Revision, by any other name
This week, forgive me for inverting my habitual structure, but the reading and the writing are so intertwined and so instrumental to everything at the moment, I’m both starting there and staying there for a while.
I’m immersed in Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman. At the start of this book, Burkeman talks about his own frantic pursuit of the right time management strategies, convinced that if he could just crack the code of the thing, he would find a way to finish the more minor things on the proverbial list and then locate the time he wanted/needed for the things that really matter. And I said, “Just @ me next time,” and kept reading.
Of course, no such system exists, and there is no end to the smaller obligations, and that mythic “when things calm down/when I’m caught up” time does not exist.
Burkeman’s book, unlike others in the genre, does not offer solutions for arriving at Inbox Zero or time-blocking or time-tracking or any other kind of productivity hack. What it does is help readers square with the fact that there will never be enough time to do all of the things, and so the real work before us is, as Gandalf says to Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring,
All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.
With this in mind, everything is an opportunity to choose—or an obligation to choose. While Burkeman allows grace for the fact that people are tired, pulled in many directions, and subject to a lot of forces that conspire directly to anesthetize our ability to make conscious decisions (the never-ending scroll, the algorithms, and so on), that doesn’t change the fact that by doing X one is necessarily not doing Y. As Annie Dillard says,
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.
This is the case with everything: when I bake some World Peace Cookies, I am not making Malted Milk Brownies. I can choose to do both, consecutively, but not concurrently, and by committing to the shortbread-like cookie dough of the World Peace Cookies, I am deciding that they will be crisp and crumbly rather than moist and chewy. Decision is a limiter, but it is also necessary to making something—anything—work, which is to say achieving the thing one set out to do.
The impact of deciding is forefront in my mind as I near the end of my manuscript revision, which is the heart of my writing life at the moment. While there will be copy-edits in the future, this is the time at which I have to make the real decisions about, well, everything. By opening a scene in this way, I have removed from consideration the other possibilities and implications. The novel itself becomes the sum of those decisions: I chose these things. At the expense of all of the other possibilities, this is the book I have shaped. And at this point in the process, I am remembering the other lives this novel has lived, the cuts and edits that have resulted in the draft I’m working with and the adjustments and re-writes that I’m doing now to give it yet another life, the life I’m going to share with readers when the book comes out.
Thinking about revision in this way shouldn’t feel revelatory, I suppose, but it does. It makes me more present in the process; it makes me more conscious of those moments where my brain is getting fatigued and I’m simply gliding through. That’s the time to stop and come back tomorrow, and that’s a choice, too.
If you’re within driving distance of Pittsburgh, come to the Conversations & Connections conference on Saturday, October 29! There’s a host of exciting panels and workshops, an opportunity to do a bit of “speed-dating with editors,” and just the most friendly and supportive group of writer-folks. I’ll be running a session on revision, and I can promise lots of new strategies for revision and multiple colors of highlighters! You can also attend an all-online track (for a sweet, sweet $25!) if you’re not nearby.
Thanks for reading Loomings! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
What I’m making: Cheddar Cheese Pull-Apart Bread
It being winter
What I’m reading (bonus): Inciting Joy by Ross Gay
Thanks to the 10th annual Harrisburg Book Festival, I got my hands on a copy of Ross Gay’s new one on Sunday (a few days early) and had the absolute delight of listening to him read a bit from the work. I’ve been waiting for this with great anticipation; I gave a talk on The Book of Delights, and I’ve taught Be Holding and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, and a new Ross Gay book is a holiday in and of itself.
Probably my favorite cookie to take to parties. They keep nicely in any temperature and you can tailor your chocolate choices according to your guests’ tastes. I tend to go for a blend of dark and milk chocolate chunks. A good sprinkle of flaky salt on the dough before it hits the oven is nice.
Put some malted milk in your brownies. It amps up the chewiness and imparts a richness that isn’t extra sweetness. Claire Saffitz’s recipe is great, but you can also just stir in two tablespoons of malted milk powder with the sugar in whatever brownie recipe you like, even if it’s boxed brownies.
November 2023! I promise you’ll know when preorders are open. And if you didn’t know, pre-ordering is one of the best things you can do to support writers. Pre-order a book today and in the future you’ll get a surprise gift from past you in the form of BookMail, which is the best kind of mail. Consider Jen Michalski’s forthcoming story collection The Company of Strangers!
For me, the moment the average daytime temperature drops into the sixties, it’s winter. No matter the stunning autumnal visual cues, I’ve been wearing gloves and my winter coat and have resigned myself to being generally Too Cold until June.