I just spent a couple of hours sitting outside on the back deck with my laptop, revising the first section of a long essay (too long, I think). We’ve had a lot of rain in the Boston area over the past few days, but today was sunny and dry and not too hot, and I couldn’t resist working outside.
I don’t know if this particular essay will go anywhere, but I’ve been working on it for a while. On the days when I think, “This piece might never come together,” I use it for practice in various aspects of craft, and hope maybe I will feel differently about it on another day.
When I first started working on essays I didn’t understand the power — and necessity — of numerous revisions. After toiling away at a piece for maybe a few weeks and finishing several drafts, I wanted to be done. I was, in fact, indignant at the idea that the piece wasn’t finished. What? I’ve worked so hard, this is all I can do! What more do you want from me, essay?
I’ve come a long way since then. I know there are writers out there who can lay it all down in just a few drafts, or maybe even in just one or two drafts. But I often have to revise a piece several times, then set it aside and not think about it for a while, and then revise it again, sometimes a few, sometimes many more times. Revision is actually becoming one the most enjoyable aspects of writing for me. The hard part is done — getting a whole bunch of words down on paper. Now I can fine-tune, improve language, chop-chop where things are extraneous, feel good when things “click” — when they start to make sense and come together. Sometimes a piece surprises me and turns out to be about something completely different than I expected, all because of ideas that came up during revision.
The only question is — when is a piece ever done? I haven’t figured out the answer to that yet. It feels like the work can always get better. But a piece might be done when you find yourself staring at the pages and notice, finally, that they are staring back at you without begging for more changes.
At that point, for me, it feels like there’s no more to say. Until the next essay, anyway.
I understand what you’re saying, Faye. My first or early drafts make me wonder why I ever thought I could write. I, too, have come to appreciate and enjoy the revision process. I know I’m done after I’ve gone through a cycle of loving it, hating it, loving it, hating it, and finally end with: I can’t look at it anymore. Good for you (for all of us) who keep at it. For me, it’s the only way.