Writing: A New Olympic Sport?

I’m tempted, with first drafts, to believe that once my writing arrives on the page it’s the way the writing is meant to be. Donezo. I’ve fallen into this trap over and over again. Because it would be so fabulous if I’d gotten it right the first time around.

Mostly I haven’t. Trust me, I learned this the hard way. So these next words have the weight of considerable blood, sweat, and tears behind them: Good revision is all about reaching beyond the comfort zone of that first effort.

I thought a lot about revision as I watched the Olympics this summer. (Correction: as I became obsessed with the Olympics this summer.) My writing time suffered as I lived the euphoria and agony of national competition, embraced the quirkier events and their lively dramas—the badminton brouhaha! the tearful table tennis finale!—and generally reveled in the talent on display.

Most of all, I marveled at the physical superiority of the athletes. The swimmers and their broad shoulders and backs; the long-distance runners, buoyed by their ropy limbs; the sprinters, so light on their feet.

They’re all daredevils—conditioned daredevils, that is. Their risks are calculated, and backed up by copious amounts of training and conditioning, but they’re as all-in as they can be.

I found the gymnasts the most awe-inspiring. They can do things with their bodies that I will never, ever do. I’m not even talking about the way they launch themselves into the air and flip around. These people balance on their hands and slowly roll their bodies up into the air. With limbs that appear to be made of taffy, they lean backward and touch their toes, behind them, to their foreheads.

How I admire that flexibility. I’ve never had good joints, and I can’t do backbends or handstands or splits. I go to yoga class, but I’ll never be one of those taffy people who can do this. So if unyielding joints and muscles is the starting point, how do you become more pliant, more agile, maybe even acquire a little physical grace?

To get there, I’d venture the answer goes a bit beyond practice and conditioning. It’s showing up willing to work, sure. But it’s also reaching out, pushing yourself for a few more seconds to go that extra millimeter, even when you think you can’t stretch any farther. Especially then. It’s aiming past your reach and believing that maybe, one day, you’ll have made yourself lithe enough to touch it.

Writing doesn’t command much from the body (at least, in theory), but it demands an analogous conditioning of the mind. In the reaching—the mental kind—writers start to learn what we’re capable of.

So I need to show up and, like a drill sergeant, work to keep my thoughts and my words limber. Because revision is where I begin to learn how all the pieces of the puzzle of the story I’m writing can fit together in the best way possible. It’s where I figure out what I’m really writing about.

This starts with questioning my choices. Asking the hard questions: have I written the best descriptions of my characters? Is the point of view the right one, and if so is it working? Does the plot stumble? Answering questions like these—with brutal honesty—first demands that I scrutinize my decisions.

Maybe this is the equivalent of athletes analyzing their practice videos to hone in on flaws. The same principle applies: if my writing decisions don’t hold up under scrutiny, and I start to see where the work falters, I have no choice but to go a different way to find the solution.

Sometimes this means a move as drastic as What if I cut this character? Sometimes it’s more subtle, like Is all this background info necessary right here? Or anywhere in the book? Eventually I go further, and allow myself to entertain wilder possibilities too (and then the rocket landed…). The rocket ship isn’t usually the answer, but considering less plausible alternatives helps propel me toward the best and most satisfying resolution.

When I can concentrate and my mind and ideas are pliant, I nearly always get myself out of a painful impasse. Let’s face it, the first draft is just the first stretch. It’s the 2nd, 3rd, 10th drafts that make the work (and its author) really nimble.

Once I spent weeks honing a chapter until it was perfect. My characters stayed true to their natures. The dialogue sparkled. Every sentence was finely wrought, dammit. Then I turned the page and I realized that the chapter didn’t fit in the novel anymore. I’d honed those pages simply because they were already there.

When I cut it out, it hurt. But I felt the lightness as I let it go. In the end it was a relief: without it, the book moved faster and worked better. It, too, was more limber.

I’ve cut chapters, paragraphs, sentences, characters. I’ve changed settings and plot and character choices. Often, such changes demand a series of edits that ripple through the manuscript with irritating thoroughness. We all know that achieving suppleness doesn’t happen without pain. It’s difficult, and tedious. Just like dragging yourself to the gym, or the yoga studio, or anywhere you have to push yourself to go through your paces.

Sitting at the desk, working out the story day after day, is where I do my best stretching. It takes patience and stamina, the kind the sportscasters describe in their human-interest stories when they talk of pre-dawn workouts, fighting through the pain, meeting material and emotional demands along with the physical.

It’s the price of absorption and the reward is fitness. Remember, writers can be conditioned daredevils too. If we’re really lucky, we earn the chance to compete.

Jenny Moore is a novelist, editor, and teacher. Her writing has appeared in journals and online, as well as in Boston City Hall as part of the Mayor’s Prose and Poetry Program, and she earned her MFA in writing from the New School.

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