Exercises for the deeper, harder work of revising a text—and a life.
Change, on the page as in life, does not happen when we’re stubborn and clingy. Revision asks that we cast the small world we’ve created in words—and all it represents within our being—in entirely new light. As we learn to revise, we gain skills in listening, letting go, creating, communication, enduring, and trusting our intuition. Our voice gets stronger. We honor the fullness of our creative impulses. We claim our stories despite their brokenness. We own our authority; we become authors. The changes we need to make in our text are miniscule compared with the changes revision demands of our hearts.
Good as this sounds, it’s also scary. “When we feel resistance in any form, it’s because we haven’t fully committed to seeing what’s true,” writes Rosanne Bane, creativity coach and author. “We want to be thoughtless so life can be fraughtless. We want to avert our eyes.” But self-deception hinders spiritual growth, and readers know when stories don’t ring true or when a voice isn’t authentic. Revision means drilling down to the hot core of our subject and bringing that burning substance to light. We have to face the truth, and this changes us.
No wonder we resist revision! Real creativity summons us to become more fully ourselves.
Resistance to rewriting a project is often stronger than resistance to starting it. “This explains,” writes Peter Turchi, “why it can be so difficult for beginning writers to embrace thorough revision—which is to say, to fully embrace exploration. The desire to cling to that first path through the wilderness is both a celebration of initial discovery and fear of the vast unknown.” A first draft is a thrilling, frightening foray into the wilderness. Once we’ve bushwhacked that path, we don’t want to veer from it.
Attachment mires us. Most of us are committed to and therefore defensive about what we’ve created. Once we’ve taken one risk, we prefer not to take another. But to foster lively, ongoing creativity, we must let the familiar go. Staying safe—the “better the devil you know” policy—does not serve anyone.
Diane Millis in her book Conversation: The Sacred Art makes a distinction between paths that merely excite us and those that truly enliven us. “What enlivens us tends to endure,” she observes. Her discernment questions are good to ask of a writing project:
• Does the path you are considering expand you, stretch you beyond your comfort zone, and invite you to grow?
• Does the path you are considering increase your sense of connection with your subject matter, other people, and the world in which you live?
• Do the enthusiastic stirrings of your heart persist even as you experience obstacles and setbacks?
In ten minutes, write your earliest fond memory of writing. Then reflect: What happened in that moment? What came alive?
Popular science fiction author Ray Bradbury writes that feeding the muse is “the continual running after loves, the checking of these loves against one’s present and future needs, the moving on from simple textures to more complex ones, from naïve ones to more informed ones, from nonintellectual to intellectual ones.” What loves are you running after in your current writing project? Make a list. Then speculate about each item on the list. What might it take to nurture this love?
Explore in your writer’s notebook: In what ways does writing help you practice surrender or letting go? What might your current project be asking you to surrender for the sake of the story?
This essay and these exercises are adapted with permission from Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice (Skinner House, 2017).
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Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew teaches spiritual memoir writing at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is also the author of Writing the Sacred Journey (Skinner House, 2004).