Figure Eights

I picture the creative process traveling the figure eight curves of an infinity sign. We begin in the world, where a travel adventure or newspaper headline or grave illness or moral conundrum sets the mind’s gears grinding. Quickly the work moves inward to the incubating privacy of a journal or notebook. We remember; we research; we imagine. We gather thoughts. Eventually words amass on the page. Sometimes they seem golden, sometimes lackluster. Always they’re fragile, raw, and embarrassingly self-centered—rightly so, since mucking around is necessary before anything truthful or timeless can appear. Our private writing is therapeutic and transformative.

Slowly, gradually, we massage the words, granting them sequence and shape. We develop characters and ideas until they acquire some spark. We dig under and around and within our scenes, struggling to present them in the clearest, most honest light. But words are not simply a means of self-expression; they communicate, they bridge one soul to another, one culture to another, one era to another. Eventually we emerge from our protected space to consider an audience. When we want the heart of our story to connect to the heart of a reader, or if we want our story to have artistic merit, we open the transformative process to others through our literary choices. A first draft is always skin-deep, whereas revision digs in. Hearts reside in the hidden fathoms of the body. True beauty is both within and without, in striking balance.

Finally our work travels that figure-eight path out into the light. Revision transforms an interior monologue into a spirited dialogue. Our language grows considered and considerate. Rather than imagining some monolithic audience as I write, I try to picture myself and my work moving toward full participation in community. Community holds us accountable. The possibility of a reading community invites us into artistic practice, because what makes writing artful is a hospitable, compassionate, challenging connection with others. This isn’t about pandering to a market; it’s about forming genuine relationships. This is why Nathaniel Hawthorne called writing an “intercourse with the world.” Conversing through print requires skill and hard work—well-constructed scenes and characters, developed themes, clear organization, intentional pacing, a strong voice, correct grammar, clean mechanics. With maturation, the work can interact independently with others; it can land back at community, where all spiritual journeys arrive.


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