By Dianne Aprile, Spalding School of Writing Creative Nonfiction Faculty
“Don’t write with a pen. Ink tends to give the impression the words shouldn’t be changed.”
The poet Richard Hugo published those lines many years ago to underscore the necessity of flexibility and revision in the writing process. Presumably heeding his own advice, Hugo used a pencil to jot down his first-draft thoughts on the subject. But if ever there was good reason to trade lead for ink, this final version is it. Hugo’s words deserve the permanence of a waterproof, indelible ultra-bold Sharpie.
Why? Well, because his message is so important, there should be no risk of it being rubbed out or overlooked.
Hugo’s demand that we never consider anything we compose to be a final version is not only extraordinarily good advice to writers but to all human beings as day by day, year by year, we compose and revise the storylines of our lives.
A bit of background: I like to use metaphors with my students as a way to push open the sometimes sticky doors that lead to the mastery of craft. I recently offered up the image of a bakery case crowded with slices of different types of cake to help a student comprehend the variety of flavors that reflection can take on in a personal essay. Imagine pineapple upside down cake as flashback; coconut cream as reverie; charlotte rousse, a digression circumscribed in italics; Italian wedding cake, flash-forward; chocolate mousse, an epiphany. You can step back from narrative action and reflect in any of these ways, selecting the strategic slice that best suits your needs (or tastes) in the moment.
It’s in this vein that I recently began to ponder Hugo’s quotation regarding revision.
Revision, as he implies, is where real poetry happens. Real writing of any kind, I would add. Yet students, particularly when faced with fast-approaching deadlines for critical papers or creative theses, often feel that a call for one more round of revision signifies a failure on their part—rather than an opportunity, which it always is.
As Hugo suggests, writing—by its very nature—demands of the writer a willingness to undergo change. To accept it as a given. Like a round of dough waiting to become bread, an early draft requires shaping and reshaping, pushing and pulling, a rest, then back to the board again. On and on and on until a final version arises from the fire, transformed, tantalizing, tasty.
So it is with our individual lives. In fact, human life may be the very best metaphor for the process of composing a poem or a play or an essay. Living is an act of becoming. To live deeply, one has to accept the challenge to be transformed, to stop clinging to the already done, the status quo — to let go of the first draft of your life, if you will.
In my own experience, I have come to see both the necessity and the rewards of what I’ll call personal revision. What I once felt fairly certain would be the final word on the setting of my life, in rather short order was wildly revised at the age of 60. After decades of putting down roots in one place, a treasured hometown, the landscape of my life suddenly shifted across the continent to a very different location. One where I had no roots at all. One with a history I knew very little about, an unfamiliar (though enticing) geography, a population three times what I was used to (with traffic to match), and a culture that shared little in common with that of the place where I was born, raised, schooled, married and employed over the course of six decades. Where 99 percent of the significant scenes of my life had played out. Where I wrote, and where I was read.
I made the choice to move to Washington state willingly, but that didn’t mean the decision wasn’t painful, nor the process of transforming bewildering at times—the shift from hometown “known quantity” to new-town “nobody.” I was forced to follow that over-used axiom often passed on to writers in the revision stage: Kill your darlings. My darlings being my attachments to the familiar, the comfortable, the predictable, the expected, the accustomed, the habitual. I had to embrace a new version of my story, amend the specifics. Not just a dramatic setting shift was called for, but a major fork in the road of my own character development. I had to rethink my public identity, readjust my ties to family, re-cement friendships, take on new conflicts, repurpose old strengths, and most importantly, let go of one view of myself and my life’s trajectory in order to move forward effectively into a revised storyline. I needed to trim but also elaborate. Pare back yet branch out. At times, in the middle of it, I felt lost. All I could do was keep pushing the pencil across each page of the calendar.
It took time, patience, outside advice, much practice, much disappointment, more practice, more disappointment, courage, shoulders to cry on, a willingness to risk, a toughening of my skin, and most of all the letting go of some of what I thought I couldn’t live without. A physical nearness to dear friends. Territorial knowledge (i.e., knowing how to drive to the grocery without a GPS). The small sensory details of setting that are the essence of everyday life. The clatter of crickets on summer nights. A mockingbird’s echo at 4 a.m. The drift of a river. The crown of a knob.
As long as I clung solely to those elements of the first (very long) draft of my life, I would never find my way into the next. I would be stuck. But with time and effort, a lot of rewriting of my own internal narrative, and the metaphorical murder of some of my darlings (goodbye cicadas, hello salmon-glutted creeks/ farewell lazy river, howdy-do Puget Sound), I found myself living a life revised. New characters peopling it. New conflicts complicating it. New landscapes comforting me. New vocabulary (sunbreaks!) and rhythms (first there is a mountain then there is no mountain then there is…) deepening the pace and poetry of each day.
Yes, the first draft—all the work and hard-earned experience that went into it (the friendships, places, events, griefs and pleasures) — were and are still an essential part of me, informing the choices I’ve made with each edit. That’s the good news about revision. What’s let go is never really missing from the next draft.
Richard Hugo, a poet beloved in the Pacific Northwest, whose name is synonymous with Seattle’s sprawling community of writers, was so right when he urged his readers 35 years ago in The Triggering Town: “Don’t be afraid to take emotional possession of words.”
Reaching deep into my extended metaphor, I can agree with Hugo. This latest draft of my life began to really sing when I let my heart possess it, literally and literarily. I’d like to think I’m now prepared to revise it again if required, if desired. Should the opportunity arise.
And just so you know, I’m copying that last sentence on a page of my writer’s notebook—in indelible ink.
Dianne Aprile is author and editor of nonfiction books, including two collaborations with fine-art photographer Julius Friedman. Recent work is forthcoming in the Boom Project and 2019 Jack Straw Writers Anthologies. She is currently revising her family memoir, from which two excerpts have been nominated for Pushcart prizes. She can be heard reading her essay “Silence” at https://thisibelieve.org/essay/144206/, and her poetry has appeared in journals. Aprile has received fellowships from Kentucky Arts Council and Washington state Artist Trust; grants from Kentucky Foundation for Women; and a Hedgebrook Women Writers Residency. As a journalist, she was on a reporting team that won a staff Pulitzer Prize.