In the many, many years I spent wanting to be a writer but unable to write anything other than very long emails to men who didn’t care about me, I would read books and essays and wonder how the people who wrote them were so consistently brilliant. How did they make their brains work so that a joke or a cutting insight or a clever turn of phrase occurred to them every other sentence? I imagined their writing process was like mine at 23 and 24 and 25, when I sat down and expelled a single meandering draft, except that theirs was in The Paris Review, and mine was posted to Tumblr at 1 a.m. without reading it over once.
It’s not like I hadn’t heard of the concept of multiple drafts, or editors, but subconsciously I must have been imagining everyone’s writing process to be like mine: typed along with an inner monologue, rapid fire. I didn’t understand yet, in a real way, that these writers were coming to their drafts over and over again, over many months or, more often, years, with new insights, new ideas, new metaphors, and new verbs. That they reread their work in all different moods and times of day, that they squinted at their drafts and painstakingly made them better. I didn’t realize that the insights and clever turns of phrase did not come all at once but accumulated over time. Later on, if you’re lucky, you’ll have the insights of trusted friends and professional editors, but I’m talking about what you can pull off on your own.
Imagine taking the very sharpest thought you had each day for two years and then adding it to a pile. If someone walked by and looked at your pile of best thoughts, they’d think you were a genius. They might see your thoughts and feel things. It might be an encounter with the sublime. This is the promise of revision and the good news. The bad news is that to get there, you have to start by rereading your own work.
What if someone were to record you telling a story to a big group of people at a party and then a couple of weeks later, you have to sit alone at your desk and listen to it? You can hear yourself trying to be funny, trying to be suspenseful, and, worst of all, trying to be profound. You hear all the missteps, all the overreaching. You can tell, even if no one else can, how desperate you are to be liked. This is what reading a draft is like for me and, I’m guessing, for other writers as well.
The nice thing is this horribly inadequate attempt at brilliance is, for now, still in your secret, sacred Word document. There is some relief in this. You realize the recorded conversation didn’t actually happen; you were talking to yourself. You can go back and do a better joke. You can get the timing right. It’s like the fantasy of being able to go back in time and say what you wish you had said to that dickhead at the grocery store who made a weird comment about your parenting.
But you can’t get there without first knowing what you did write. In my opinion, revising is best done with a physical copy that you’ve printed out at Kinko’s or whatever. If it’s book length, it will cost between 20 and 45 dollars, which, for me, always feels extravagant and slightly insane but so completely worth it (and, if you’re a freelance writer, tax deductible); if it’s a shorter project, it’ll cost even less. There is something about having your writing printed out on actual paper that brings a truly alarming degree of clarity. Clarity you might have wished you had access to sooner, like, say, when you were writing the first draft.
Alas, that’s not how this works.
Once you have the document in your hands again (try not to be too disappointed when the Kinko’s employee doesn’t lean over the counter and tell you it’s perfect), you might find yourself wanting to stall. You might eye the document warily from across the room for a good week, week and a half. I completely understand.
Revision requires you to have faith in your own ability to improve your work. To muster this faith in yourself and then summon the creativity to proceed while you’re filled with self-loathing is next to impossible. One thing I like to do is try to think of my writing brain as something a little separate from me, something that needs coaxing.
If you are, like me, one of those punitive people who likes to deny themselves things as motivation, notice that. Do you say, “Once I [rewrite the first half / ten pages / first few chapters], I’ll [get a tattoo, get a massage, go for a nice walk outside, bake myself a cake, buy myself flowers, get a pedicure, go on a trip]”? Try something else. What if you give yourself that reward immediately, as a way to coddle your writer brain and help it along? If I let myself go sit outside with a seltzer and a book for 20 minutes (so decadent), it helps me feel like a functioning, healthy person who can sit down and read her terrible draft.
Reading the first few pages is always the worst part. I am so clenched and afraid that I am uniquely dumb and bad that I write, UGH, THIS IS SO BAD, in the margins. I HATE THIS. I AM SO STUPID. It’s cathartic, in its way. And terrifying. How can you trust yourself if you ever thought this crap was good? I hear you. Try sighing a lot and moaning and complaining to some trusted friends who tolerate your bullshit. Maybe stuff your face with cookies and consider never writing again. Then turn the page and keep going.
I can almost guarantee that soon after the initial horror, a feeling of relief will wash over you as you remember why you are doing this. Experiencing startling clarity about everything you did wrong is painful, but for your suffering you will be rewarded. Your reward is the opportunity for improvement. You can make it better! This is the promise of revision: a chance to save your own ass, over and over. The shame of your inadequacy is potent, but at least you’ve caught it before anyone saw. No one has read this draft but you (or you and a trusted friend you’ve given it to in a desperate ploy for validation).
Revision is like being at the door of the bathroom and looking down and seeing toilet paper stuck to your shoe. The horror, and then the gratitude, that you hadn’t yet stepped outside.
So much of the process of writing anything — a poem, a blog post, a book — makes no sense whatsoever. But knowing that if I face down my stupid draft and confront all the ways I’ve failed, I get to move past it and, through plodding effort and then brisk revelation, make it better? That’s the good stuff. If I can forgive myself for being imperfect, I can save myself from humiliation. It feels almost spiritual to me. It feels like grace, or like going to church. You show up, you work on the draft, the draft gets better. While it also requires faith, revision is much more predictable than God.
Meaghan O’Connell is the author of And Now We Have Everything.