Everyone I meet who lacks confidence about writing thinks the hard part is coming up with something to say. I thought this for years, way too many years. Then, late in life, I learned good writing is revising something poorly said, not finding something worth saying.
This discovery started long before with one of those ridiculous Modern Language Arts conferences we all had to attend. One night I met this guy with wall-eyes that throw you off track because you don’t know whether he’s paying attention to you or someone else. Well, I think it was him; it might have been the other guy who was the Dali Lama’s guru here in America. No matter. What Peter Elbow said must have impressed me, because I bought his book and decided to give it a try in one of my Freshman English classes (I was forever changing my strategies for the perfect classroom). Elbow, I think, was the first to stress free-writing. Just pound out words; pay no attention to what you’re writing, and DO NOT try to correct your words as they flow. Just let them flow, knowing you’ll one day discard most. Just like the freewriting in this paragraph.
The advice was the best I ever received for my Freshman English classes. It was always hard convincing students I meant it, but it always worked. It circumvented the invisible and inevitable “red ink editor” we’re either born with or have drilled into us in high school.
The funny part is that Elbow’s book, as I recall, itself hadn’t undergone much serious revision. I objected to it because it just went on and on, like we do these days using e-mail. But I may be recalling imperfectly, and again, it doesn’t matter. This point has to do with memoir writing and poetry, not Freshman English or Peter Elbow.
For most of my serious work, I revise, and revise, and revise. I revised “Can’t Stop Falling” more than eight times, not counting the times I put my mind on sail to just check for factual accuracies, spelling, inconsistencies, and the like. Those revisions took more than two years.
Note: this particular post has been revised only once, very slightly; for a heavily revised item, see my post entitled “Your Presenter Speaks”. That started out so mediocre I almost hit delete, but four or five hours later was glad I didn’t.
I have a hard time not revising, because I enjoy it so much. I love to see an ordinary paragraph sparkle. Now, I’m worried about the workshops: will I be able to convince people that revising is what writing is all about? Obviously that remains to be seen.