The good news of writing, I often tell my disbelieving students, is the good news of terrible first drafts. All first drafts are terrible. Every one. Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote 27 book-length works of fiction, non-fiction, and drama, said: “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” First drafts are born as disappointments—and it really can’t be otherwise. It’s not their fault. Everyone who has engaged in any creative practice, from cooking to clogging, knows this is true. Your first attempt is usually not just bad, but awful. And that’s okay.
Terrible first drafts are the good news of writing because a) they are the great equalizer: all first drafts are terrible, and b) it means drafts usually get better. Even though I earn my paycheck by teaching people how to write more gooder, I don’t actually enjoy the process of writing all that much. Writing makes me feel like an armless, legless man with a broken crayon in his mouth. I love, however, to have written—because then, once I’ve got something, anything, on paper, then I have something to tinker with. Then I have something to disassemble and put back together. Then I have something to revise.
To revise means, literally, to re-envision. To reimagine the draft from the ground up, to chop and hack and cut and rearrange the pieces into a more effective or more pleasing order: some of my fellow composition teachers have brought scissors to class and actually had their students cut their papers up into pieces so they can play around with different arrangements. (Though I have not been brave enough to try this in my classroom yet, I admire their dedication to the pedagogy of creative destruction.)
I find in revision a pretty good metaphor for thinking about anything that involves some sort of craft or iterative practice—that is, anything we do again and again and again with the hope of improving, not by leaps and bounds, but by slow, methodical steps. If there is something in your life that you pay attention to and attempt to improve, then you are revising. When you join or leave a community, you revise that community. Today revises yesterday just as tomorrow will revise today.
If revision had a spirit guide, it would have to be, I think, Walt Whitman, the poet who revised a single book of poetry, titled Leaves of Grass, through four editions over the course of about 37 years. The first edition, in 1855, contained 12 poems. The last edition (the so-called “deathbed” edition), published in 1892, contained over 400, and the two editions in-between those contain revisions of the original poems. (These multiple editions are a great boon for literary critics like me, for they give us endless hairs to split and thus ensure job security.)
I look to Whitman to assuage one of the fears of revision, namely the fear of revising to the point of losing the essence of the original. Which version of Leaves of Grass is the correct version? Is it the original vision he had as a young man, or the culmination of nearly 40 years of practice? Or is it one of the two middle editions, published when Whitman was at the height of his creative powers? Whitman lets us off the hook for that question toward the end of “Song of Myself,” when he pauses to declare: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” That is, we don’t need to go full “ship of Theseus” here
The truth is, I think, there is no vision without revision—or, to say it more accurately, all new visions are already revisions, for as I read in a good book somewhere, there is no new thing under the moon. Nothing is totally unprecedented, and even the boldest, most “original” visions are themselves revisions of what has come before. Karl Marx’s dream of a communist utopia is a revision of capitalist society. Whitman’s speaker, the singular “I” that somehow contains a plurality of “multitudes,” is a revision of the Cartesian “cogito.” Revision is good news because it frees us from the expectation of originality, opening the gates to the kingdom of play and experimentation. So let us be large, let us contain multitudes, let us envision and re-envision.