On Revision and Life

As if they knew today was the first day of school for many families, the trees in our yard have begun revising themselves for fall (I would show you a picture, but my sad little digital camera has finally given up the ghost). The driveway and patio are littered with the first lost leaves, with many more to follow as the year turns and autumn blooms full. And the sight of the leaves has me thinking about revision.

Now, I know I have been whining all summer about not having written any poems. I pulled my files out on Sunday and realized I actually wrote ten poems this summer, and a few more still trapped in my notebook (I always hand-write the first draft). I think my feeling of writer's angst this summer was more about not having finished any poems. And that's because I'm lousy and undisciplined about revision.

Any serious writer must also be a serious revisor. This is what I tell myself. This is what I believe, actually. This is what has always worked for me in my prose and scholarly writing (way back when I was a scholar). But when it comes to my poems, I shy away from revision, even when I know a poem isn't finished. I have a terrible time getting back to that magical place where the poem was born, and then carrying it forward. I don't want to sit down and fiddle around with words or line breaks -- writing new poems sounds more fun. And every now and then, a new poem will come out fully (or almost fully) baked, requiring very little revision. Some lying, cheating voice in my writer's head says those are the real poems; says the ones that need revision aren't worth working on anyway.

I know that's not true, so I have tried to learn more about revision and steep myself in advice from other writers about their methods and tricks for reworking poems. I have a whole folder of tips, practices, exercises, and philosophies of revision. Knowing that I need to get down to business on some poems, I pulled some notes out and read through them. And one of the hand-outs (which I got from another poet blog), in particular, offered thought-provoking ideas for diagnosing problem poems:

1. The unevolved poem -- The poem may be interesting, but it doesn't have a sense of purpose. It never gets beyond the original idea presented. There is no evolution to a new place, new idea, new insight.

2. The coward poem - The poem begins with a sense of urgency and begins to evolve, but loses its courage. The thing that needs to be said, the natural next step in the poem, is feared, and therefore avoided.

3. The repeat offender - The poem has a purpose or a theme, and then repeats it again and again. There is no shift, no surprise. The repetition does not serve a purpose, and again, the poem fails to evolve.

I have plenty of poems like these..... but actually I've been reflecting on these ideas more in terms of life:

1. What situations in my life (e.g., relationships, personal growth, the front flower garden) are not evolving, not coming to a new place, not growing or changing or transforming? Why?

2. What in my life is stuck because of fear? What decisions, actions, or inactions can I trace back to my fears? What am I afraid of, anyway?

3. Where in my life has repetition and routine become dead, where has ritual become empty? Why? What areas in my life could benefit from something unexpected, surprising, or out-of-the-ordinary?

This is why I love writing, and why it has become an almost spiritual practice for me: Because I can sit down to try to work on some of my junkiest poems, and end up learning something about myself, my life, things I'd like to do differently. I bet your life's work is that way, too, if you take the time to reflect on it.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some poems to revise.

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