Ah, resistance to change. I admit I like my routines and cringe at change, but I’m not the dig-your-heels-in-the-ground sort. I don’t invite the dramatic change, but even when my first wife said adios and even when lightning said hello! to my farmhouse rooftop, I cried and yelled and stomped my feet, and then I found a way to move on. Okay, both of those events took a long time to move through, but I didn’t resist either because they were both inevitable.
I have a similar attitude about rewriting of the big kind – re-visioning. Several years ago when my editor at Penguin sent me back the first submitted draft of The Journey from the Center to the Page, I opened the package and found an eleven-page, single-spaced typed letter that began something like, “You have some good material here, but we’ve got a long way to go before this is publishable.” Most of the next eleven pages listed all of the problems and a few possible solutions. The manuscript itself had page after page with my editor’s pen marks Xed on them.
My response? I went to bed for two days. After two days, I went to my yoga mat, centered my mind, and said, “Okay. I know how to do this. Let’s get to work.” And I did. I salvaged maybe 15% of the original manuscript, but the new version was mostly unrecognizable from what I originally submitted. And even when it came out, I wasn’t satisfied with it. Four years later, Monkfish published a revised and updated edition. I do the same with short stories, and my current
book project has gone through at least eight major structural overhauls. Since my college days, I don’t recall being much different. I get shocked. I cringe. And then I get to work.
As a writing coach and as Tiferet‘s fiction editor, I am often on the other side of this deal. After I have suggested to certain writers that they shift a story’s point of view or try to embody a different character or drop an entire sub-plot, they say to themselves or to their friends, “He doesn’t get my artistic intentions! He doesn’t know what he’s talking about!” I know because they’ve later told me so. The happiest and most productive clients/writers with whom I have worked and known are ones who learn to stomp their feet and then find a way to get back to work.
Novelist Benjamin Percy is such a writer. In the current issue of Poets & Writers, he compares revisioning a novel to renovating a house. It turns out that just as he and his wife had bought a house in desperate need of renovation, Greywolf Press had bought his novel. According to
his new editor, the novel also needed major renovation. So Percy got to work – on both the house and the novel.
Why do we resist?
Here’s what Percy writes: “So much of revision, I’ve discovered, is about coming to terms with that word: gone. Letting things go. When revising, the beginning writer spends hours consulting the
thesaurus, replacing a period with a semicolon, cutting adjectives, adding a few descriptive sentences – whereas the professional writer mercilessly lops off limbs, rips out innards like party streamers, drains away gallons of blood, and then calls down the lightning to bring the body back to life.”
Percy also observes why some amateur writers resist revision. If you’re writing only when the mood strikes you, he says, then you have less pages of productivity – and so you want to hold onto those few pages. “But if you’re producing reams of pages you’ll be less resistant to revision,” he writes, “because you know it won’t be long before another load of timber comes down the road.” So write and write and write everyday – and the task of rewriting won’t seem so daunting.
And yoga is all about letting go. With practice, yoga helps us see the mental patterns that hold us back as writers. We can start to see how our minds react to constructive criticism, how our mental loops can keep us locked in inertia and resistance, and how our bodies will avoid the desk at all costs when we know we need to rewrite.
Yet, sometimes more spiritually inclined writers have resisted my suggestions for rewriting for another reason. They feel they are channeling or otherwise receiving messages from a spirit or spirits and that to tinker too much with the original inspiration might offend the spirits. I sympathize, but I can’t convince these writers that spirits probably are not as attached to words as we are or that earth constantly revises herself. Everything changes. And yet we sometimes protect our sentences as if they were pyramids or stone temples built to outlast the next 2000 winters.
As a coach, I suppose I am a sort of wind god who unexpectedly may throw you off course, but I don’t do so at whim. My hope is that the wind ultimately blows your boat in the right direction and helps you learn to get yourself precisely where you need even it was not where you
thought you were going or wanted to go. Writing is temporary. All of it is. Stomp your feet. Hurl an epithet at your coach –
that force of creative chaos and change. Then move on. There’s work to do while you’re still here.
For more on this topic, see Chapter 22, “Letting Go of Delusion and Control: Revise!” in The Journey from the Center to the Page. (I had to revise that chapter significantly!)
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