A Writer’s Exploration: Plight of the Obsessive Revisionist

I enter my own world when I write. I know all artists can identify – some call it entering the zone or finding their own space. The sights and sounds around me become non-existent; I hear nothing but my mental voice. As a painter sees only color, form, and texture on the canvas, I see nothing outside of the words on the page or screen and the mental images I intend them to portray. Smell, taste, and touch are similar experiences, except for the sips of beer or water as I work, which I tend to forget about pretty quickly until I have exhausted my brain for the night.

I enter an entirely new world when I revise. With all senses alert, I traverse this alternative environment capturing every pertinent detail for the reader who dares to enter it. Life spent in this world far exceeds the time spent in the first round of creating it. It is an art unto itself, one that has occupied my brain at all hours of the day and night regardless of activity – cleaning the dinner dishes, driving my daughter to an ice rink, working on a project at my job, enjoying a show – revision never sleeps.

Once upon a time, when I was eighteen or so, I would fall in love with my first draft. Yes, I was one of those people. God forbid I corrupt those authentic words no matter how unnecessary, weak, or confusing the language might be. I quickly came around, though. By the time I graduated college, my creative writing mentor, Dick Allen, had instilled in me the necessity and value of revision. My power over the craft and technique were less than stellar at my nascent age, but the effort was there.

Last summer I pulled out my writing archive (read: large airtight Rubbermaid container filled with notebooks and printed manuscripts) to review what I wrote nearly twenty years earlier, in search of stories I might revitalize. Some stories were immediately cast aside; they are not the person I am today. Minimal effort on revision, I determined, unintentionally breaking rules with minimal consequences. Others showed promise. I went to work on them for the full summer, cringing and laughing at the elements I allowed to stay in the final drafts when I was just starting out.

So here I am today, revision is a permanent addition to my pantheon of obsessions. I have a touch of OCD, well, maybe more than a touch, but I have learned to manage it over the years, funneling it into my creative endeavors. Thankfully, I would never qualify for the latest wave of reality TV shows exploiting people’s strange addictions and compulsions, not that I would ever take part in those. This writing thing, whether on my blog or other channels, is my reality show with me in control. Those TV shows do serve as great source material for creating some interesting characters, however.

I spent the other night compiling line edits, comments, and other feedback from at least ten different people (I lost count) for a story I have been developing for the past several months. Hours passed without my knowledge, the occasional blurt from my daughter or whine from a cat piercing my focus, but I persisted. When I decided to finish for the night, I had learned seven hours had passed and it was nearly 1:00 AM. I finished my warm Ruthless Rye IPA and went to bed satisfied that my new story had grown up a little bit more. Of course, my story wrapped itself around my waist and followed me to bed where it continued to play out as I slowly fell asleep.

Thing is, if it wasn’t a story my brain was mulling over as I tried to sleep it would have been some other not so happy – even stressful – thoughts in a continuous loop plaguing my sleep. I will always opt for the former; call it my form of escapism in support of mental wellness.

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4 thoughts on “A Writer’s Exploration: Plight of the Obsessive Revisionist

  1. Interesting process, to look at old material and see where you were (and whether anything's worth saving). One of the things I've found with the stories I've managed to publish is that they're often ahead of themselves (or I am) . . even though I've worked them hard and thought they were done, it's sometimes a matter of years before anyone else agrees 😉

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  2. I'm the opposite, I try VERY hard to not be OCD about revision because it's so easy for me to be stuck in that stage and never feel I've made a satisfactory draft. But as I've remarked a few times in OMGW, I'm almost never satisfied due to magnified sense of self-criticism combined with several bouts of head-desking. -Lauren G

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  3. I hear you. That was a one time thing for me, I figured I have this big pile sitting there doing nothing and it needed some attention. Pulled a few good stories out of it I have since used for MFA workshops and developed further. I'm not sure of their fates yet, but it was a good exercise.

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