Tuesday, June 20, 2017

On Revision: The Work of Thinking and being Kind to Yourself (Laura)

Hi everyone--sorry this post is a long one. I have been reflecting on a lot lately and wanted to share it, in case it is useful to anyone experiencing something similar in their writing work.

As you may have read in a recent post, I attended a writing retreat last month in the wooded countryside of Pennsylvania. (I will bombard you with photos from the trip throughout this post because I couldn't pick only a couple.) Aside from getting to spend time in a peaceful place with a group of talented writers and talk about books and writing all week (dream come true), I came away with some new revision practices and a better understanding of how I can approach feedback.

For the retreat, I focused on a manuscript that I had just recently started working on again for the first time in close to ten years, so I was already nervous to receive a full critique on something that had never been shredded to pieces. Something that felt precious and preserved. It also had deep emotional meaning to me, and I knew tearing it apart would be difficult. In the past, when I revised a different manuscript, I continuously made lists of the things I needed to work on and checked them off as I went, and I was determined to jump into this revision project with the same gusto. I was so proud of the gigantic list I'd put together with all the bits of feedback and ways I planned to attack the revisions. I knew I wouldn't get to make a real dent in just one week, but it was still a lot of dedicated time to get a solid start. Right?

Well, when I arrived in Pennsylvania, I was completely pulled away from my plans partly due to the sheer distraction of being in a different place. And partly because as soon as I got there, my confidence went into hiding. One of the faculty members caringly spoke during a group conversation about how a particular author she's worked with struggled with confidence while under contract for a yet-to-be-written book. I'm not even a publishing author; yet there I was, merely a retreat-goer with the luxury of writing for myself instead of an editor, and I was still buckling under similar pressure that I was simply putting on myself. And if you go out into the big publishing world, the pressure only increases from there. The things we write are personal to each of us, and the idea of putting our work out there to be criticized on a public level or by publishing professionals can be daunting and may leave us feeling raw and exposed, like we want to tuck back inside the privacy of our safe little writing caves for a while. I think I got a little scared, just seeing how real that pressure of writing for an audience can be and how much bigger it gets if you are brave enough to publish, given the chance.

In my case, I had put expectations on myself for my week in the woods, but what I hadn't taken into consideration was that I was still processing. I first needed to reconcile the feedback I had received with the meaning the book has for me. That feedback, which was delivered in very gentle ways, was valuable and made sense, but I still needed to find myself in it. That was the work I needed to do there. Once the book has left my hands, it means something to somebody else, and if I want to connect with my reader, it is my responsibility to bring out certain threads I may not have originally intended and, in this instance, create something like an omniscient narrator to make other connections for the reader that weren't coming through. That narrator has its own voice that ties the story together and creates the sound of the book, and I was only beginning to learn that I still needed to find that voice. My list wasn't going to help me do that.

As it turned out, the false starts and confidence trip-ups helped me connect with my character's world in a way I hadn't in several years. It brought me right back into that emotional core and by the last
days of the retreat, I was ready to pour that into a new narrator voice. A week after the retreat was over, all the walks and deep thinking I had done as well as the knowledge I had soaked up from the faculty and students were starting to come together. I sat alone some more with my ideas then talked through them with my writing group members. I discussed the meaning the book had for me, and they helped me see even more how certain concepts weren't coming through. As I brainstormed ideas with them on how to bring those themes out, that excitement was churning in my blood again, and I no longer felt like the revisions were coming from outside of me but were exactly what I wanted to write to tell the story. I continued writing pages of notes and new lists throughout the next week. I couldn't stop myself. I was back in it; I just needed to go through some growing pains to get there.

This process may seem obvious to some, but from what I've heard from other writers, I think many of us do at times struggle with confidence, especially when we start sharing our work. It's like a Chinese finger trap. Calming down is the only way to get unstuck, even though it's counterintuitive in the moment of panic. Depending on the environment each of us is in or how hard we are on ourselves, we may be expected to deliver results and not have that luxury of slowing down and taking a deeper look, and it's important that we find or create an environment that allows us to do this. I tend to be slow in general in several areas of my life, and I'm always punishing myself for this and apologizing for it. I'm always trying to hurry myself along to catch up with the pack. These feelings will continue to surface, and I will need to continue getting through them. If I don't, I will just keep making my lists and picking the work apart and moving without understanding where I'm going. You can take information and feedback in and produce work and produce work, but sometimes you need to do more than that. You need to stop and listen to your own feedback.

Be patient with yourself as you do this. You're seeing something in a new way and aligning it with your values that you want to come through the story. It's just growing pains. Maybe that's why we write for young people. We never really stop being them, ourselves, if we keep growing. It will all come out in the writing, in the process, and it will be authentic instead of the product of panic. So trust that journey. Be kind to yourself. You don't grow a plant by thrashing it. You water it, feed it. Give it air and light. You give it what it needs and nourish it at the roots. You treat it like it's precious and deserves a chance.

Maybe some of us could even practice this in other areas of our lives. Sometimes, I get frustrated because I am not reaching a goal, so I work harder. But no matter how hard I work. I can't reach what I'm looking for. Some things--the best things probably--don't come through that kind of work. Through lists and tangible proof at the end of the day that you've done something or made progress. You'll just run yourself ragged for no purpose. While that work is important too, sometimes you need to stop working. Get down from the conveyor belt and look inside, look around. Be still for a minutes and take care of yourself long enough to figure out what it is you need to do to move forward. It's hard to make yourself stop the constant, perhaps thoughtless movement when you're used to being told or believing that's what work is. Work is thinking too. Find people in your life who value your thoughts and vision, who value you. Shed the rest. That includes finding that respect in yourself. There's nothing wrong with you if you don't catch on or get something right away. Slowing down doesn't make you incompetent. It means you are thoughtful and careful, and you will end up finding yourself in your work, in the process. It takes a strong person to seek out criticism and also not get weighed down by it. To balance out the learning with maintaining who you are. Maybe I didn't check things off my pretty revision list at the retreat, but I journaled and prewrote and sat in a healing place with my thoughts then talked those thoughts through with supportive people. Now, I'm in a much healthier and more productive place.

Perhaps this could work for you too. And if bravery is something you struggle with in your writing, or in general, take care of yourself in these ways, and you may find at the end of the day you have the strength left to be brave.

What are some revision practices you find helpful when you work with a lot of feedback?

Thanks for reading,


  1. Thank you for this post, Laura! I really needed to hear that this week :) I find that getting some distance from the story really helps when I get feedback, I always need time to process before I can really evaluate it effectively. It also helps to approach it from a scene by scene basis so it feels less overwhelming!

    1. Good luck with your feedback, Laurie! And I’m glad you found the post helpful this week. That is great advice to take it scene by scene. Baby steps always help me too. :)

  2. Thought-provoking post, Laura! Reconnecting with a manuscript is a ncessary step -- glad the retreat gave you the space & time to do it. I find it hard to take that step because I check items off a list like you do (& it feels so good to cross them off)! :-)


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