Re-visioning Revision

There’s a quote by Raymond Chandler that I remember reading: “Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.” I love this quote, not just for the nostalgia invoked by the word “typewriter,” but because it succinctly captures the importance of the two things I find most difficult about writing — not editing myself before I get the words down, and then really editing myself once they’re on the page.

Until recently, I’ve viewed revision as a loathsome process. When I’ve stopped doubting myself enough to actually get a poem or prose piece finished, it’s still far from polished. The scrubbing, shining, rearranging business that’s necessary in order for something to go from done to good is the hardest part, especially when mine are often the only set of eyes examining the writing. On any given day I can go from thinking a particular line is the best thing I’ve written, to wondering why I even bother with all the ridiculous word goop I’ve blarbed onto the page. My inner voice is a mess of contradiction, but I console myself with the knowledge that this is the case with pretty much every writer.

The struggle comes in trying to shut my mind-yabbering up long enough to actually get the revisions done. When it comes to my poems, it helps if I can put them away for awhile —weeks, sometimes even months— before trying to fix them. After a break, I can sometimes see more clearly what I’m trying to say, and ways to say it better. But this isn’t always the case, and when it doesn’t come easily, my instinct is to just ignore the poem, like a cavity. I know it won’t heal itself, but I think if I just forget about it, it won’t cause too much trouble.

Of course it will cause trouble, eventually. All those cavities will just get me a mouth full of holes, not something I want to show off or be proud of. I owe it to myself, and my poems, to do the work necessary to make them better. This is the best of many lessons I’ve learned so far as part of my apprenticeship with the Writers’ Guild of Alberta Mentorship Program. My wonderful mentor, Sue Sinclair, has shown me see that the re-writing can actually be the most rewarding part. It’s easier, now, with her experienced voice telling me “this is what’s not working and this is how to fix it.” But I’m learning to see it for myself too. I’m learning to re-vision revision. I’m approaching it with a more open mind, less fear and discouragement, and the knowledge that the hard work of editing, while still not enjoyable, is the path that leads to real rewards. I can’t just throw up all those words and leave them. If I want people to come over — and I do — it’s time to make this mess into something pretty.

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