Still Listening to What My Practice Demands: A Follow-up
December 27, 2017 § 7 Comments
by Beth Franz
One year ago, I wrote a piece, sent it off, and was happy to see it published here, on the Brevity Blog. Writing that piece — “The Power of Listening to What Your Practice Demands” — was motivated by the fact that I would be turning 60 in late 2017 and also the feeling that, given my birthday milestone, I really needed to start putting my writing “out there,” to be published or rejected, either way, but to take a step forward in my writing practice.
Well, it is one year later, and my practice is still making demands of me. I have sent some pieces out for consideration, a couple of which I’m still waiting to hear the verdict on, but more important than that, I feel myself taking another “step forward in my writing practice,” one that I didn’t see coming. Facilitating that “step forward” is a gift I received from my sister, who did not realize the magnitude of her gift when she sent it to me.
In the middle of the month I was due to turn 60, my sister, a UU (Unitarian Universalist) minister, happened to pick up a book she thought I might like. Her email, to let me know that the book was on its way, read simply, “At work this week, I was in our lunchroom, and on a side area where there are often books that we’re free to take, I found a small pile of the books: http://www.uuabookstore.org/Living-Revision-P18216.aspx So I took one, and I’ll mail it to you today, book-rate. I haven’t read it and I have no idea if you’ll like it. If so – excellent! If not, I trust you’ll just pass it along …”
The book’s full title is Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice. It is by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, and its copyright date is actually 2018. I recommend it to anyone who is “stuck” somewhere in the gray area between (a) having written pieces they think are important and worth sharing with readers and (b) actually being ready to send those pieces out. (It is this gray area in which I have lived most of my life as a writer. I know it well. What I did not know until now is how to begin to find my way out of this gray area.)
I have been a teacher of writing my entire adult life. When I was still in my twenties, trying to live my life as a writer, I ended up in graduate school. Ironically, going back to school was a way for me to make financial ends meet. A university was willing to pay me to go back to school and continue my work in the twin areas of reading and writing? Okay, I said. I had to teach a couple sections of basic composition to undergraduates each semester in order to earn my stipend? Okay, I said again, not really thinking too much about it.
More than half a lifetime later, here I am, counting down the semesters until I can retire from full-time teaching and put my own creative writing back at the center of my life. In the meantime, though, I find myself in this curious in-between time: not actually retired yet, but feeling myself increasingly pulled in the direction I have wanted to go for a lifetime.
At first, I found this “in-between space” uncomfortable. The longer I am here, though, the more I am discovering just how rich a space it is. Looking around within this space this past year, I have discovered a lot of first drafts of stuff sitting around. A year ago, I thought all I had to do was simply start sending some of these pieces out into the world. My mantra a year ago was, “Ready or now, here it comes!” After all, I’ve never really known how to help myself through the process of revision the way I know how to help my students through their process.
Fortunately, Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew’s book arrived just when I needed it. Andrew’s book is a cross between the two kinds of books I most like to spend time with: books about writing as craft, and books about spirituality as practice.
While every chapter is a rich mix of inspiration and practical information, the chapter that resonates most deeply with me, given the gray area where I’ve been stuck most of my life, is her fourth chapter on “Becoming an Author.” In this chapter, Andrew explains that writers earn the title “author” NOT when they get published but rather when “they’ve gained authority over their material.” This is what happens over the course of the journey of revision.
According to Andrew, “The journey through drafts moves us from powerlessness to power—from being controlled by our stories to being active creators—from having an idea to being an author.” But how exactly do we go about making this journey?
Andrew explains, “For writers of memoir and autobiographical fiction, claiming authority over one’s memories is the hardest part of revision. We can flesh out scenes, add dialogue, pay attention to character development; we can fiddle with craft and make worthwhile changes. But at some point, all autobiographical writers must seriously consider revising their content.” And it is here that Andrew comes to the core message of her book.
Andrew writes, “Revision is not simply about evaluating and changing the form of our writing; it’s also about adding layers of understanding to the content. And when the content is our lives, this means undertaking serious emotional work.”
This, then, is the focus of Andrew’s book: the process of tackling the early drafts of our work with an eye toward growing as writers and, more importantly, as human beings. I highly recommend Living Revision: A Writer’s Spiritual Practice as a book you might just want to buy for yourself, as a writer, this holiday season. Your writing—and your life—will be the richer for the experience.
Beth Franz is a practicing writer and sculptor, who just turned 60 a few weeks ago. Her sculpting work can be seen at www.mountainaircreations.com. As for her writing, she’s still working on revising it and getting it out there.