The Art of Revision

What’s behind me does not matter? I call bullshit. I’m looking in the rearview mirror of life and all I see are ghosts. I realize it’s a morbid view, and this is supposed to be a holiday piece, but I have no idea how to get there. At first glance there is this annoying tug at my heart, okay it’s more of a slam to the ground, knock the air out of my lungs kind of feeling, but I’m still conscious damn it. I come from hardy stock.

How is it possible that most of the people from my earliest memories are gone. Out. Away. Not lost, but departed, and their memory haunts me, as if noticing a hooded character in the backseat of your car, after driving for thirty minutes, in the dark. I want to slam on the brakes and run. Is anyone with me?

I’ve been forced to become a revisionist, a person with a revised attitude to a previously accepted situation, or point of view, and let me just say it’s not my forte. The ability to revise is developmental, as if a child who learns the person playing next to them has the exact toy they want, they grab it away, and are rewarded by a satisfying howl. It’s the howler who is forced to revise, as their situation has shifted, and the adjustment can be a retched experience. We are not particularly good at this until some time later in life, possibly in our mid-fifties, when it becomes an essential skill. Are you feeling the good cheer yet? No, good, then you’re with me. 

“The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in.” Henry Green

This skill is not natural to me (nor is it moral) or fruitful I might add. Holidays are supposed to be set in stone, the table decorations come down from the rafters year after year, a little worst for the wear, but perfectly serviceable, the meal is fossilized, passed down from the pilgrims I believe (especially the crab fondue). We all have our spots at the table, except for an unexpected cousin, uncle, or friend who ends up at the auxiliary table, set up in the family room for the noisy group. I never considered revising a single thing. The same thinking, I might add, could be applied to my life.

When I’m working on a blog I sometimes find it difficult to get to the gist of the story, the pivotal moment, the climax. So I write, keep my fingers busy, while my mind searches for material in the medley of words. I’m not sure from whence I’m searching, snippets of pieces I’ve recently read, or more likely I’m appropriating someone’s thoughts who is already dead. I get about ten sentences in before I start lamenting to myself. This is total shit. It’s rather pathetic but as I’ve stated before, writing is a lonely endeavor, possibly psychotic in nature. 

So I methodically go back to the beginning, comb through the material until I’m happy, but still there is no point to the damn story, it languishes on truisms, leaving a trail on the page as if a snail working it’s way across the driveway, but gets run over by my car. Not intentionally, you understand, but smashed all the same.

I keep at it, rewriting my life, expecting new results, until it happens, the unexpected, and I’m left howling in the corner over a morbid loss. I look at the guy now holding my shiny toy, the guy with a God complex, and I start plotting my revenge. You know what I mean? I’ll just live long enough for you to regret that move, or if I wait long enough you’ll tire of this circumstance, and give me back what I want. My shiny red shoes. Stay with me, I’m about to bring it home, I promise. You can always skip to the end, save yourself some grief, but it’s risky (that’s a layered statement if there ever was one).

“Word processors make it possible for a writer to change the sentences that clearly need changing without having to retype the rest, but I believe that you can’t always tell whether a sentence needs work until it rises up in revolt against your fingers as you retype it.” Nora Ephron

I had to do some revisional work in 1983, the year I married. We were supposed to exchange vows in October, but that date got highjacked by our good friends, who secured some highly desired mansion for their wedding reception on the same date, and since my fiancé was in their wedding, we took the next available date for the church we wanted, and ended up wedded in late November, which landed us in Puerto Vallarta for our first Thanksgiving. And by the way they don’t celebrate the Indians and the Pilgrims in Mexico. That was a shocker.

This year, thirty-five years later, my husband is transporting me to Spain for Thanksgiving. Yes he is. This is due to a massive revision in my life which I have avoided as if the plague. I have a daughter, son, and three grandchildren celebrating Thanksgiving in Utah, another daughter slicing turkey with her beau in Jersey, a son gathering with expats in Australia, and the youngest son I’m dragging with me come hell or high water. I’ve been madly revising my expectations of this holiday for weeks but I have no context as I’ve never been to Spain. With the slight advantage of age I realize I have more choices than I had in my twenties, when Thanksgiving in Mexico seemed noticeably off course, but now my children are scattered across the globe, and although new areas have opened up for me, I don’t have to like it. Do I?

I’m still assaulted by questions at night. What should I have done? What could I have done differently? If I had the chance to do it over again what would I change? Nora Ephron says, these are not only the questions that keep me awake but led me into fiction, which at the very least is a chance to rework the events in my life so that I have the illusion of being the intelligence at the center of it, simultaneously managing to slip in all the lines that occurred to me later. She says fiction is the ultimate shot at revision.  

“I’ve found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living shit out of it.” Don Roff

As I glance back in the rearview mirror, I’m not only reminded of all that has gone before me, but I’m forced to look forward through the windshield, albeit cracked in a few spots, I see a future (hazy from all the smoke in California), one that patiently awaits my revisions. Mirrors have a way of distorting images, things might appear closer than they are in reality, and that can be frightening. I exhort myself not to spend too much time thinking about how I might clarify this situation while life snatches up my favorite toys. 

The truth is I hope I’m somewhere in the middle of the road, because the older I get the more I don’t want it to end, a road block or two is fine, but no sharp turns. What’s behind me ends up being of great importance, it’s the mold that shapes my future, the grist from which I’ve emerged. I’m holding tight to the idea, as long as I’m working on the beginning of this piece, the end remains unclaimed. 

Happy Thanksgiving from afar, here’s to tamales, black beans, salsa, and an auxiliary table for the unexpected. 
Oh my sweet sister, maybe skip this music, it threw me down hard. 
I’m Living in the Gap, please drop by, will pin where are children are on the map. 


Anecdotes: 
  • “That’s the magic of revisions – every cut is necessary, and every cut hurts, but something new always grows.” Kelly Barnhill
  • “The writer must have a good imagination to begin with, but the imagination has to be muscular, which means it must be exercised in a disciplined way, day in and day out, by writing, failing, succeeding and revising.” Stephen King
  • “We were revisionists; what we revised was ourselves.” Margaret Atwood

4 Comments

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  1. Hi Cheryl!Happy Thanksgiving!I read this blog entry with great interest. You tugged on a lot of my emotional strings. Your lamentation of the loss of those who made your earliest memories, caused a twinge of pain as I had my first Thanksgiving without my mom. Then, it became clear that you are feeling the pain of what is usually a wonderful traditional family time, spent with many of your children and their families scattered to the wind. I wonder what my life would have been like had I made a strong effort to encourage my children to remain near us, rather than spread their wings and fly. Not seeing my granddaughter adds to the pain. However, I am tickled with how they turned out, and Christmas is coming! I wouldn’t change a thing (I lie, maybe just a little change.)Enjoyed the snail crossing the driveway allegory.I am continuously impressed with Larry. He seems to have an innate sense of impending trouble. He could tell that a Thanksgiving/Anniversary with most of your offspring away, your parents having passed, was going to be kind of blue. So what does he do? An A plus trip to a fabulous destination, a brilliant though perhaps not completely successful attempt to lessen the pain. The guy must have amazing intuition.In any event, I continue to enjoy your blog. Thanks for sharing.Musical thoughts.I have to throw the penalty flag on December. Beautiful, but what a downer. Makes me want to throw a pity party.I much prefer this exhortation to look to your bright future:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3VPLOVJ0u94Or even better, since you are not with many of your loved ones:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SY4HI_vqf0c

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  2. Hi Mike! I hope you had a fabulous Thanksgiving even though it was perhaps different from all the others this year. Life without your mother (always my anchor) can feel like you've come unmoored, drifting in uncharted water, and yes I hate it. I had trouble writing this piece because I couldn't separate the simultaneous losses of both parents and children, but I love how you gently point out that encouraging our children to \”spread their wings and fly\” would be counter to everything I have taught them, encouraged them to pursue their life dreams with abandon. Damn. I didn't know it would be do difficult! And yes, there is always Christmas! I was in a morbid mood while writing hence the snail thing but I'm glad you enjoyed the image! It's so funny that you mention Larry's intuition because he was spot on. I remember when he first mentioned the idea of joining his brother's family who was celebrating Thanksgiving in Spain and I was sort of horrified. What? Spain? They don't celebrate Thanksgiving? He thought it would be fun, new experience, and with most of the children scattered he was definitely trying to circumvent my distress (which adds to his distress).We had a fantastic time. Well done Larry. Okay the music I choose was a total downer! haha! Don't look back is a good choice but love the one you're with is perfect! Thanks Mike! Love you comments and look forward to them with great anticipation. We're on the countdown to Christmas hope you're enjoying the cheer of the season, I'm watching Christmas movies, purchasing gifts, planning a cookie baking party with my grandkids! It's a wonderful time of year…

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  3. I make it a point to never look backwards unless my brain lands on a pleasant memory– then I might linger there for a while. I won't let myself ask, \”What if?\” because I'd then have to admit to making some horrendous errors of judgment. Sometimes, early in the morning, my mind wanders into some territory that's mostly thistle and burrs. Then I get up and start my day anew. Hope your Christmas is a lovely and loving one.

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  4. Your plan for looking forward instead of back is brilliant and hopeful. I believe that is the only place to reside, here and now, looking towards a hopeful day. I so appreciate you stopping by Living in the Gap and taking the time to comment. I too have a wandering mind too that takes me places I don't always want to go but nonetheless places I alone have created. To a future of beautiful creations! Blessings to you as we move into a most sacred and joyful season ~ Merry Christmas.

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