For the Week of January 16, 2016: Revising a Life

A few weeks ago, I agreed to do a manuscript consultation for one of my former students.  She is writing a memoir, and in the process, discovering not only how much effort it takes to write a book, but how unexpected bouts of self-doubt and criticism descend on her without warning.  Self-doubt is something even experienced writers contend with. It’s difficult, when we’re so immersed in our own story, to know how a reader will experiences it.  Coming up for air and getting feedback allows us a chance to find out what our readers think, but also, to “see” our work from a fresh perspective.

“I believe in your story,” I wrote in my comments.   Five pages of detailed critique later, I repeated that statement once more.  I know how emotional an experience it can be to receive constructive comments on one’s writing.  I’ve been through it more than once, and it’s taught me how important it is to get see our writing –and sometimes, ourselves—from a different point of view. 

For several years, I worked on a memoir turned novel, sending it to  a few respected writers for review, and then revising multiple times.  The revisions, I realized several months later, were surface ones, concerned with descriptive details, grammatical nits, and developing a rounded character out of the protagonist, who, in real life, was me.  My writing dragged on, through four complete revisions—or rather, revisions I thought were complete.  Something wasn’t working. The story I thought I was writing wasn’t the real story.  In the process of making my life “fiction,” I turned my personal narrative into something that no longer bore any resemblance to my life.  “It’s become a fairy tale,” I complained to my writing buddies, and I put the novel aside in frustration,, knowing I had to begin again, writing myself “into knowing,” as author Patricia Hampl once said about the writing process.  I had to have the patience and discipline to slow down and allow my writing be a process of discovery.  This wasn’t a minor revision.  It meant a re-write, a complete re-visioning of my narrative.

I’ve been working on my rewrite, that’s right
I’m gonna change the ending
Gonna throw away my title
And toss it in the trash
Every minute after midnight
All the time I’m spending
It’s just for working on my rewrite…

(“Rewrite,” by Paul Simon, from the album, So Beautiful or So What?”)

It’s not unlike life, I suppose.  So many times, in the midst of hardship, illness or loss, I’ve wished I could change my life, skip over the painful and difficult chapters, dump the old scripts and begin again, just like the Vietnam veteran in Simon’s song who wants to rewrite his life so it has a happy ending:

I’ll eliminate the pages
Where the father has a breakdown
And he has to leave the family
But he really meant no harm
Gonna substitute a car chase
And a race across the rooftops
When the father saves the children
And he holds them in his arms…

What if you could?  We all fantasize sometimes, look back and imagine how our lives might have been different, if only…but those are daydreams, not the realities of life.  Our difficult experiences, the struggles and hardships are still there when we open our eyes from the daydream.  We face what’s in front of us, one foot in front of the other, but if we’re paying attention, maybe we can learn from those difficult chapters, practice self-compassion, and create the opportunity to write a new script for the life we have yet to live. 

 In an interview  published in the Paris Review (Winter 1993), poet William Stafford defined the process of writing as a continuing encounter between self and the materials that distinguishes the practice of art, in other words, learning how to turn life into art.  When asked why he chose the title, You Must Revise Your Life (1967) for one of his few books of prose, Stafford remarked:

 “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…”

Living the kind of life that enables good poems or good writing of any kind requires that we remain open to the possibility that our work—and we—can be changed for the better.  I think again of  the manuscript consultation with my former student.  She sought feedback because she wants to turn her life experiences into art.  I’d read some of her work  when she began her writing her book a couple of years ago.  The difference between the earlier pages and those written more recently was significant.  The newer writing was  more fluid, insightful and stronger than I experienced before.  Her writing has changed, reflecting the interaction between writer and the page in the writing process.  It’s a continual dialogue of discovery; gradually as the story shifts and changes, so does our perspective of the events we’re describing.  

It’s not something we plan for or think about when we first begin writing from the troublesome and challenging events life throws at us.  We write to pour ourselves and our emotions on the page, to release them from the body to the page.  Even then, there are moments of surprise when we read what we’ve written.  I often hear  “I didn’t know I was going there” when someone reads what they’ve written aloud.   The surprise is like an open door, beckoning to us to enter, and discover even more of the story.  It doesn’t happen all at once.  We write our imperfect first drafts, rewrite and revise again and again until we “see” what our story—our experience—truly means.  We’re given the opportunity to “re-vision,” see something anew, and learn from it so we may embrace the uniqueness of our lives and to live as we intend.    

They want a wilderness with a map—
but how about errors that give a new start?—
or leaves that are edging into the light?—
or the many places a road can’t find?

Maybe there’s a land where you have to sing
to explain anything: you blow a little whistle
just right and the next tree you meet is itself.
(And many a tree is not there yet.)

Things come toward you when you walk.
You go along singing a song that says
where you are going becomes its own
because you start. You blow a little whistle—

And a world begins under the map.

( “A Course in Creative Writing,” By William Stafford, In: A Glass Face in the Rain, 1982)

Writing Suggestion:

Given the chance, how would you rewrite your life?  Which parts?  Has writing out of hardship or illness changed you in any way?  What have you learned from those difficult life events that have prompted you to revise your life or embrace the life you have?

About Sharon A. Bray, EdD

Best known for her innovative work with cancer patients and survivors, Sharon is a writer, educator and author of two books on the benefits of expressive writing during cancer as well as personal essays, a children's book, magazine articles and the occasional poetry. She designed and initiated expressive writing programs at several major cancer centers, including Breast Cancer Connections, Stanford Cancer Center, Scripps Green Cancer Center and Moores UCSD Cancer Center. She continues to lead expressive writing groups for men and women living in the San Diego area and teach creative writing workshops and classes privately for UCLA extension Writers' Program. She previously taught professional development courses in therapeutic writing at Santa Clara University and the Pacific School of Religion, was a faculty member of the CURE Magazine Forums and at the Omega Institute in 2014. Sharon earned her doctorate from the University of Toronto and studied creative and transformative writing at Humber School for Writers, University of Washington, and Goddard College.
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