1. The Great Distance from Head to Page
I’m revising my new novel. I’m in that amorphous state between drafts, when all of what I know the book could be resides in my mind and only in my mind. I can barely look at it, it’s so bright. But it’s there. It’s in there and it wants out. In my head are the shifting shapes and the changing faces, the whirl of what’s possible and the pieces that will reveal themselves to be impossible, and I can’t tell them apart just yet. If only my vision of this revision could make it to the flawed page of Times New Roman 12 pt. text before me, I’d be done by now. I’d be kicking up my feet and going to the movies. But the words still need to get out. The right words this time, the right ideas. A solid, outlined revision plan can give the right words a shorter distance to travel, but there’s no way to get them to the page in an instant. They still need to take the subway to the commuter rail to the bus. Somebody still needs to pick them up at the bus station. And even when they reach the house, they still have to climb the stairs.
2. Alligator Wrestling
Revising is a physical activity involving great feats of strength. The revision itself writhes and snaps. It wriggles and it bites. If you can hold it still and throw your weight on it at just the right moment and in just the right place, you might get a picture of clarity that could get you through to the end of this chapter. But the revision weighs more than you, and leverage isn’t enough sometimes. Some days you find yourself deep in mud, suffocated by its bloated, soggy body, staring straight into its cold, reptilian eye.
3. The Book That Doesn’t Exist Yet
Go on, tell yourself you’re writing a book. I tell myself I’m writing a book every day. But right now I should call it a “book.” What I’m really writing is this “book” that doesn’t exist yet. I’m writing toward its existence, but I’m far from bringing it to life and being able to sit with it in the sunshine and comb its hair. I have this deep sense of what the “book” will be. I planned it out and I know what must change to get it there, but the book it will be one day isn’t the book it is now. It’s dangerous to fall in love with a book that doesn’t exist yet. You could spend all your time gazing off into the distance, admiring how it shimmers there at the horizon, caught in the romantic glow of what it will be when your editor says, “Congratulations! Go take a nap. You’re done.” The revision needs this vision of its future self to know what to strive for, but you shouldn’t let yourself look toward the horizon too often. I’ve put my head down, and all I see now are the flawed words on the page.
4. Revising Alone
You can revise in a dark corner. I’ll revise with a scarf over my head. I’ll make a wall with a basket and a coat at the side of my desk so no one can see in, and I’ll hold myself very still, waiting for the new words to come. I’ve made it perfect in here! I’ll think. Why won’t the words just come already? Still, being all alone with the hours ahead of you isn’t enough. Wearing your favorite writing hoodie isn’t enough (even if yours, like mine, has stripes). Providing yourself with the perfect writing snacks—the dark chocolate or the chewie candies or the petits fours—and the carefully cultivated music playlist is not enough. It is a shock, sometimes, that staring at a page under these optimal conditions doesn’t magically do the work for you, rearranging sentences into what should be, as you conduct from your chair. The hours of digging and tearing down and building back up still have to be put in. I still have to force myself to pick up the shovel.
5. Revising with Friends
But sometimes you can fake it, and pretend you’re less alone, when you revise with other writers. These other writers don’t need to see your pages. They must only be physically in the room with you. Perhaps on the couch across the way, or perhaps sharing your café table. It’s an intimate thing, tearing open your book and piecing it back together using spit and glue and gum and invisible double-sided tape, but you needn’t be embarrassed to do the shredding, ripping, gorging, and re-imagining in front of another writer. She will understand because she knows your pain. The best writers to revise with are the ones who also have deadlines, who also hold that hollow hope of ever finishing in their eyes. But really all you need is another writer who won’t bug you when you’re mid-idea and who lets you work to the tap-tap-tapping of his keys.
6. Something SPECTACULAR Could Go Here
It is with great pain, and a sense of deepest failure, that I leave this page for the day and tell myself to go back to it later so I can skip ahead to something else. But I must do it. No one has nailed my shoes to the floor. I can leave a placeholder such as YOU SUCK YOU IDIOT WHY CAN’T YOU WRITE THIS PARAGRAPH? or ONE DAY SOMETHING SPECTACTULAR WILL GO HERE and move on. We may revise out of order, we may revise in circles or on roller coasters. We may revise upside down or while doing downward dog. It doesn’t matter, so long as we’re revising.
7. And a Little Bit of Blind Faith
Even if the revision looks like a visit to the town dump, or like a mangled tire on the side of the highway. Or like a dropped box of crayons, or a sink full of dishes, or a desert wasteland, vast and endless, or like the darkest of all the dark rooms and you can’t find the door… No matter what your revision looks like, believe you can make it better. If I stop believing, I know I won’t have a book at the end of this. I’ll have a new stack of pages to rubber-band together and stow in the dusty manuscript graveyard beneath my bed. I have to believe in myself, and in this book. I have to look to the horizon—to the glittering words that say THE END—and will myself to make it to them. Because if I do get there, I will have created something from nothing. I will have animated an idea into a physical object you can pick up in your hands. (Or download to your ereader, but that’s far less romantic.)
It’s the revising that’s the real writing, and without it there’s no book at all.