Revising, and Other Acts of Faith

Last week, I wrote—of the brutal experience of revising a novel—“It’s neither the best of books, nor the worst. It’s your book, and the only way forward is through it.”

I’m revising the beginning of my novel now. This must be what parenting a teenager is like. I take body blows to the ego, then pick myself up and rededicate myself to the job of loving the crabby, smelly, and pimply mess with the same mindless devotion with which I loved it when it was plump and edible and helpless. Or some less overextended metaphor, but you get the gist. Ouch, and— So. Exhausting.

I’m also now less than two weeks from the date on which a large band of movers descends on my house and stows all my possessions in cardboard boxes. Some people have suggested this is not the time to undertake a large-scale revision. They are so right. Other people have suggested this is the perfect time to undertake a large-scale revision. They are also right.

I will say this about revision. There is no perfect time, just as there is no perfect time to have a child. It is never the right time to thoroughly disrupt your way of looking at the world, to unsettle yourself and remake yourself. You just wake up one morning and are more ready than not to do it. So you do. (This is how I have made all the monumental decisions in my life, including the one to move three thousand miles. I woke up one morning and the incomprehensible seemed manageable.)

I have to believe that revising a novel and moving across the country have this in common. On the morning before you begin, you have something intact and reasonably neat. On the morning when the movers arrive or you tear out the first perfect brick of the original literary structure, you have the appearance of complete and utter chaos. It seems highly improbable that things can ever be put back in their proper places. Everything that happens over the next few weeks or months is an act of ridiculous, lunatic faith. You set one word next to the other, you put one foot in front of the other, you remove one item from its cardboard shell and begin to rebuild a life.

One day, you realize that you are on the other side of chaos, and the thing you have made is better than the thing you tore apart. And you are stronger because of your strange willingness to believe against all evidence that it would be so.