Revision and the Art of Undoing

A friend says crochet is as much undoing as doing; unraveling hours of work is simply part of the process. You will inevitably notice a mistake many rows later and then have to tear out row after row of work to fix it. Then you move forward again.

That sounds unbearably frustrating, I think. Maybe I’ll never learn to crochet. But then again I find myself undoing my pieces of macrame jewelry, especially as I am developing a new design or practicing a new technique. Though with jewelry, it is sometimes better to snip the piece apart and start all over again with fresh, unkinked threading materials. I was thinking of my friend’s comment as I was un-macrame-ing an aroma diffuser hanging, threading the hemp back from whence it came, a process far more tedious than making new knots.

In this case the second go was far better, creating an even double helix, like assembling DNA made of lavender hemp. I held the piece aloft, pleased by the way sunlight glinted off the crystals I hadn’t originally planned to use but had stumbled upon in my efforts to find the ones in my imagined design. There’s undoing again: letting go of my original plan.

Each blog entry, too, is a process of doing and undoing, as I sometimes think of revision. What seemed relevant becomes irrelevant as I re-read. Or on second thought sounds wrong. Or now that I am re-working the entry, goes in the wrong direction. Or (now I see) could use more description. Or, after leaving it to rest for a day or so, I see it needs more psychological distance in the retelling.

Writers are told “kill your darlings,” a writing dictum so famous it became a movie title. An article  in Slate traces the title and phrase’s origins to a 1914 lecture. Since then, writers have been admonished not to hang onto our little favorite words, phrases or paragraphs. The attachment itself may be a sign that we have lost the critical perspective needed to determine what the piece itself really needs to become its best self.

But what those writing instructors don’t say is that excessive undoing can be all too seductive. One could revise forever; every word, theoretically could be altered. Some pieces I have found myself revising and revising and revising until the impetus and all the wind in the sails of the original piece is lost. Or, I have taken to heart too many opinions and felt overwhelmed by too much to be undone and re-written. It was, at points in my life, easier to file pieces away with all the workshop and teacher commentary and turn to the blank page again. A blank page is free of mistakes, unclear phrases, bland syntax, un-incisive insights, and problems with tone. The blankness is a fresh start; all previous missteps memories filed away, perhaps never to be retrieved.

A writer may fear that her work will never achieve greatness and thus no piece is ever good enough. No amount of re-writing can change those feelings. We are encouraged to write “shitty first drafts”, (as in the chapter by the same name in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.) Then we are to re-work them into pieces of Art. Yet, how do we know when we have created Art, and not just another draft? When are we done? What writer ever feels truly done? Revision is a process with no clear end. Instead we must assert a stopping point when the piece is ready to show the world. No earthly piece will ever be perfect. It falls to the writer to decide, this is good enough.

Falling prey to this kind of insecurity is how my MFA in creative writing became a process of doing and undoing and temporarily, my undoing as a writer. I read book after book and wrote hundreds of pages and revised until I hated my own work. By the time I completed my overworked thesis and walked away with my degree, I had lost confidence in myself as a writer. Afterward, while one of my classmates in the year behind me was having her book published to national acclaim, I had thrown myself completely into teaching again, leaving myself little time to write and not the slightest inclination to submit my writing anywhere.

Meanwhile, my father, who went above and beyond to support me by paying for my MFA tuition, was incredulous. Where were all those teaching stories he had been awaiting for so many years? They were locked in the vault of self-doubt.

Early in my career I had shared a story about teaching with my parents. In my mind it now has the grating title “Do Not Engage”; in any case, that’s what my dad calls it when he refers to it in one of his many “you should write your vignettes” exhortations. I was wasting my talent, he seemed to be saying; the mark on the world I felt he expected me to make was to be my true stories of teaching.

The irony of this ambition was lost on him; I began my career in teaching in part because my parents convinced me it was too risky to try to earn a living as a writer. That one story, however, relating an incident from my first year teaching convinced my dad that I was crazy to refuse to write more just like it. I should have been getting the stories published, he said. A decade into my teaching career I was not only sorry I’d showed that piece of writing to my dad, but I was also sorry I’d taught him the word “vignette.” I tried to explain how I felt to him once. I said I did wish to write more stories and have them published but that his constant reminding me did not help and only served to make me cringe at the very word “vignette”. He said he understood; he switched to “anecdote”.

I remember moments when I had complete confidence in my writing ability. I was in third grade and my teacher appreciated a story. I was in ninth grade and won a poetry contest. I was in tenth grade and wrote a story about a home economics cooking class disaster that made the rounds of the school. I was a college student, praised by professors for my poetry and essays. The director of one MFA program tried to woo me with a scholarship. I chose Bennington instead, however, to study with Phillip Lopate, one of my creative nonfiction idols. I was prepared for the rigor of the program. I wasn’t prepared to be just another writer in a crowd of writers.

I didn’t regain my writing confidence until I found myself out of work with a concussion. It took me a long time after the injury to even begin using my computer again without severe headaches, but eventually I came back to writing. Tentative at first, I hid all my work n word processing files, afraid to even post anything to my pre-existing blogs. I think my confidence returned with my friend Allyson’s comment that she missed my blog posts, the way I wove in my story and my sensibility. Somehow from that seed of confidence, grew the little sapling of belief.

At this moment my whole is going through a revision process. I let go of knot after knot of my old life, most significantly, my job as public school teacher. I unraveled the whole narrative of English teacher as identity. Who am I now? A blogger, a writer, a jewelry-maker, a cranial sacral practitioner in training? I pull loose the row of stitches that is job-as-identity.  I let go the benefits and secure future. I undo my life story until it is a blank page, but one informed by every other page I’ve ever written. I write a blog post. I let it rest until I have perspective on it. I revise it. I revise it until I imagine Allyson would like it. I think we all need to have in our minds this ideal reader—interested, supportive, smart, honest, specific, knowledgable. With her voice in my mind I revise until my post has a feeling of right-ness. I re-read it yet again. I take a deep breath and hit “publish.”

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