You might think the hardest part of writing a story of any length is getting it out of your head and onto the page. But I’m here to suggest that the hardest part is everything that comes after the first draft is completed—the revision process.
Don’t get me wrong: writing the first draft is hard! Some parts of that story may come super easy, but other parts require of you every ounce of metaphorical blood and literal sweat and tears in you before they behave on the page the way they do in your head. Sometimes you go through that process and the story works so magically you can hear the hallelujah chorus resounding all around you as you read back through it. It may need some minor tweaks here and there, but by golly, you have got a real live winner! Other times you bleed, sweat, and cry your way through that first draft and then read through only to realize that something in the story isn’t working the way it needs to. It’s just not quite right.
Thus begins the revision process, and in the case of a story that doesn’t quite work, this can be even more painful than writing that first draft was. Why? Because now you have to dismantle it and figure out why it doesn’t work and how to fix it and then put it all back together again. More than likely, the things that aren’t quite working are the same aspects that gave you conniption fits while trying to write that first draft, and rather than heeding the warning those conniption fits were providing the first time around, you just powered through and figured out a “fix” that would keep the story moving along so you could actually finish it. And that’s okay. Really! That is basically the entire point of a first draft—just get the story on the page and then fix the problems during revision!
But just because that’s the purpose of revisions does not mean it won’t be painful. In the revision process, you can no longer avoid the tantrumy three-year-old of a scene that refuses to cooperate with your vision for the story. You have to take that deep breath, get down on the level of the scene and get into its head somehow to figure out why it’s pitching a fit, why it refuses to cooperate, and how to resolve the discord so that you can all move on in happily-ever-after story bliss!
But here’s the kicker: fixing that one scene might actually mean upending a host of other things in your story. You might have thought they were already solid, but now that you’ve fixed that one scene, you find that all these other things are now on shaky ground too and need more attention. And on. And on. And on.
Yep, the revision process can be a pit of quicksand.
I find myself in a season of life revisions right now, and let me tell you, it is painful. I made one seemingly small change to an aspect of my living that I didn’t think was overly interconnected with anything else, but I found out real quick that I was WRONG about that interconnectivity. How did I discover that? Well, reader, it was made known to me just how wrong I was when a pile of new issues started cascading off that one change!
I’ll be the first to confess that I’m tired of fighting through the revisions, and I would like to chuck the whole manuscript in the trash and go back to the first draft and just pretend like I can live with the problematic scene I tried to fix in the first place.
But I can’t. I have to swim around in this pit of quicksand until I find the rope that will get me to the other side. I have to keep dismantling the structures and frameworks until I get to the root (or roots) of whatever is going on. Otherwise, I’ll be plagued by those issues forever, and that’s no way live . . . right??
That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway. I know it’s true, but the difference between revising a story on paper and my actual life is that in life I don’t know yet what the ending is supposed to be. In life I don’t get to write the whole thing and then go back and revise; I have to deal with the tantrumy three-year-old issues as they come, and I don’t get to walk away until they are resolved. Sometimes that means enduring a devolution into seemingly interminable chaos, and
I. DO. NOT. LIKE. CHAOS.
Not as a human, not as a nanny, not as a writer, and certainly not as the protagonist in my own story. And yet here I am.
I found comfort the other day in a passage in Amos 9:11-15. It is an incredibly brief promise of restoration after a prolonged and very detailed pronouncement of anticipated judgment and terror.
The book of Amos is nine chapters of overwhelming wrath followed by five verses of promised restoration and then THE END. Reading it is kind of like having someone scream in your face all the extreme worst-case terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad things that are about to happen and then suddenly drop to a regular voice volume and say, “And then you’ll be fine. No worries. The end,” and walk away with a smile on their face and a bounce in their step as if nothing had ever happened. It creates some serious whiplash! And yet that whiplash moment is full of some seriously profound hope, and just a hint of hope is all we really need to make it through even the worst chaos and terror.
In Amos 9:11, God promises through the prophet:
11“In that day
I will restore the fallen booth of David:
I will repair its gaps,
restore its ruins,
and rebuild it as in the days of old.”
I love that part about restoring the fallen booth of David. The word for “booth” is “succah” (or “sukkah” as it’s more commonly written today), and it denotes a temporary and rudely constructed hut or shelter. It appears a lot in Scripture, especially in the book of Jonah and in the commandments God gave the Israelites about celebrating the Feast of Booths (i.e., Sukkot), which was to remind them of the huts they lived in while wandering in the desert for forty years and how God provided for them, not just during their wandering but also by ushering them into a more permanent and stable home in the Promised Land. The force of the word here in Amos revolves around the temporal and fallen nature of the booth, and the promise is to take that rudimentary, insufficient structure they have built for themselves and repair its gaps, restore its ruins, and provide for them what God had always intended for them—an imperishable, everlasting home with Him.
In this revision season in my life, I find comfort in the idea that while my poorly constructed frameworks and structures are falling down around me, leaving me feeling like I’ve stumbled into a quicksand of chaos that I’ll never be able to escape, God knows how to take ruins and turn them into strong towers of refuge and hope. The trick with quicksand is not to fight it—the more you fight and wrestle to get out, the faster it sucks you in; my task is to stay calm and not resist the revision process because it’s how the gaps get repaired and the ruins get restored. It’s how temporary insufficiency gets transformed into permanent sufficiency.
As I write this, I’m reminded of the chorus from Christa Wells‘s song “Renovate”:
All gain comes through loss
You burn away the dross
Every master builder must tear down to renovate
Take all the time you need
Make something out of me
Even if it means you tear me down to renovate
That’s the prayer I need to remember these days. Anyone who has renovated their home will tell you there comes a point in the project where it seems that there are more problems than progress and that it will never be completed. I feel like I’m at that point. But the only thing that stops a home renovation from reaching completion is giving up, and the same is true for renovating a life.
It looks like I’ll be adding this song back into my daily playlist. Here is the track, just in case you’d like to join me.