Monday, September 26, 2011

The Gift of Upheaval

...and at once I knew I was not magnificent
strayed above the highway aisle
(jagged vacance, thick with ice)
I could see for miles, miles, miles.

It wasn't the book deal, really, that changed everything, but it was the beginning. Before it, I was a senior in college who was planning to apply for student loans to go to graduate school. And today, I am a college graduate and an author, living in Romania. I have moved three times. I have been through a break-up and a new beginning. I have had two names and two countries of residence. I have had panic and therapy sessions and, at last, abiding peace. I have gone down a pants size and back up a pants size. I have been on a bestseller list and off a bestseller list. I have written a book. And rewritten it. And then prepared to revise it again.

It's been less than two years. I don't mean to overdramatize anything, or to insinuate that most of what has happened in the past year and a half was not good, or exciting, or amazing. It's just that there has been a lot of it, everywhere, always, and all that change is hard to handle.

A lot of the things that happened did not feel good at the time, even the things that should have. I am reluctant to change, but everything had to change--I had to change, apparently, or I would not have contributed so much to that list up there. So I, at long last, have learned to call this upheaval a gift.

As with many life lessons, this one is also a writing lesson. I am reluctant to change. To me, changing means admitting that somewhere along the line, I have veered away from perfection--I have not been honest enough, or brave enough, or compassionate enough--I am not where I would like to be, or where I need to be. Every round of revision requires me to admit the same thing. No matter the mistakes of any given critiquer-- at the end of the day, they have nothing to do with the failures of my work. Only I do. I am alone with the fault in my work, the way I have often been alone (well, sort of) with my faults in the past year and a half.

It's terrifying. And every writer experiences it, this responsibility for the failures of a work. It makes us angry, or depressed, or apathetic. We rail at our critiquers (mentally, most of the time) for being too harsh, or we mope around the house in our slippers, or we shove the work into a folder and say, "forget it." All of these, for me, are a way of avoiding the truth: that the work is mine, and the mistakes are mine, and the responsibility to fix it is mine. And it will require--what else?-- upheaval.

That is not to say I always have to begin again with a manuscript, because almost always, the good work can be rescued from the bad. The upheaval here is not in the words themselves but in my mind. Not everything literally has to change, but the way I perceive the work--everything about that has to change.

But as with upheaval in life, the up side is, upheaval in writing is a gift. A person who does not change is a person who doesn't grow, who stays at the same depth. A manuscript that doesn't change, too, is shallower and smaller than it could be. But we delude ourselves if we think any of that will be easy. It takes work. And humility. (How could I forget the humility?)

But at the end of the work: something greater, deeper, better.

Just something to keep in mind.


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