On Revising

This is from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, a wonderful book that I recently re-read:

Several delusions weaken the writer’s resolve to throw away work. If he has read his pages too often, those pages will have a necessary quality, the ring of the inevitable, like poetry known by heart; they will perfectly answer their own familiar rhythms. He will retain them. He may retain those pages if they possess some virtues, such as power in themselves, through they lack the cardinal virtue, which is pertinence to, and unity with, the book’s thrust. Sometimes the writer leaves his early chapters in place from gratitude; he cannot contemplate them or read them without feeling again the blessed relief that exalted him when the words first appeared—relief that he was writing anything at all. That beginning served to get him where he was going, after all; surely the reader needs it, too, as groundwork. But no.

Every year the aspiring photographer brought a stack of his best prints to an old, honored photographer, seeking his judgment. Every year the old man studied the prints and painstakingly ordered them into two piles, bad and good. Every year the old man moved a certain landscape print into the bad stack. At length he turned to the young man: “You submit this same landscape every year, and every year I put it on the bad stack. Why do you like it so much?” The young photographer said, “because I had to climb a mountain to get it.”

There’s an essay I’ve been writing, off and on, for about three years now. I realize that I’m hanging on to sections of it just because I’m used to them, they have Dillard’s “ring of the inevitable.” I’m not sure they have much place in the essay anymore. They served a useful purpose for me–they got me to the more interesting place in the essay that I am now–but I don’t think the reader needs them. Time to set them aside and dive back in.


  1. Elrena says:

    Oh, what a timely post for someone who is on page 253 of a 258 page revision!!

    It is beginning to feel like a TPS report. 🙂

  2. Violeta says:

    I (kind of) love when pieces take me a long time to get right. When I’m finally there and I look back through all the earlier versions it’s like watching those time-lapse photographs of a flower blooming (so corny, I know, but I’m only doing one draft of this!).

    I think that, in addition to being about a lot of hard work, writing is also about intuition. Something about a paragraph or a stanza on some level just feels right and we keep it. As time passes, as you say, Caroline, we can get used to a grouping of words and mistake that feeling of recognition and familiarity for some essence vital to the reader.

  3. Caroline says:

    Violeta, I really like the time-lapse photography analogy!