Always be revising


Well, not always.

I’m currently in the process of revising 365 Days of Verse. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get them in their current form. After all, when I’m done, you can compare the two and say, “what a buffoon!”

In all seriousness, I think revision is (can be? should be?) an important part of the process for one’s writing. It’s where you wake up the morning after, own your walk of shame, look yourself in the mirror, shower, brush your teeth, do your best to look presentable to the family, and begin looking at all the embarrassing photos from your ‘wild night out’. Those that have revised and edited work they initially felt wonderful about but later dismantled because of nagging feelings of doubt know what I’m talking about. Of course, not all work nags you with those feelings. Some stand tall and true as we left them, as beacons which remind us that we don’t entirely bite it, that we indeed belong behind pen and paper or keyboard. Some need more care, feeding, and correction. All are our children, and make us proud to varying degrees.

When I undertook the project of writing a sonnet every day for a year, there wasn’t the kind of time I’d normally spend revising and “polishing”. In general my process (even with blog posts) is to revise several times. I’ve revised several times a little epic poem that I’ve been working on for the last two years. I’m still not done adding new lines to it, which will likely be revised in future before I consider it done. Thus, they are presented in their first edition as the work of a writer who was up against a wall. Albeit, a completely arbitrary wall of my own devising, but a wall nonetheless. And I think it’s important to put the work out there in its un-revised version to show properly my limitations, and to give an honest view of the work as it was completed at the time. After all, the project wasn’t to write 365 of the best sonnets I could write, taking as long as I possibly could to finish them, but to write one every day for a year. Again, an arbitrary time constraint, but one I found useful for getting me to the writing desk every day.

It worked.

In looking back at the work, there are some that I have always felt could be better. Thus far, I’ve polished some, left some alone, and pretty much dis and re-mantled some, leaving them in (I hope) much better shape. I’m retaining the main thrust of them all, just clearing up some problems, and hopefully improving them in general.

So, now that you’ve heard about this project, I’ll wax a bit about why I think revision is important for one’s work. John Cleese says in his lecture, On Creativity [1], that he often will work with a problem for a very long time rather than settle on an easy way out. I think this is one of the great things that happens when we revise. We begin to see the work from different angles. We see the pitfalls we’ve fallen into, and we see ways to improve our lot. Of course, this isn’t easy, and in my experience, it can be quite frustrating. Yet, I think it’s worth it because we grow more when we face up to our inner feelings that something isn’t quite right. (A feeling which I think is different than rampant insecurity over one’s writing.)

I draw certain analogies between writing and other life domains. For example, I’m a runner, and though in the last couple of years I’ve really tapered off my mileage to the point where I’m just doing sprint intervals once or twice a week, I appreciate a good, long, run. What I’m talking about here is endurance. As writers, particularly when we revise, we need endurance. We need to push ourselves to see how much we can take. I remember once that I decided that I was going to run 10 miles. I’d never done that before. I ran a 5K race in the morning, and then a couple ours later, I set out to run the 10 miles. I completed it, for a total of 13.1 miles for the day. I was quite proud of myself, and also quite sore.

Similarly,  365 Days of Verse was an endurance project. It pushed me to my limits in every extreme. Looking back I’m somewhat surprised I completed it. And in looking over the outcome, I’m extremely proud, but I also have the desire to push myself further, to make the result better. Hence, revisions.

In the revision process I’ve found that I’ve changed a lot since I wrote the sonnets in 2005, hopefully maturing as a poet, and one thing that has changed is that I am willing to sit with the problem longer than I was then. Meaning, I am willing to try more combinations and solutions until I find the one that is, well, the one.

Endurance of another sort.

A long lost friend and poet named Craig Beaven, whom I worked with during college, once told me how much he admired Hemingway who famously re-wrote his books numerous times. I always admired Craig’s work ethic, and I believe it shows in his work. And I think I understand better now the need for and compulsion to revise, that I didn’t earlier in life. Perhaps this is a function of age, and perhaps it’s not. Perhaps it’s perfectionism, and perhaps I end up ruining what was better left alone. These are all part of what makes writing both wonderful, and maddening.

I’ll take it.

One last thing: consider how blessed (cursed?) we are as writers to be able to so easily revise our work. I have a friend who’s a sculptor and he was talking about how he’d like to change a few things about a bronze he’d done. How daunting are the prospects for a sculptor. To work on a piece that’s already finished, or to re-create it from scratch. Consider the filmmaker, or the recording artists. What obstacles they face when revising their work. And yet, as writers, we need only to change the words on the page. The hardest part is summoning the courage, will, and focus to do so.

I want to let you in my “workshop” so you can see the kinds of changes that I’m making.  Firstly, the original, un-revised version of the sonnet from January 14th:


And here is the current revised version of same:


I’m hopeful that you may notice several differences in the meter, though I believe that the same ideas are coming through. The revised version rolls off the tongue in a different (better?) way, which resonates with me more than the original. Perhaps it’s just a function of how I’m changing in life.

How do you feel about revising your work?

[1] video has been removed

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