Last week, I was standing in my kitchen with the setting sun streaming through the windows, my hands wrinkled from twenty-minutes of washing dishes, and tears pouring from my cheeks and plunking down into the dishwater like rain. I was crying, really crying. I’m not talking about the silent whimpers that trickle from me while watching Titanic for the third time, I’m talking about genuine sobs; the kind that originates in the center of you and pull your heart out of your chest on their way up.
What was it that had me so upset? Revision. You see, weeks earlier I had sent my book off to my agent, confident that I had revised it for the last time. And I really, really thought I had. I spent weeks deleting, rewriting, and reshaping my book. I worked hard. I (sort of) neglected my children, missed a few meals, lived under piles of laundry, and fell completely behind on Boardwalk Empire. But when all was said and done, it was worth the sacrifice. I nailed it. I was in the clear. Publication was just around the corner, I was sure of it.
Then, on an ordinary Monday evening, the familiar DING! I’ve assigned to my agent’s email address yanked me from the dinner table and I dove for my phone.
I expected to read: I love it! I’m taking it out tomorrow to publishers. I love you! You are so talented, and you have great eyes.
Instead, I got: We are so close! But…
I was shattered. I stood in my kitchen with my hands in that soapy water and I just sobbed. Not because I had to rewrite the book again, but because I felt like a failure. As a writer, my very existence hangs on my ability to write and to sell this novel. I’ve dedicated my education to it, spent the better part of my daughter’s lives writing it, and promised my husband that our sacrifices would all be worth it. Now, I had nothing. No publication. No reward. Just that “but…” I hated that but.
Two days later in the Writing Center, I consulted with a student who had written a marvelous paper of which she was very proud. She beamed as she read it out loud and she had every right to swell with pride. The introduction was strong, the argument supported, and the organization was clear. But something was off. When I read the paper as a whole, it didn’t address the assignment. I chose my words carefully, as I always do with students. I asked her to interpret the assignment her instructor had given the class. I then asked her to tell me how her paper aligned with those instructions. She hesitated. She searched the paper. She looked at the ceiling. She scratched an imaginary itch on her left ear. “It doesn’t,” she said softly, “it doesn’t.” She was visibly shaken. She was defeated. It was as if she was the one with the tears in the dishwater and I was the big “but.”
As I explained the assignment and how she could address some of the larger issues, I was careful to point out all of the things she did well. This is a good paper, I assured her. You are a good writer. And I wasn’t lying. She was, by all accounts, a very talented student. She simply missed the mark on this assignment. She aimed left when the bull’s-eye was right. This misinterpretation of her assignment was not an indication of her abilities as a student. Just like my inability to properly construct a convincing arc for my protagonist’s best friend was not an indicator of my talent. We just needed to revise, to reshape, and to try again. The student left with tear-streaked cheeks and a much-improved paper, I’m sure of it. And that night I went home and began working on revision number 13,886 of my novel.
Revision does not equal failure. Revision is growth. I never understood those words more than when I became a novelist. My book has come so far from when I wrote the first draft. It’s a different book entirely. And with each draft, I learn and grow as a writer. I am more proud of my book today that I have ever been of anything. I pass this message along to my students, and it is a philosophy we hold dear in the Writing Center: The first draft is the creating, the shaping, and the imagining. The revision is where the real writing happens.
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