When I’m teaching, I often talk about revision as re-vision, finding a new vision. It sounds good, talking about it that way.
But the reality is that a new vision can be hard to come by. And letting go of the old vision to make room for the new can be even harder.
In fact, letting go can sometimes be the most difficult part of writing . . . and the most creative part of it.
I have been working since shortly after I completed the text of my most recent picture book, The Stuff of Stars, on coming up with a companion book. Mostly because the territory I researched in order to write it still compelled me. Also, because reaching for the stars seems the most credible way of reaching for the hope so needed to write any kind of children’s book in this disheartening world.
First I came up with a text the editor said was “lovely.” But she also said it was too much like The Stuff of Stars. Even if I had wanted to take it to another editor for another opinion, I couldn’t, given the inevitable non-compete clause I had signed. If it was too much like it was too much like to be out there from another publisher.
So with a great deal of sighing, I let that one go.
I thought and rethought and, in the meantime, I went on probing the stars, the origins of our universe, the fundamental nature of reality as scientists today can define it. Through a friend, I came across a fascinating book by an Italian physicist, Carlo Rovelli, called Seven Brief Lessons and Physics. I read and reread it. And reread it again. I can’t say still that I understand it, but it fascinates me.
And from that I began to reenter my idea of a companion book to The Stuff of Stars.
I worked and worked and worked on it. Worked, first, to discover my core concept, to understand for myself what I wanted to say.
Worked, next, to frame what I had discovered into lyrical language, language that could carry my ideas through their musicality so that a child could listen and enjoy, even if understanding come later.
Worked, finally, to draw the whole into a pleasing shape and to balance that shape against the needs of the larger world.
And then, at last, I presented it to the one editor I wanted to have it.
The manuscript engages her. It interests her. Enough, even, for her to begin to think about illustrators.
But not in the form it exists. Too much crammed into my text. She suggests instead I use a long Afterword to explain what I want to explain. The text itself she wants to be simpler, cleaner.
And she is probably right. She’s an editor who is usually right. Which doesn’t keep my heart from being attached, still, to the text precisely as I submitted it to her.
Attached and working at letting go.
Another sigh here. A long one.
So this is where I remember giving that lecture on revision. I remember the demonstration I used to give on letting go, my arm stretched out before me, my hand firmly closed, holding. My hand opening slowly, releasing . . . releasing . . . As though I were giving a baby bird the opportunity of flight.
My heart releasing, too. Just a bit.
The most creative act of all.
But not an easy one.
Does it get easier for having done it so many times before? It doesn’t feel easy in the moment, but perhaps it is.
It feels a bit like setting out to swim across a wide, cold lake. If I’ve done it a dozen times before, two dozen, a hundred, then I know, at least, that my strokes have accomplished the task in the past, that they will probably accomplish it again if I don’t lose heart.
So that’s what I’m working on first . . . my heart.
Once my heart has settled into the new approach to a story I truly want to tell, all the rest will follow.
A new vision.