Keep Writing: Revision Is Magic

I was taking an English course, Utopian and Anti-Utopian Literature. Dr. K had given us an assignment. Go to the nearby museum of art and find three works that represent utopia or dystopia (to you) in some way and explain why.

I know I went to the museum with my friend Niles. He wasn’t taking the class; he’s an artist and he just loves art (loves to look at it, think about it, talk about it). As w roamed the museum and admired everything, I tried to find three pieces (and a couple of spares) that would work for the assignment.

I found a small porcelain statue of Adam and Eve (I think) in the Garden of Eden. I equated the Garden to a utopia, the first utopia, if you will, a place of innocence and hope that was supposed to stand eternally. I think. I was pleased with that and moved on to the second. Still Life #24 (1962) by Tom Wesselman.

For Tom Wesselman, this is a commentary on media saturation in the United States after WWII. I looked at it and saw The American Dream – a house, and life, full of brand name goods, all the signs of the good life. I saw the message blasted to Americans every second of the day, in every form of media:

Buy all of this and you can create a beautiful, untouchable life. You can have your own little utopia on earth.

The American Business Association

I was writing fine, flying. The right words were flowing onto my computer screen. I was plucking relevant thoughts out of seemingly nowhere, dialed into the elusive wavelength of the Academic Muse. I should have finished that assignment in thirty minutes or less. the way I writing.

Then, I ran in to a snag. David Wojnarowicz’s “Untitled (Buffalo),” 1988-1989.

David Wojnarowicz’s photograph symbolizes the politics of AIDS in the US in the 1980s and the lives lost to the disease. The buffalo look real but they are actually part of an Old West diorama at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

I don’t remember what I thought of the photograph, initially, why I chose it. There was some faint thought that it represented Paradise lost, like the Adam and Eve figurine. So, I tried that approach, initially. It didn’t work.

The flow disappeared.

I had words. I had sentences. They just sucked. They were empty. They meant nothing on the screen. They were nothing. I was stuck in my office chair, in front of my computer, not by writer’s block, but because I wanted to finish the assignment the night before it was due and I didn’t want to go to bed until I had written something good enough to turn in.

So, I squeezed my brain and revised into the night and the next day. I went back to the image, to see what else it could tell me, what other ideas it could give me, what associations, connections, inferences, or metaphors I could draw from it. I went back to my text and I changed a word in one sentence and rearranged two words in another. I completely rewrote another sentence, moved a couple others, lengthened one or two, deleted two others, and none of my efforts brought me one word closer to my goal.

I went to bed frustrated and angry. I didn’t have enough to say and I didn’t know how to expand on what I already had in a way that would make the assignment feel complete.

I woke up early the next and started again. I reread. I rewrote. I clarified. I elaborated. I fixed some pacing issues. I searched the nooks and crevices of my knowledge and imagination for anything insightful and intelligent enough to elevate the assignment feel complete, to make my analysis of this last work… If it couldn’t be weighty, relevant, and significant, I wanted it to at least feel weighty, meaningful, and significant.

I rewrote, reconfigured, and rethought it, in little breaks throughout my work day, until five minutes before the deadline…and there was still nothing there. I had done the best I could do with an easy assignment and I just couldn’t make that last entry feel literary and deep. I wasn’t impressed and I knew Dr. K wouldn’t be, either.

I submitted it, defeated, worried, and vaguely angry with myself. I don’t know why. It was one post. There would be many others. My eventual grade for the course wasn’t in jeopardy. But, my feelings were. I dreaded Dr. K’s comments, dreaded knowing what he thought about my entry and me as a writer, by extension.

And…that post, that class assignment was the first time anyone had called me a “great writer.” Those were DR. K’s words.

I am still surprised to this day. Still. But, it’s a story almost as old as writing. We crack off a “masterpiece” or a perfect sentence and it gets criticized for days. Despised. Ignored. Only we can see the genius in it. Or we labor for hours, days, on a stubborn piece of writing and it never becomes anything. It’s awful, bland, boring, ugly in our eyes and we present it to the public expecting them to echo the awful things we already think about it. And they love it and us.

Why? It’s always the question. Why can’t we tell when a work is good and when it isn’t? Why do people love our bad writing and hate our good writing?

A couple of years after this course, thinking about it off and on, I discovered a possible answer.

I worked hard on the buffalo piece. I don’t remember revising the other two entries, just polishing them up a little and leaving them alone. They were fine in my eyes. But, the buffalo entry was bad. So, I revised and revised it, rewrote it completely more than five times, reworded, reworked, and rearranged everything, looking for something that would make it work.

And, in the process of revision, I improved it. I found a better word, a more intelligent phrase. I made it more understandable. I made it tighter. I wrote and rewrote that thing and every time I did it, I made it better…without knowing it, without being able to see it. I turned it into the piece of good writing I wanted it to be, that I had wished it could be. I turned it into that one special piece of writing that said to Dr. K, “I am a real writer, a serious writer. You aren’t wasting time on me.”

We work to improve the things we think are imperfect. We don’t revise a “perfect” first draft; its flaws stay in it…because first drafts are rarely perfect. We don’t get the praise we think we deserve because we don’t make those drafts as good as we think they are. Revision is magic but we only wave our wands at the ugly ducklings, so they are the only one that can become swans.

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