One spring break when I was in grad school, I had nothing to do but revise my work. At the time, the parking lot at my apartment was at a slight downward slope, facing south. After a series of blizzards, the snow melted in the sun and lingered in the shade under my car and refroze when the sun went down, forming a massive block of ice around the tires.
Each day during that week-long vacation, I tried to disentenagle my car to go somewhere, anywhere, to get out of my small, isolated college town. I salted the ice, poured boiling water on it, and smashed it with a hammer, to no avail. With no hiking to be had, I went back to my apartment and revised an essay (canyons, lavender, the 1990s, etc.) one paragraph at a time. Every night, the ice refroze. Every morning, I reheated the teapot and reached for the hammer. Every afternoon, I returned to the paragraphs, chiseling away at them, reading and rereading and rerereading the essay until I could do nothing more with it.
To me, revision is a cursed process. I mean this in the sense that Macbeth is a cursed play, in that actors who perform it become entangled in misfortune along the way. Writing a first draft can be pleasant under ideal circumstances, and at least feels rewarding once the draft is finished. Revision, on the other hand, involves unpacking, rearranging, deleting, adding, researching, shifting, rethinking, evaluating, comparing, questioning. It involves setbacks and wrong turns and lost threads. The first draft is a treasure map while every subsequent draft is a labyrinth whose Minotaur keeps getting published in all your favorite journals.
Anna Badkhen’s recent craft essay on revision in Literary Hub resonated with that process. Drawing on Patricia Smith’s assertion to her students that they should “revise for originality of thought, originality of language, and melodicity,” Badkhen adds that prose writers should likewise “Revise each paragraph until it becomes like a diamond.”
When I think of paragraphs like diamonds, sharp enough to cut glass as Badkhen puts it, I think of Ian McKellen’s masterclass unpacking a ten-line soliloquy from Macbeth, tackling the speech word by word. I don’t know how many drafts the speech went through, but it’s the kind of cutting, haunting complexity I want my own writing to have.
Paragraph by paragraph: I don’t have much of a revision process other than that simple, repetitive task. Perhaps revision is so difficult for me because it’s the most normie part of the writing process, by which I mean the most like an actual day-job. At least, my own day jobs are cursed with monotony more than ill-fortune. I have cleaned toilets at a state park, prepared vegetables, cooked the same recipes, checked in stacks and stacks of library books, shaped dough for 140 pizzas daily. Every task is a paragraph, and while I spent every hour of those jobs praying for something extraordinary to break the monotony, all I could do was perfect the process one task at a time, revising the process of cleaning, sorting, mixing, and shaping. I found pleasure in the routine through tiny adjustments, through refinement in my timing and precision and speed.
The word curse itself is mysterious. It shares no similar word in other European language families, but some suspect it comes from the Latin word for course, as in a course of action. This is work at its most repetitive and, in the muck of it at least, its least rewarding. Curses are sometimes the work of tricksters, whose purpose in folklore is often to challenge heroes, to expose to them their limits, to help them grow. The challenge is not to overcome the curse, but to arrive at a point of growth beyond and through the curse, which is often the hero’s own folly.
As much as I would like to skip through revision, I need the humiliation of reading my own half-baked prose and overstuffed metaphors to grow as a writer. It’s better for me to see the setbacks in my writing than, say, my audience. It’s actually good and brave of me to have deleted the previous three sentences to get to this one more effectively. Revision is heroic, and, let’s be honest, it makes you hotter. I don’t make the rules.
To me, the pleasure in revision is the same pleasure I get in solving a small problem, what I imagine people get from finishing their daily game of Wordle. Every step brings me closer to a clearer sense of my artistic vision materializing. It can be jarring to dive into the details so finitely that a single word can occupy your brain for an hour. But the process gets easier with every paragraph, each one a lesson learned, lending itself to the next, until the last syllable is standing on the shoulders of giants.
Photo supplied by the author.