Writing Memoir: The practice of revising

“A fuzzy shot of a man’s hands on the keyboard of a piano” by Isaac Ibbotton Unsplash
Does genius make practice unnecessary? Do great writers do it right the first time, so they never have to do it again?

As a young woman in the 1980’s, I was a Boston Celtics fan. My favorite player was Dennis Johnson, who was known as a “money player,” a guy who came through when it really mattered. I admired how he could turn his talent on, seemingly at will.

But the most well-loved Celtics player from that era was probably Larry Bird, who combined unquestionable talent with a legendary work ethic.

Bird practiced methodically, taking as many as 500 shots from the foul line in a single practice session. In his mind, there was always room for improvement. Johnson, a gifted player, was not as methodical as Bird, but the two men worked so well together, they were likened to great musicians playing a duet.

It’s understandable that after the difficult work of getting a vision down on paper by writing the first draft of an essay or a short story or a poem, a writer wants to feel finished. We invest so much heart into our writing.

But first drafts are rarely the gems we think they are. If you’re like me, whatever you’ve most recently written is the best thing you’ve ever written. From talking with other writers, I know this is a common phenomenon.

To use the language of biology, the phenomenon seems adaptive: writers who adore the last thing they’ve written keep writing. Imagine if we thought the first thing we’d written was the best — we might despair of ever hitting that height again. We might give up.

Revision — a writer’s practice — is what keeps us striving to be better. By examining and re-examining our work, sharing it with other writers, and working to make our vision more and more accessible to readers, we keep feeding the flame.

I loved Dennis Johnson’s style and his heart and his drive to win. But in my writing life, I want to be more like Larry Bird: a methodical, believing that there’s always room for improvement.

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