I know I need one):
So here’s what I’m learning about revision: it takes a very different skill set than creating a first draft does, and it kind of sucks. I should probably back up and explain that I wrote a novel about three years ago. That, for the most part, was a very exciting and even easy process for me. I had a disciplined schedule, and the more I wrote, the more the ideas seemed to flow. Scenes unfolded while I was writing, but also while I was driving, taking a shower, and unloading the dishwasher. I was brimming with ideas and inspiration.
Even though I was teaching full time, I completed a first draft of 98,000 words in less than a year. Yay! I was excited. My family was excited. My friends were excited. All of us were dreaming about it getting published and being turned into a movie and all that jazz that the euphoria of finishing a project like that makes you crazy and vain enough to believe. And then some time passed and I came to realize that certain chunks of the story didn’t need to be there. I was pretty proud of myself for cutting them out and thought I had this whole revision thing down. Once I’d gotten the story a bit more streamlined, I began working on polishing the grammar and phrasing and figuring out chapter breaks. Then I read an article about dialogue tags and another one about adverbs and did another revision to work on those issues.
After my fifth revision (and another year and a half later), I thought I’d arrived at a pretty polished and engaging draft, but I knew it still wasn’t quite where it needed to be. The problem was that I could no longer identify a specific issue that I could work on fixing, and I was losing steam and getting pretty sick of the whole thing. Right about that time, I happened to find out about a fundraising auction where you could bid online for a critique of your partial manuscript from various established authors and literary agents. I bid on and won a critique from a young adult author I greatly admire and promptly sent off my first 50 pages. She responded soon after with a very detailed and helpful analysis of my work that simultaneously encouraged me and submerged me neck-deep in a paralyzing pool of despair.
What was encouraging was that she had some very positive things to say about my writing and the story. She also pointed out some elements that would be very easy for me to fix. The pool-of-despair part came out of the fact that she felt the main reason my manuscript wasn’t quite hitting the mark was an issue of voice. She admitted, with a generous amount of sympathy, that this is a tricky issue. Voice is very difficult to define and there is no formula for how to nail it, and yet nailing it is essential to having a truly effective work of fiction. So now I knew what I needed to fix, but the problem was that I didn’t know how to fix it. And the thought of trying to sharpen my first-person-narrator’s voice through an entire 300+ page manuscript made me want to sob and/or take the longest nap ever.
Instead, I gave up on it. I took the current draft off my computer desktop and filed it away in a folder within another folder so I wouldn’t have to see it anymore. I put all the marked up paper drafts I had in the bottom dresser drawer of the guest bedroom. And when people would ask me about it, I’d shrug and make vague sounds and change the subject. In the months that followed, I became convinced that what I’d written was a huge steaming pile of crap and wondered why I ever thought anyone would be interested in it. In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott describes all these mean-girl thoughts as the radio station KFKD. I was tuned in and hearing it in HD.
But the thing is, in spite of all that paralyzing discouragement, the pain of truly giving up and not doing anything more with my novel ended up being worse. Plus, my friends (bless them) would not stop asking me about it. So, at the beginning of this summer, I decided to go ahead and give it another try. The problem was, I still didn’t know how to go about ‘fixing’ an entire manuscript. Fortunately, Lamott’s book had a solution for this as well, which is also the basis of her title. The answer was to approach it piecemeal. Trying to fix an entire novel feels impossible. But trying to fix the first 25 pages is definitely something I could manage, and once I realized I only had to try to improve 25 pages, I was actually able to start.
I can be a bit slow about obvious things, so this realization only occurred about a week and a half ago. Since then, I’ve worked my way through about twelve pages. It’s slow-going, painstaking work. I don’t even know if I am actually making things better. But I find hope in the fact that I am doing the work, sentence by sentence, page by page. And maybe when I finish the first 25 pages, I’ll be ready to do the next 25. For all of you with some big, overwhelming task looming before you, I imagine it’d be the same. So make it small, and get started.
Last Sunday I was talking to a friend who shared something he was interested in writing and then, as soon as he shared it, expressed doubt as to whether it would actually ever happen. He asked about my own writing, and I in turn shared about what I’d like to do but have yet to actually accomplish or even begin. It seems like there are a lot of us out there who spend a lot of time thinking and talking about things we’d like to do, and yet so often we fail to actually do them. Why is this? Clearly we have a longing and desire for these things (which often seem to be of a creative nature), so why do they so rarely come to fruition?
In my own situation, there are a few contributing factors that I can identify. One is that I’ve been extremely busy in the last couple weeks with travel, getting together with friends visiting from out of town, preparing for family visits, and doing all the errands, cleaning, and organizing necessary in setting up my newly renovated master bathroom. Life gets busy, and there is an endless supply of demands on all of us. The other is plain and simple fear. What if I can’t do it? What if it doesn’t turn out the way I want it to? I have also often noticed in both myself and others a sense that spending time on these creative pursuits we long for isn’t a legitimate use of our time. We feel a kind of apologetic embarrassment that we would consider spending time writing a short story or playing the piano to be as important as cleaning the bathroom. But there is another element that is harder to put a finger on, which presents itself in that weird and mysterious lethargy that seems to invade and make me desire to watch a marathon of The Good Wife on DVD rather than actually sit down and write. Why is this? I love to write. I know from past experience that I always feel good about having done so when I finish, even if I don’t feel good about the actual product (although it’s even more awesome when I do). So why the dragging feet?
In Act 4 of Hamlet, Claudius advises Laertes, “That we would do, we should do when we would; for this ‘would’ changes and hath abatements and delays as many as there are tongues, are hands, are accidents; and then this ‘should’ is like a spendthrift sigh, that hurts by easing.” Granted, Claudius was the villain of the play and was trying to manipulate Laertes into killing Hamlet when he spoke this. But there is truth and beauty in what he says nonetheless and, ironically, directly speaks to Hamlet’s own flaw–his inability to take action. It also speaks to the rest of us who have ever desired to do something worthwhile and good and yet haven’t ever gotten around to doing it.
In Christianity (and, I would venture, the world in general), there is a sort of popular tradition of thinking of sin as ‘bad’ behavior–doing something destructive like killing someone or cheating on your spouse or stealing money from your mom’s purse. But the Greek word most frequently used for ‘sin’ in the New Testament, hamartia, literally means missing the mark. The ‘bad behaviors’ are symptomatic of a larger issue of us not functioning the way we were designed to, the machinery of our souls going awry. I happen to think this lethargy, these abatements, are part of that going awry. We have a target in mind (“I want to do a blog,” “I want to write a novel,” “I want to learn to play the cello,” “I want to get back into drawing”) but then we turn and fire all our time and energy into other pursuits.
I don’t know of any obvious or easy solution to this (please post a comment if you happen to know one), but I know that in my own experience, community plays a key role. I am more likely to write and pursue my creative interests when I am around and in contact with other people who are writing and pursuing their creative interests. It also helps when people bug me about it and actually demand something of/from me. And once I experience that, it makes me want to call out other people and their gifts in turn. There is a verse in Ephesians 5 that says “everything that is illuminated becomes a light.” So this is me calling you out: do your thing–the thing that will give you joy and bring blessing to others–and let’s light each other up.