Half my life is an act of revision. –John Irving
Irving wasn’t just talking about writing; I think he was talking about life. While revision is an integral part of the writing process, as any writer will tell you, it can be a difficult and frustrating process. Writing demands it, but so does life.
“Revision” has been part of our vocabulary for a very long time. It was originally borrowed from the French revision (1611) and derived from the Latin, “revīsere, meaning “to look, or see, again.” Consult a thesaurus for synonyms of “revise,” you’ll find words like reexamine, reassess, rethink, alter, modify and change. Obviously, it’s not just a word that applies to the writer’s work. Revision is the process we undertake whenever we try to make sense out of something that has happened to us–job loss, relationship break-up, loss of a loved one or being diagnosed with a serious illness like cancer. Understanding or sense-making requires a process of revision, of seeing something anew or in a different light.
In part, revision is about letting go, acknowledging choices and changes we must make as our lives change. The men and women who write with me are forced, because of their cancer diagnoses, to confront mortality no matter their age, something that requires an entirely different way of thinking about of one’s life. The hard reality of any debilitating or terminal illness is that it alters lives without warning.
Yet living means that things happen to us—good things and terrible things—on a daily basis. It’s the constant creation and changing of our life stories. We turn to a new page each day. What we planned may suddenly change; we make choices that influence future events and their outcomes; others’ lives and events also affect us. Despite that, the story closest to us, our own, is sometimes the most difficult to understand. That’s when we have the opportunity for revision and seeing life in new and different ways. That’s why I like poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s description of revision as “a beautiful word of hope…a new vision of something.”
In a 1993 interview in the Paris Review, the poet William Stafford was asked why he’d chosen the title, You Must Revise Your Life (1967) for one of his few books of prose. He explained it by saying,
“I wanted to use the word revise because so many books about writing make it sound as though you create a good poem by tinkering with the poem you’re working on. I think you create a good poem by revising your life… by living the kind of life that enables good poems to come about… A workshop may seem, to those who take part in it, a chance to revise the work they bring. I think it’s a chance to see how your life can be changed…”
Revision isn’t just about writing; it is a life process. Every day, life hands you new material—and not all of it welcome. It offers you the opportunity to change your life. Each day, each year, you “talk back” to life, ask questions, try to understand, and try to make sense of what has happened to you, just as a writer ponders, even struggles, with a manuscript or a poem. Revision, as Stafford said, offers you an opportunity to see your life in a new light.
Let’s face it, clinging to a past that no longer applies to your present only seeds depression or regret. Letting go of those worn out parts of your old life is a necessary process—a life long process. But revision is not just about letting go. It’s also about deciding what to keep and what to discard as you continue to shape and re-shape your life at every stage. In that way, it’s not unlike what writers and artists do: letting the material of the poetry or narrative, the sculpture or painting talk back, helping them to see things anew and creating something better. Revising one’s life involves embracing whatever happens—in things, in language and in life. “The language changes,” Stafford wrote, and “you change; the light changes…Dawn comes, and it comes for all, but not on demand.”
So to you, Friend, I confide my secret:
to be a discoverer you hold close whatever
you find, and after a while you decide
what it is. Then, secure in where you have been,
you turn to the open sea and let go.
(From: “Security,” by William Stafford, in Passwords, 1991.
- When have you had to let the material of your life talk back to you? What changed? What did you discard? What did you retain?
- Write about how you’ve had to revise your life when the unexpected has occurred, for example, loss of a loved one, a cancer diagnosis, marriage, having children, or any new project. How did these events prompted you to revise your life?
- If you keep a notebook, return to an earlier time, like something written soon after your diagnosis or during the upheaval of another difficult experience. Try these steps: first, re-read what you wrote, highlighting the phrases that or words that stand out for you. Then, re-write the event, but try beginning with and focusing on the phrases you’ve highlighted. “Work” with your material. Let it talk back to you as you recall the details of that event—sounds, smells, the quality of light, words said, what you were feeling. Rewrite and then compare the two versions. What changed? What did you see differently as a result of revision?