Re-thinking an Essay – After It’s Too Late

March 27, 2017 § 22 Comments

By Kathy Stevenson

zz_kathyI recently published an essay, “A Stranger At the Door,” on the Op/Ed page of the Chicago Tribune. And after reading it in its printed form, already irrevocably out there in the world – literally in black and white – I wanted to revise it. I really, really wanted to revise it. In fact, I wanted to rewrite the whole damn thing. But it was too late. The Chicago Tribune editorial policy (as I’m sure is the editorial policy of any traditional publication) is that authors are not allowed to change or comment on their own work once it is published.

As my editor replied to me in an email, “We don’t run letters by authors critiquing their own work.” Of course they don’t! Just think of all the confusion that might take place if this were allowed to happen.

“Oh, wait a minute, I just thought of something else I wanted to add in the third paragraph…” Or, “I really don’t think I hit the right tone, and I’d like to hand in this revised version.” The nature of an editor’s job, after all, is to move forward with the current, not drown in the undertow.

When you think about it, if we were allowed to revise our work after it was already published, then it might be in a constant state of revision. Might never really be done. Which sounds like another circle of hell.

Nevertheless. I still had this urge. In thirty years of writing commentary pieces and “slice-of-life” essays, and newspaper columns I have never had this response to one of my own pieces of writing. I always say what I have to say and move on.

Oddly, with this essay, as soon as I hit the “Send” tab I felt I might have done better. Might have gone deeper. The gist of my essay was that I had opened my front door to a stranger one night when I was alone, and how that small experience of doing so had made me question my mixed feelings about that small act. About whether I had been stupid to open my door, and whether I thought I might ever do so again. (Comments by readers let me know in no uncertain terms that opening a door to a stranger was about the dumbest thing in the world one could do.)

And it wasn’t that I wanted to write a response to these readers who were commenting on my essay. I actually wanted to rewrite my essay, because suddenly it seemed to me that I had taken a topic that was quite weighty and serious, and made it sound “lite” and quite smugly Pollyana-ish. What a great person I am to let a stranger into my home – twice no less!

What had made me uncomfortable was that, after reading my own words in print, I saw how easy it had been to blithely expound on how great I was to open my door to a stranger, from the comfort of my quiet, safe suburban home. Where the crime rate is low, and where our residents, as altruistic as most are – are able to do so in relative safety.

In this time of building walls, and not letting strangers in our metaphorical doors, I felt I did this topic a serious disservice. What was a feel-good moment for me personally did not warrant my own essayistic pat on the back. So, when I say I wanted a do-over, I guess I wanted to chance to frame the story in a new way.

Of course, 99.99% of the reading public is never going to read my essay. So I’m not even sure why it matters to me that I should have done better. Maybe one reason is that, even now, after decades of writing and publishing essays, I realized that I am still learning my craft. And that, always, words do matter.


Kathy Stevenson‘s essays and short stories have appeared in an eclectic array of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including The New York Times, Clapboard House, Philadelphia Inquirer, Red Rock Review, The Writer, Chicago Tribune, American Way, and many other national and local publications.  She has just finished writing a memoir about being a sister, The Queen of Everything. She has a recent MFA from Bennington College.

§ 22 Responses to Re-thinking an Essay – After It’s Too Late

  • I’ll give you my two cents, Kathy. Yes, I agree, writers are always learning more about their craft, but we are also always learning more about ourselves within that curve. What you wrote probably had great value. What you reflected about later on probably had further value warranting another essay from an entirely different angle for a different publication altogether. I hope you will write that ” other essay.” That’s the beauty of being a writer( as I am sure you know,) we get as many do-overs as we want.

  • […] Yes, yes, yes. What she said. Source: Re-thinking an Essay – After It’s Too Late […]

  • Karen says:

    Yes ryderziebarth said it so well! The process of writing and then really reading, which happens intensely after publishing, a personal essay seems to me to necessarily involve personal growth, seeing the experience in a deeper more meaningful way, which then happily spawns a new essay. It seems to me there can be many layers or rounds of this writing-reading-growing process, some occurring maybe invisibly or at least seamlessly as we write and revise, others more jarringly as you describe.

  • This happens to me, too–as soon as I hit SEND, I think of the right word, or a better way to phrase something. But I am sure that if I had held on to the material, the revelation would never have come! So I’ve become philosophical about these second thoughts. They are always going to come, and it’s always going to be too late.

  • Prof Masala says:

    Reflection is key and acknowledging privilege is essential.

  • Charisse Coleman says:

    Kathy – what I appreciate so much about your piece is that you so adroitly address a phenomenon that goes (to my mind) beyond every writer’s twinges of “I could have said that a little better”. I do think the desire to completely reframe, recast, reconceptualize a piece has a stronger pull than the” wish I’d put paragraph 3 at the end instead of the beginning” tug. (Is it just my own narrowness as a personal essayist that believes this to be a particular hazard of the reflective personal essay?) In any event, I know the feeling! And as someone so rightly pointed out – for a writer of your caliber and thoughtfulness, regrets aside, it has led to this essay and the opportunity to write the essay you wished you’d written first time around. A three-fer! I, for one, would love to read Take Two on the admitting-a-stranger-into-my-house-at-night essay! All best wishes from a fellow B’ton Writing Seminars alum.

    • I like your take on this. Use it as fuel for the next part. Call it An Incident From Three Angles. And yes, changes in editing are dessert next to reconceptualizing. Ce la vie. It loves to catch us unawares.

  • Jan Priddy says:

    Yes, yes. Me too, she said.

  • Nathan says:

    You may be interested in T. S. Eliot’s characterization of the creative and critical impulses and how their conflict can create problems like this. Thank you for writing this, I enjoyed it.

  • Corliss Boggs says:

    Kathy, what impresses me most is how you questioned your reaction to the situation upon further reflection. Isn’t this how we all grow? You are entitled to a “do over”.

  • Tom McGohey says:

    The great Irish short story writer Frank O’Connor drove his publishers crazy because he was constantly revising stories after they’d been published, in some cases multiple times over many years preparation for anthologies or editions of his collected stories. It was the voice, in particular, O’Connor was obsessed with. Over the course of his career, he was developing an increasingly oral tone to the stories, emphasizing the narrator’s speaking voice over literary description. Throughout a highly celebrated career, he never stopped working on his craft, as you say.

  • […] the whole process anyway. But I didn’t realise that the remnants hung around. I recently read an article by Kathy Stevenson, in which the author spoke about the challenges of releasing (and publishing an […]

  • One thing that will stick with me is that through your years of experience, you are still growing and feeling challenged. I think, as a fairly young writer, that it’s a marvelous thing to look forward to. That’s not to say I’ll enjoy looking at my published work and wanting to snatch it back into a dark room, but the constant growth, the infiniteness of it all, is exciting.

  • Katie Marie says:

    I know how you feel, the minute I send something off I have to make a concentrated effort not to read it again as if I do I’ll find 123,435 things wrong with it that I missed before.

  • Devena Reed says:

    Every comment encouraged me! Thanks, all y’all energizing tribe of re-visioning muses.

  • Sue J says:

    This gets at the core of my dilemma each time I post something particularly personal (deeply revealing) in my personal essays. In the blogging world, it’s easy to undo an essay by privatizing it, thus yanking it from public view. Nearly every time I write something revealing (I just did so again this week), I either immediately or within a short time (a week at most) yank it from view. The deeper I go, the more likely I am to pull it from view. Oddly, the political unrest in this nation, the infiltration by entities like Google and Facebook (both in cahoots with the government in mining personal info on us all) on what we read, what we search for, what we say about ourselves, all of it makes me ever more uncomfortable about revealing too much, even if it’s an emotional reveal. And God forbid, I trip up and express an actual opinion . . . well, that, too, is grounds for me pulling back a post and privatizing it. Lately, I’ve taken to just opening up an empty text file, typing away till I can’t type any more, and after I’ve revealed or opined to my heart’s content, I delete it. 😉

  • Wow! All of these comments are so thoughtful and insightful. It makes me really glad I wrote this essay (and didn’t second guess myself on doing so). Thanks, everyone, for taking the time to comment…

  • April Bernard says:

    Dear Kathy:
    write it again, and publish it elsewhere, with your deeper thoughts. I would love to read it.

  • This is a brilliant and interesting article! I really enjoyed reading it.

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