A Whole New Devil

By the time a writer considers rewriting, the work of composing is familiar: a blank page, a tentative start, the splash of gladness when words arrive, the adrenaline rush of stumbling onto new awareness or memories or characters, the disappointment of seeing brilliant thoughts diminished in print, the satisfaction of penning that final period. We know this process. We’re attached to it, for good reason. Drafting is gratifying, fun, and full of revelations. While we may admit the draft is rough, it also sparkles. Often we’re reluctant to diminish that sparkle with the insult of revision. We hover over our first drafts, love and pride and self-consciousness tangling with our material. This is our baby!

Familiarity breeds fondness, along with peril. Sure, we say, the draft has flaws; sure, it’s only one of a dozen ways to approach this subject; sure, in places the language is shoddy. But look at this lovely twist! And this streak of fine prose, and this clever remark! Or (here’s a devilish defense) do you have any idea how much work I’ve invested? I couldn’t possibly change it.

Resistance to rewriting a project is often stronger than resistance to starting it. “This explains,” writes Peter Turchi, “why it can be so difficult for beginning writers to embrace thorough revision—which is to say, to fully embrace exploration. The desire to cling to that first path through the wilderness is both a celebration of initial discovery and fear of the vast unknown.” A first draft is a thrilling, frightening foray into the wilderness. Once we’ve bushwhacked that path, we don’t want to veer from it.

Attachment mires us. Most of us are committed to and therefore defensive about what we’ve created. Once we’ve taken one risk, we prefer not to take another.

But to foster lively, ongoing creativity, we must let the familiar go. Staying safe—the “better the devil you know” policy—does not serve anyone. We must learn a new way to work, with new material, in a new adventure. Revision is a whole different (and exciting) devil.


from “Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice” by @Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew @Skinner House