I’ve been revising a historical novel, and it’s been going okay, I guess, even though the experience is giving me the same feeling I used to have while combing my older kid’s hair—knot after knot and a burning desire to cut them all out and call it a day. The next round of revision will go faster, the one after that, faster yet, but I’m still in the plodding stage, planting seeds to justify a development in the nineteenth chapter, deepening details, improving dialogue, clarifying motivation, honing, heightening, and patching—polishing every part to a shine. Eventually, I’ll drag the comb from the scalp to the ends of the hair with nary a snag. That’s a ways off yet, but it’s my goal. Or it always has been, anyway.
Ironically, one aim of this effortful revising is to create something that possesses the quality of effortlessness. “You make it look easy,” we say admiringly to the expert, whatever the “it” may be—dancing, sculpting, guitar-playing, writing. Making something look easy is hard work. Lately, however, I’ve been wondering about this aim, questioning the supremacy of effortlessness. Could an unraveled knot benefit a work of literature? Maybe a snarl that snags could be a good thing.
My brother recently recommended Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free, about the making of Petty’s 1994 album, Wildflowers. I watched it and was glad I did. It illuminates Petty’s enormous talent and captures the energy, thoughtfulness, humor, and dedication with which he made music. It also holds a trove of wisdom that could be applied to any creative process.
For instance, at one point, the documentary gets into this chart Petty and his bandmates designed to keep track of their progress, with the album’s songs listed down the lefthand side and the things that needed to be accomplished and addressed for every tune (edits, lyrics, instruments, etc.) across the top. The chart, though very much a traditional tool of revision in most ways, boasted a surprising final column, a last step labelled, “Fuck that shit up.” What a suggestion! It got me thinking about revision, not merely as the plastic-surgery phase, with all its cutting, stitching, plumping, and smoothing, but as an opportunity for a little chaos.
Not all readers, of course, are keen on chaos. Perhaps you’ve experimented with a weird leap in a piece and ended up second-guessing the odd addition because your writing group, editor, or workshop peers felt it didn’t fit and wasn’t working. Possibly they were right. But possibly they were wrong. It could be your strange addition simply didn’t fit yet. Just because something isn’t working doesn’t mean it can’t be made to work. It could become the best part of your piece. The magical part.
I wonder how many thrilling oddities in literature happened because the writer let their mind stay limber and light throughout a project, not only in the composing but in the fixing, too. Have you ever read a line in a poem or a passage in a novel and thought, What in the world just happened? I certainly have. I love that experience.
Who knows? Maybe the lyrical “Time Passes” in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Janie’s passionate epiphany under the pear tree in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and that brilliant “I’ve got out at last…in spite of you and Jane” in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Mrs. Turpin confronting God with her wrathful, “Who do you think you are?” in Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation” and Tom Bombadil in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings were instances when the writers looked at what they’d created, turned to gaze dreamily out the window, and thought, Let’s fuck this shit up.
I might make Tom Petty’s Wildflowers chart decree my 2024 writing resolution. At every stage of the writing process, even revision, I can try harder to stay open to radical changes and play, get messy, go weird, take risks. In other words, have fun.