"It's not how you write; it's how you re-write."
If it wasn't for revision, I never would have become a poet. If it wasn't for revision, I never would have become a published writer at all. There would be no way to improve my work if I didn't spend hours, days, and sometimes years, revising. Writing is one area of life where obsession is a good thing. Or can be a good thing. I think I may have to stop writing and revise that last line. As a writer, I consider each word; its sound and sense. I want the best words in the best order. Sounds so simple and yet...
I've written an essay on revision titled, "It's Not How You Write," that's been published a few times and is now available here. I can remember learning revision as an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts. Madeline DeFrees was my first real poetry teacher. One afternoon a week I would head up to her office, poem in hand. A poem that I would have worked hours on and in those days, fallen a bit in love with. Madeline would take out her red pen (!) and start marking away as she read. She'd provide ideas on what needed changing and off I'd go again. "Once you remove the weakest link in the chain, another one comes to take its place."
My fantasy was to bring her a poem that defied the red pen; a poem that she would like just as I wrote it. No changes. And of course that never happened. Revision felt like a slow water torture to me. I'd stretch myself to do my best work and then she'd tell me, stretch again.
So it seems simple that my students would feel the same way I did then. What do I want from them? Blood? Their first born? It's good to remember that revision started out as attempting the impossible.
And yet. This weekend I went to a reading of a friend's play. The play is a play-in-progress. After the actors finished, we were asked to stay and do a "talk back" so that my friend, the playwright, could gather our impressions -- both good and bad. She is delighted to have lots of rewriting and reconstruction to do.
No one gets it right the first time; but the great thing about writing is that perhaps we will get it right on the 102nd time.