Friday, April 24, 2015

Run the Mile You're In

I think one of the most difficult parts about writing is that first round of revision. During drafting I push through, writing as fast as I can and telling myself that I can fix it later. After letting my book breathe for several weeks, later becomes now, and usually, it’s completely overwhelming.

Later rounds of revisions are tough too, but by then your story has a shape and you are just slowly chipping away at a few errant pieces. But that first revision, when you are staring at the huge block of stone that you must sculpt into a thing of beauty, can feel like an impossible task.

For me, I don’t really get a sense of what I want a story to be until I’ve almost finished drafting it. So when I sit down to make it so, there are too many things to fix, too many hurdles to jump, too much ground to cover. I know what I need to do to make the story what I want it to be, but sometimes I doubt whether or not I have the ability to do it. It’s like passing a road sign that tells you your destination is 2,000 miles away. You know where you’re going and that you are headed in the right direction, but man it’s going to be a long drive. Because it’s night. And it’s storming. And you’re tired. And why the hell aren’t you there yet?

I don’t know about other writers, but I find my story in the revisions. Each round uncovers something beneath that stone that I didn’t know was there and teaches me more about my characters and my craft.

In the end, I have to take my own advice. Every year, as my students are starting their research papers, I can see by the panicked look on their faces that they are overwhelmed with the given task. Looking at the whole piece can be daunting. But I tell them they have to write their paper just like they would eat an elephant—one bite at a time. So when I feel overwhelmed with all that I have to do to fix a story, I take a step back and focus on one chapter, one page, one paragraph at a time, and do what I can to make that part better. And then I do it again. And again. And again.

Running taught me that lesson first. 26.2 miles can be an overwhelming distance. You’ve got to run the mile you’re in.

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