Living As Revision

A journey of heart and mind and spirit

Talking with an 8-year-old can be instructive. At dinner last week, my niece, who pays close attention to what adults are saying when she herself isn’t talking, put her elbows on the table, rested her chin in her hands and sighed under the weight of the sentiment she was about to share: “I wish Donald Trump wasn’t the president.”

Her mother calmly replied, “I know you feel that way. So do I. And that’s why we were part of the Women’s March and why we are working to elect good people who will bring about change.” The reframing was clever and spot on. If it wasn’t the wine on that cold January night, I was sure I felt a shift in the fault line running through our country.

Intentional or not, my work on the memoir coincides with the calendar. Early in a year I’m launching into a revision, full of ideas and energy. By fall, as the earth slips into a long quiet and I’m ready for a comedy, I fancy the word “done” leaping across my desk. I suspect at some point I will declare the manuscript finished. I may even believe it’s ready to be sent out into the world.

But here’s the curious thing. Life goes on. Which means “revision” of a higher order continues, necessarily so. If you’re God, you can create the world and everything in it in 6 days and consider it good or very good. If you’re not, fasten your seatbelt and enjoy the ride.

I’ve been rereading Homer’s The Odyssey. A new English translation—the first by a woman, Emily Wilson—recently came out. It’s described as fresh and authoritative, written in “a vivid, contemporary idiom.” Wilson has tapped into the emotional currents that flow through the story perhaps better than her predecessors. As you may recall from freshman English, Odysseus has been trying to return home for 20 years but has encountered one obstacle after another. He represents the archetypal heroine’s or hero’s journey—the very journey we are each on. Yes, there’s the actual journey of going from one place to another, but there’s also an inward journey, one of the heart and mind and spirit. The heroine grows and changes along the way. Hers is a journey from one way of being to the next. In the case of my niece, from mournful sentiment to decisive action.

I’d bet I was one of thousands of freshmen across the country who didn’t quite “get” Odysseus’ struggle. I was bored by one over-the-top feast after another, the endless flow of wine, and, fundamentally, the fact that it took him 400 pages and 24 books to make it home. Now I think I see why. The version of life my parents taught me and expected I would follow (I did not disappoint) left out the journey. It didn’t honor the longing to answer the question “Who am I?” for myself. Maybe that’s why it’s taken me so long to appreciate Odysseus’ quest and understand it as my own.

In her wonderful new book, Living Revision, Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew offers a refreshing take on the dreaded aspect of writing: revising. Instead of subtitling her book “a guide to creating a bestseller,” Andrew asserts that the painstaking process of revising our work is a spiritual practice. “Our capacity to transform our writing is intricately connected to our willingness to change how we see our subjects and the world . . . For your writing to change, you must change.” (Introduction, xviii)

So when people ask me how my writing is going, I’m honest. I tell them I’m in the midst of a revision. Even when the memoir is done and has found an audience, and another project is underway, my answer will be the same. Living is revision. The journey continues.

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