Updated: Jan 19, 2020
It was an essay about climate change.
At least that is what I wanted the essay to be about. I wrote passionately about finding trash on the trail, the bear hunter who passed us on the road, a meadow in which I pictured myself alone, all the landscape including the flora and fauna I loved so much, gone.
The essay was about being left behind. By my mother, my first husband, my partner. And most recently, time. Despite what I wanted, the essay held its own truth and despite my efforts to redirect it, it only worked when I finally let it take over.
I think this is what my mentor, Bob Wrigley, meant when he said, “Follow the image.” And it is what writers and teachers mean when they say, revise for the truth—but how?
Here are three steps to begin the revision process and uncover the truth in your writing.
Before we begin, I want to make sure that I emphasize that unless you are a journalist or really good at writing toward an outcome, you should never write toward an outcome. Find the moment that sparks, that calls you to write, and begin. Let the words and images take you away. Keep the editor locked up, follow the music, the image, your gut.
We can bring mind and editor back later, but the first draft should be an account of a ride down a river, you cannot see what is ahead until you go around the first bend then the next one. As Anne Lamott says, “…let it pour out and romp, let whatever come.”
Then let it cool.
Print it out, put it in a drawer and leave it alone. Write other things. In a few days or weeks, look at again. This time with fresh eyes. Look at it as if it is work by someone else. Work you have never read before. Here is where the magic happens, where revision begins, where discoveries are made, and truth reveals itself.
1. Focus, Focus, Focus
When I realized that my climate change piece was really about abandonment, I had to cut all the writing that wasn’t leading the reader toward the final discovery. Think of this as drawing a map to get to your house. Adding ALL of the side streets, the house nearby, every tree, can be distracting.
As Debra Gwartney writes, “Specificity? Yes, but only if it is relevant.” (This, by the way, is the title of the essay.) Don’t add roads (images, ideas, details) that distract your reader or make them wonder what might be waiting for them down a different route.
2. The Importance of the Right Word
Mark Twain famously wrote, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ‘tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
Take a look at your verbs and nouns. Are they in sync? Are they pointing toward the same feeling? Are your verbs working to create tension or working against each other? If you are writing a story about birds, sticking to bird language will help the piece (ahem) fly instead of slither.
3. Write into What You Don’t Understand
One of the best classes I ever took was with the poet Melissa Kwasny. Along with several other pieces of advice, she challenged us to underline passages, phrases, or lines that we felt were not fully developed or were unclear to us.
Afterward, on the printed copy (which she recommended should be double- or triple-spaced) you should write what you mean by that phrase. Writing is a process of understanding, of mining. But we have to understand ourselves in order for others to understand us. Abstraction is good, but too much and we lose ourselves and our reader.
Once we allow the writing to say what it wants, uncover the verbs and nouns that really bring it to life, and chip away at what we are really trying to say, magic begins to happen. The writing comes to life, lifts from the page, and we and our readers make a discovery.