A lot of students over a lot of years have expressed to me how frustrated they are in trying to get their ideas onto a page. And when we take time to talk about the problem, I’m always surprised to realize how many people harbor the fantastic notion that if you have to rewrite something, you’re not really writing at all. It’s time we settle this.
One of the fundamental principles of writing, an immemorial adage, is writing is rewriting. Few of us (are there any?) sit down with a smile on our face, know exactly what we want to say and how to say it, begin at the top of the page and finish at the bottom, perky and pumped from beginning to end. That may be your dream and mine, but it’s not waking reality. What is real resembles more the struggling flow of a muddy river: there’s some momentum underway, we’re on it and moving toward something we want to say, but then we catch on a branching idea and just can’t get ourselves free.
It’s there and then that we have to remember how peculiar the art of writing really is. For what we’re trying to do is replicate in words and phrases and sentences a lived moment. We experienced something that either actually happened in the world or which took on life imaginatively in our mind, and we’ve decided to try to find words, symbols, which will stand for all the things that were part of that lived experience: all the characters and actions and things we’re recollecting now in our head. We’re trying to tell someone else how one thing affected another, what caused this and what happened because of that. We’re trying, really, to put words to our life, to our immensely intricate and complex and often complicated human awareness.
We may not think of ourselves as artists, but finding symbols for life like this is the very stuff and essence of art. What is so important to understand is that meaning must have some form or shape to be communicated. We have ideas, we want to be heard, but we forget that we can bring those ideas out from behind the curtains in our mind only when we embody them in images, which is just what words and phrases produce. This is what every art does: incorporate, integrate, incarnate ideas in symbols, and understanding this gives us the patience we need to defeat that too human and frustrating frailty of wanting what we want when we want it. The Muses may differ.
This little bit of philosophy can help us be more aware of just what we’re doing as we work toward mastery of a demanding art. If writing is an art, then it is a project of intelligence and vision and skill. Perhaps it would be better to speak not of the art of writing, but of the art of rewriting. Then we could begin our draft knowing it’s going to be a mess—or at least knowing it’s not going to be what we ultimately want it to be. For the draft is the first thing we write, the potter’s throw of clay, the mason’s first strokes. Then come the revisions, as many as we need to clarify our thinking and unify the presentation—to tighten the weave of our words into familiar images the reader can recognize sharply. Then in its own time arrives the final revision, when all that remains is to look for the inadvertent error or misspelled word. And then enough is enough, until we’re ready to do it all again, one step closer to the pleasure of mastery.