In my younger days I worked as a house painter. When I told the general contractor I was done with a job, he’d walk around the site with the client to make a list of odds and ends I’d missed: A window with trim that needed another coat. A few drops of paint spilled in the kitchen pantry. On a construction site that little document's called a “punch list,” because it makes you want to punch the person who wrote it. It’s very annoying to work hard on something and think you’re finished just to have someone tell you, “Nope. Not quite yet.”
Now that I’m a writer it’s no less annoying; when I hand my work over I don’t want to hear, “I think there are some things we need to fix.” I want my editor to say, “I couldn’t wait for email; I had to call to tell you this is the most remarkable piece of writing I’ve seen in thirty years in the business. It’s going straight to the printer.”
Fortunately that’s never happened; I doubt I'd survive the shock. Revising one’s work is an unavoidable part of the game. Every writer knows this—from the award-winning novelist to someone in a first poetry workshop at the local adult education center. Some people who’ve never tried to practice the craft think that writers…well…just sit down and write.
Nothing could be further from the truth. There are manuscript museums with drafts from literary giants like Mark Twain, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and many others. Some of the texts are virtually covered with ink—scribbles, crossed-out words, circles around sentences and paragraphs that get moved, semi-legible notes scrawled in the margins and so on.
The challenge is to revise and rewrite long after the original excitement over the piece has faded, and to create a finished product that—in spite of all the tinkering—evokes that same sense of excitement and discovery in the reader. To accomplish this magic feat takes determination that borders on the pathological, like some guy in Moose Udder, Maine who builds a fifty-foot Elvis sculpture with empty Red Bull cans.
If you’re holed up in your room, staring at your computer screen, resolutely building an Elvis of your own, I salute you. If you've ever gotten so sick of working on a particular project you couldn’t bear to even look at it for a week, or a month or a year, but one day you sighed, cracked your knuckles and hauled yourself off the sofa to start that fourth draft, I salute you.
Years ago when writers started asking for my advice, I always gave pep talks. I don’t do that anymore. Now if someone sings the blues to me about how hard it is to write, or makes excuses for why they don’t have time, I just nod. “I hear you,” I say. “Writing is really difficult. It’s so difficult that if you can live without it you probably should.”
The late, great Gore Vidal put it a bit less gently. An interviewer once asked what he’d say to writers who struggle with the craft.
“What would I say?” he asked, as if astonished by the question. “I’d say, ‘F— off; there too many of you already…’”