Revising Doesn’t Just Make Your Writing Better
When I was in my 30s I did a kind of stupid thing. Oh well, I thought, I guess I’m never going to get over it. Years passed. Then, by chance, I was asked to write an essay about this thing, so I did. Then I revised what I wrote, then I revised it again, then again. It was hard to make the story make sense, but finally it did and it was done. It never got published. That’s just the way things are sometimes.
I was mad for a week or so—no one likes to not publish an essay they wrote for publication. But one day, while I was busy being mad, I realized something truly incredible: I didn’t care about this thing anymore. It no longer held any emotional charge. I was pissed about my kill fee, annoyed with the editor, and their boss, and their boss’s boss. But when I thought about the actual subject of this doomed, never-to-see-the-light-of-day thing I wrote, I felt nothing. It was hard to even keep it in my mind.
It was not just because time had passed. It was not because I merely wrote about it. It was because I had told the story to death—in draft after draft after draft. I probably had eight versions of it, one with the beginning at the end, one with the opposite, one in past tense, one in the present, one with a Big Climactic Fight, and one simply mentioning it happened. People that had seemed immensely important to the story had been removed from it entirely.
I am not saying if you complete a perfect essay about every problem in your life that upsets you you’ll stop thinking about it. I don’t expect anyone to be responsible for making themselves feel great about experiencing racism or working a shitty job. I don’t expect anyone who has lost a loved one to write a perfect thing about that person and to stop missing them. This is not about writing your way to peace or out of structural problems. (And if you’re seeing a therapist who thinks you’re broke because there’s something wrong with you, get a new one.)
I would, however, very much like to suggest that if there is something in your life you don’t understand or can’t stop thinking about obsessively and would like to put it in the past or think about it in a different way, that you write about it— then revise and revise until you have distilled this matter to its essence.
Don’t just write in a journal about it, or post about it on Instagram, though you can keep doing both of those things. I’m saying you also need to write the thing to death. Even if you’re just writing the thing for yourself, or you don’t even think of yourself as a writer, you can try this. You know what the thing is. Write about it. Re-write it. Make a perfect explanation of it for yourself and a world. You might feel better, you might feel worse—but you will be changed. You will have something you can roll up in your hand to kill a fly. Then you might know what to do next.