Revision and the Progressive Self

I’ve been revising a novel since, oh, November? Time does a funny thing when it comes to projects and I have found that it never treats any two artistic commitments the same way. Other writers have experienced this, too. George Saunders spent twelve years on his story “The Semplica Girl Diaries” and four years on his novel Lincoln in the Bardo. Elizabeth Bishop could whittle at a poem for a decade. Kurt Vonnegut, a self-described basher at the typewriter, swooped out The Sirens of Titan in a burst of energy that he never experienced with another novel. There is something valuable, for those of us who write, in knowing these facts about others’ temporal experiences in this mysterious process.

My book is a book alright—132,000 words—longer by a nose than any of my other published works. It started with daydreams, autochthonous images, and a fair bit of pain (heartbreak, in this instance). First came the characters, or pieces of characters, and the need to get down what was coming, when it came, on paper. The first fifty pages leapt out in 2012 but then petered off to a restful stop. There were other things to work on: my PhD thesis, short stories, scholarly articles.

This cessation was not cause for alarm for me. I did not go back and rewrite the first fifty pages. I kept receiving bits of story, shards of it, more images, more characters. I also was going through a lot of changes in the shape of my life and learning, always learning, and coming to perspectives I had not held before. Junot Díaz has expressed that it can take him a long time to write a piece because when he starts it, he is not yet the person he needs to be in order to finish it. This idea makes so much sense to me, particularly in relation to this book.

The next time I picked up the novel was when I moved home from Ireland. I had arrived in Éire a Mr., lived there for four years, loved there, found friendships that shall see me through this life, and came out the other end a Dr. I returned to my hometown to accompany the throng of scholars and creative writers everywhere who can’t find a full-time position teaching, tenure-track or otherwise, despite a love and propensity for it. It was probably December 2014 when I tucked my nose back into writing this book, a month into this hard landing that was darker then, more manageable now.

My records show I had the novel fully drafted on May 17, 2015. 350 pages added onto those first fifty. Somewhere in there I also got my PhD dissertation polished and submitted successfully for publication by Routledge. From where I stand today, I don’t remember much about writing either book from that time. The revision of the one was simple enough, the drafting of the novel more insistent. What I do recall about riding the novel out is the time spent at my Singer sewing table letting it happen on my screen night after night. A neighbor I grew up with, Angie Wion, told me recently she and her friends, having a party at her house, tried to flag me down one night with arm-waving invitations. Visible to them up there in my window, I never saw them across the backyard, despite the fact that they would have been there in plain view. This book had me.

When I got to the end of that, The End only being an end, I did that thing we sometimes must do: I shut it away. It needed to brew, to ferment. I needed a break from it, too. A lot happened to me after that. I taught as an adjunct, left that for a bit more money—an unhealthy move for this fella—returned to adjuncting, started feeling more like myself again. Throughout that time, I read writers whose work I sensed would educate me in relation to what was needed for eventual revision. The characters who’d come to me still visited, but I did not write about them outside of taking notes. I studied works and comfortably researched odd topics I sensed might inform what I wanted the book to become next.

Two and a half years after setting it aside, I took the novel down from the shelf and revisited it, sentence by sentence. I had this idea that I’d now have a lot to bring that had been lacking in personal experience at the time I drafted it. What smacked me upside my head, what I wasn’t expecting at all, was that the version of myself that had drafted that novel had a lot to teach me at this later date. The idea of a progressive self is a strange thing when you find your earlier self writing sentences in ways you simply would not, could not write them today. There is so much work to be done with a manuscript, of course—but whoever I was when I wrote some of those passages, I seem to have known more about certain things then than I do now.