Debra Gwartney books
Sunday, January 1, 2012

You Must Revise Your Life

January 1, 2012

On this first day of the new year, I am working on a class I’ll lead at the Pacific University MFA in Writing Residency in Seaside, Oregon, (excited to get there–to see in person the wonderful writers I’ve been working with this past semester, to reconnect with students, faculty, and to meet new MFA students). The class is a discussion of Revision, the elements of which have seemed perhaps overly obvious as I’ve compiled my notes–

Let the first draft go its own way, keeping those itchy editor fingers away from the prose as much as possible–

Go into revision with the true intent to “see again” and find the precise language, the sensory detail, the elevation of a few select episodes into scene in order to best reveal that which the piece is trying to say/the heart of its meaning.

Don’t mistake copy editing or proofreading for deep-down revision.

More, much more, but instead of going on about revising, I’ll offer this Richard Bausch quote that rather says it all:

“You touch one part of it and the whole thing shivers, from one end to the other. It’s such a delicate thing, revision, and revision is where the artistry is; and so you have to be ruthless, and put away anything–even parts you like the sound of, even the matters that speak from your secret self to who you hope you are–put away anything that does not contribute to the whole thing. And God damn, it is hard.”  –Richard Bausch

Even if the process of revision sounds straightforward and simple, it can be excruciatingly difficult at times (as any writer well knows). If the first draft pumps endorphins, spins the mind with delight and possibility, the work required on subsequent drafts can cause the brain to ache, and can cause one’s confidence to plummet. I have definitely hit some dark times during revision–serious doubts about my abilities. How will these passages ever work? Sometimes the effort cannot succeed, no matter the hours put in, and the piece is, rightfully so, abandoned. Sometimes the right word, phrase, image comes along and I sense a marvelous cohesion that I couldn’t have predicted or pushed for. There it is, from some deep recess of my mind, precisely what was needed, appearing right in front of me. And of course that’s the payoff, the gift, of revision.

While musing on revision, I thought many times of William Stafford’s book You Must Revise Your Life, and that led me to dig around on my poetry shelf for the right volume so I could reread my favorite Stafford poem. For many years I kept a copy of this poem folded up in my wallet. I can’t really say why, except that I had an uncanny knack of pulling it out and reading it at exactly the right times, when the lines would speak to me–and it spoke in different ways, new and fresh and insightful, at each reading.

Here it is, “Ask Me.” I wonder how many times it was revised.

Ask Me

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

–William Stafford

2 Responses to You Must Revise Your Life

  1. Thank you for this great post, which I stumbled across thanks to a Google Alert on Richard Bausch. The Stafford poem is very apt. Revision — in art and life — is as mysterious as it is necessary.

    • debra says:

      Thank you, Maria Browning! What you say about revision, “as mysterious as it is necessary,” is spot on. So glad you shared that thought. –Debra

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