Over at Electric Literature, Lincoln Michel recently took on the much-repeated advice that you shouldn’t edit while you write, and it got me thinking about my own attitudes toward revision.
Turns out, I’m actually a pretty fervent believer in revision. In fact, the longer I write, the more I believe in it. I happily assign students Anne Lamott’s essay “Shitty First Drafts” and I’m knee-deep in at least draft five or six of pretty much every story I’m working on. In a lot of ways, I’m a pretty firm proponent of exactly the attitudes Michel is cautioning against here.
That said, I agree with Michel that “not only are not all first drafts shit, but most of the time a ‘first’ draft doesn’t actually exist, at least in the sense that many young writers take it to mean”, and I take his point that sometimes accepting–even temporarily–the faults of a zero version will leave you with a fundamentally flawed result.
To explain the problem with this, Michel compares writing a story to building a house:
When you build, you want your foundation to be as strong as possible or else everything else is going to be warped and ready to collapse. Sure, it’s possible to just slap up a structure as quickly as possible with whatever materials are around, and replace every single thing piece by piece, but it’s going to take a lot more work. And, frankly, you are going to be a lot more likely to say, “Fuck it, who cares if the floor is at a 20° angle and the toilet is connected to the oven? Let’s call it a day.”
Which, OK, seems sensible enough. Except I’m not sure a story is a house, exactly. A story doesn’t have to be immediately inhabitable. Nobody’s waiting to move in and put up curtains. You don’t have to get a story right on the first try, and it doesn’t cost anything to try again.
At least, it doesn’t cost anything in building materials or contractor’s fees. What it does cost is time and emotional energy. Rewriting can be an exhausting misery of an undertaking, particularly the kind of ground-up revision required when you choose to “replace every single thing piece by piece.”
For Michel, this seems to be proof that you shouldn’t wait to revise. As he puts it, a story is “going to be much easier to fix at page 10 than page 100.” He goes on to say, “The most common roadblock to revising I see is a writer not wanting to throw away the things—voice, characters, setting, plot—that they’ve spent so long on even when they know it’s not working. It’s a form of the sunk cost fallacy. Human instinct is to make what you have work.”
And to my mind, that’s exactly the problem. That is to say, it’s not the amount of work it’ll take to fix the flawed first draft that’s the issue, it’s our resistance to actually doing that work. There’s nothing wrong with building a crooked, cock-eyed house. When you get into trouble is when you discover your toilet is connected to your oven and you decide just to live with it. You have to be prepared to raze it to the ground in order to build a better one next time.
Because the thing is, writing is experimental. I don’t think I’m the only writer who doesn’t even understand what I’m trying to accomplish until I’m two or three drafts in–sometimes more. I need to revise because I haven’t yet discovered what the story is about. I’m still learning how to solve that particular problem.
Nobody says, “Don’t make a souffle until you can make one perfectly.” Your souffle is gonna fall the first few times you make it. That’s how you get the hang of making it. That’s not to say you don’t want to try and do it as well as you can on the first attempt–you don’t want to just throw some eggs and milk into a pan and hope for the best–but if you continue to obsess about the first two steps of the recipe, you’re never going to finish the first souffle, let alone master the recipe. Once you’ve finally managed to make the perfect souffle, you can move on to another dish.
And the thing is, fucking up your souffle sucks. It’s embarrassing and it means you don’t get to enjoy the fruits of your labors immediately, because instead of sharing your delicious meal with all your friends, you have to go back into the kitchen and do all that hard work all over again. We don’t like having to do all that work again, Michel is right about that. But the fact that we don’t want to do it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.
Again, the issue with the scenario Michel is describing isn’t the amount of work revision entails. It’s that we resist scrapping work we’ve already done in order to do it better. Rather than trying to avoid doing that work in the first place, as Michel suggests, I think we should maybe try to change our attitudes toward that work.
That’s a difficult thing to do. As Michel says, we’re risk averse. My students are very resistant to making significant changes to their stories. So am I, sometimes. But I can honestly say that when I’ve committed wholeheartedly to making large-scale changes to my writing, my stories genuinely do improve for the better.
Ultimately, the kind of drafting I’m talking about isn’t just revision. It’s not moving commas around or choosing a more fitting phrase. It’s truly rewriting–reimaging the whole story, piece by piece–and that’s actually something you have to wait until you’ve gotten to page 100 (or further) to do. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:
Maybe three or four years ago I wrote a second-person direct address flash story about someone in search of an invisible city. That story sat on the shelf for a long time, only to be revived about a year ago as third-person plural story about a community obsessed with an inaccessible city across an impassible divide, which included a single throw-away line about human sacrifice. After a couple of drafts of this version, someone suggested that maybe I should pursue the human sacrifice angle and now, after several more passes (including, god help me, an abortive draft written in the style of a scholarly essay), I have a ten-page story about throwing adolescent girls off a cliff.
All that remains of that original draft is maybe a couple of phrases and a general sense of longing for something that remains always out of reach. There’s no way I could ever have anticipated the shape this story would wind up taking, and if I hadn’t been willing to scrap what I had in order to explore a completely different direction, I might never have figured that out. Furthermore, it’s entirely possible than in six months, I’ll come back to this story and see yet another way of approaching it.
This kind of large-scale programmatic rewriting takes forever, and it can feel pretty hopeless sometimes. It’s hard work and I understand why people wouldn’t even want to go there. But I guess my point is that, while rewriting requires an immense commitment of time and energy, it can also be incredibly generative. Sometimes finally figuring out what new shape a story should take is actually more fun–and more satisfying–than inventing the shape of an early draft.
I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t try to dodge our literary bullets if we can foresee them. I have a bit of Zadie Smith’s micro-manager in me, just like Michel does. I’m definitely all for avoiding problems before they arise, as Michel is suggesting, but sometimes it’s just not possible and, I would argue, sometimes the problems are necessary and even instructive. And it seems to me that what’s necessary is not a strategy for avoiding problems altogether, but rather a change in our attitude toward those problems. Rather than approaching our drafts as flawed artifacts that need to be fixed, maybe we need to look at them as steps in a process–a process that can be agonizingly slow, but which can also elicit from us surprising and sometimes extraordinary results.