I’ve been thinking about revision a lot these past many days. Not so much the revision of previous stories I’ve written, but how revision is an ongoing process in life. There are similarities between the two. Revision in writing demands we let go of paragraphs, words, even entire pages to create the story we desire. Revision in life is also about letting go, acknowledging choices and changes to be made as we experience losses, changes in health and circumstances, or simply grow older.
I think of the adjustments to my life as someone living with heart failure and those of the men and women in my different writing groups. Living with a life threatening illness or a progressive condition like heart failure, forces us to confront mortality, no matter the age or condition. Letting go, revising our lives and assumptions, is part of the reality of a life changed by debilitating or terminal illness. Yet revision is something we all face at every life stage. Our bodies change; our lives take turns we never planned; we lose friends or family members or experience unforeseen devastation. Think of those who survived the recent, destructive hurricanes from Florida to Newfoundland.
Clinging to a past that no longer applies to our present only seeds depression or regret. Letting go of those worn out parts of our past is a necessary process, like “spring” cleaning: deciding what to keep, what to discard. It’s what we do at every stage of our lives. Yet not unlike the writer’s work of revision, it is a process that allows you to see things in a new light—if you let it. The poet Naomi Shihab Nye described revision as “a beautiful word of hope… a new vision of something.”
“A … new vision of something…” Revision, borrowed from the French and derived from Latin, essentially means “to look, or see, again.” Check your dictionary and you’ll find synonyms like reexamine, reassess, rethink, alter, modify and change. It’s what we do naturally whenever we try to make sense out of something that forces us to alter the course of our lives.
Things happen to us; we make choices or take actions that influence events and outcomes. Yet sometimes, our own life stories can be the most difficult to understand. In You Must Revise Your Life, poet William Stafford wrote about the revision process—not only in writing, but in life. “My life in writing…comes to me as parts,” he stated, “like two rivers that blend. One part is easy to tell: the times, the places, events, and people. The other part is mysterious; it is my thoughts, the flow of my inner life, the reveries and impulses that never get known—[it] wanders along at its own pace…”
I’ve had Stafford’s words in my mind as I ‘ve thought about the past two years: how my own and others’ lives were affected by the COVID pandemic, how insular we became, and how interactions with one another were more often virtual than in person. It was a strange existence, and in many ways, I do not feel I’ve regained the life I had before COVID. As I approach a more “normal” life, I realize I’m more cautious, quieter and much too accustomed to being indoors than I would like.
I’ve also realized how much my expressive writing workshops “fed” my spirit and creativity for the past two years, even though the Zoom experience is not nearly as “alive” as those I routinely led in person. My Zoom fatigue hit home this week, when I had to cancel an expressive writing workshop for the first time in 22 years! The cold and flu season had begun; there were more absentees than is usual, and I, too, was hit hard with a vicious head cold. I felt a vague sense of loss for days afterward.
It’s rather disturbing to me how we have become so “accustomed” to Zoom. Many classes and meetings are still offered virtually for many of us, hybrid for some. This week, I found myself remembering when I routinely led my writing groups in person. Just this morning, I was sorting through my old workshop materials I’d all but forgotten how routinely I incorporated a variety of photos, music and objects as part of the writing exercises I offered in my groups. Face-to-face sessions meant I could easily organize the group into dyads or triads for certain exercises. Sessions ran for two full hours instead of 90 minutes, allowing longer writing times and more opportunity for participants to share their writing aloud. But that was then, before the pandemic altered virtually everything we once assumed was a “given.”
Reading bits of Stafford’s book was a good reminder that I, too, have to let the material of my present life talk back to me and find ways to see it anew. Revising one’s life, Stafford reminds us, is to embrace whatever happens—in things and in language. “The language changes,” he says, and “you change, the light changes…Dawn comes, and it comes for all, but not on demand.”
Letting go. It’s not easy for any of us. Change can be unsettling. Learning to embrace whatever happens? Finding new ways to do the work we love? Navigating life with illnesses that impact our daily activities? That takes intention and courage. And it takes patience. Like the writers I admire, I’m trying embrace the changing material of my now life—and let it talk back to me. I’m still struggling with finding the right lens to be able to see things anew, but I remind myself that insight and the “right” choices will come as they come, gradually and in time.
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)
- Whether after the two years of COVID or your life changing as a result of a medical diagnosis, look over your life.
- What has changed? What adjustments to your previous life have you had to make?
- What have your retained? What have you let go?
- How, from these experiences, have you had to revise your life?
- You might start with a list: two columns, one labelled “Before” and the other, “After.” Simply list as many ways in which your life has changed or requires revision: a chance to see “anew” or “differently?” How do you feel about it?