Did you ever have the experience of rereading something you’d written some time ago and feeling surprised about what you’d come up with? Anyone who’s been writing for a while knows the feeling — revisiting a piece is often like reading something a stranger has written. Having some distance from your work allows you to be more objective about it. You can view it more clearly: warts and all. And luckily, you may also find that some of what you’ve written works really well — that you still love it.
I just recently had this experience myself. I pulled out a piece that has been languishing in a drawer. Called “September 1776,” it’s an essay I wrote in the wake of 9/11. I was obsessed by the piece for quite a while and even piqued the interest of a major magazine. But when I pulled the story again, I instantly realized that wasn’t very focused. I was trying to do too many things at once and so it lacked a strong narrative through-line. Since the story means a lot to me and I believe other people might feel the same way, I’ve decided that I’m going to take it apart and see if I can reconstruct it more coherently.
This revision isn’t going to be easy: I’m going to have to give up some ideas that, even now, I feel very attached to, but just don’t fit. To get this process going, I’m going to use some advice from Natalie Goldberg’s wonderful book, Writing Down the Bones. In a chapter called “Rereading and Rewriting,” she says, “…when you go over your work, become a Samurai, a great warrior with the courage to cut out anything that is not present. Like a Samurai with an empty mind who cuts his opponents in half, be willing to not be sentimental about your writing when you reread it. Look at it with a clear, piercing mind….See revision as ‘envisioning again.’ If there are areas in your work where there is a blur or vagueness, you can simply see the picture again and add the details that will bring your work closer to your mind’s eye.”
Sounds like a plan!