"I think you create a good poem by revising your life . . . by living the kind of life that enables good poems to come about. It’s much more productive, much more healthful, to feel you are embarked on a writing career in which the way you live your life has something to do with the kind of poems you write . . . Your life is a trajectory. A workshop may seem, to those who take part in it, a chance to revise the work they bring. I think it’s a chance to see how your life can be changed." ~Wm. Stafford
I've been fairly busy lately suggesting how others might change something they've made to make it the best it can be. This is what poetry editors do, after all, and hopefully with as much humility and mindfulness as they can muster. (For all editors out there? You are my heroes.)
I am new at suggesting revisions for a stranger's words, for lines of poetry that I only meet on the page, in emails, and not attached to a face, a friendship, or even to a speaking voice in a workshop or writing class. I'm newer still at actually letting the big projects in my life (the "BPs," as some writer-friends call them) steer me. Take this anthology: The more I think I have my finger on the pulse of what to expect from it, the more it tends to surprise me. I can't turn the wheel on my own anymore.
This kind of loss of control feels unacceptable to me about 90% of the time, and in more areas than just my writing life. For a mostly Type-A--Enneagram Artist Prototype--INFJ-er, "going with the flow" is not my most natural state. Instead, I plan. I stew. I go for a long walk to sort things out and plan some more. I make color-coded lists. And as my patient husband will tell you, I feel the need to talk through all the what-ifs.
I'm also someone who needs to feel like her life is planting some bulbs of lasting good. So I tend to take on projects that have to be bigger than myself to succeed. To me, more risk equals more worth, more possibility of amazement. Not surprisingly, I expect a lot from others--but the most from myself. This is my nature. This is also--sometimes--my downfall, the reason I "give up" on humanity at least once a month, throwing the covers up over my head and swearing off NPR.
But then, the world calls me out again. There is hope, there is worth, there is dark chocolate and a friend's rich laughter. And there's a new book or new line waiting for my eyes and fingers.
One of the writing/teaching books that's influenced me gently commands in it's title that You Must Revise Your Life. The voice narrating that line is like a whisper coming from a mountain--that's how I imagine it. And up until recently, I carried its zen-like command with me like a shiny worry stone in my pocket. But I mostly applied it to my writing life only--what I needed to clear out or make room for so that I could keep doing what made me me.
Only recently have I learned to see revision--both in writing and in other areas--as something I'm not entirely in charge of (Again, there's that scary loss of control inhale, making my heart beat faster.) In writing workshops, there's often the old mantra hanging in the air that concludes, "Well, it's really up to the author in the end," meaning, this piece of writing doesn't belong to us, not really. And I get that. It certainly is important to learn to trust one's own instincts and vision.
But for me, revision has come to mean holding something I'm learning to love up to the life (ha--there's a beautiful typo!)--up to the LIGHT, then asking more folks to gather with me around it, experiencing through the eyes of others just what it is that I've made. Tell me, friends--what do you see? Tell me, today's version of Becca, what did you hope to make? I don't write just for me in the end, and I hope that I don't live just for me, either. My writing--and life--can only grow with this in mind.
But I'm a slow and stubborn learner. In writing, I'm grateful to have reached a place where I feel like I'm never alone when I revise--the words of creative writing mentors and friends are there, too, circling the poem or essay as it comes into clearer focus, offering up hard and encouraging and very wise advice. I am, more than anything, grateful for this trusted choir that keeps me accountable to my best work and keeps track of my best and worst impulses.
But outside of my writing life, I can convince myself that mine is the only voice and vision that matters. And it usually takes an event that forces me to change, slow down, take stock of what the Universe is repeating. Then I say, "OK. I give up. I'm not in control anymore." And what I re-learn (and re-learn again) every time is this: life goes on when I have to lower my standards, take a break from the striving, even for good-- and the world does not split down the middle.
I'v been living/breathing/sleeping/eating the words and mantras of William Stafford these days for one of my "BPs," and I'm realizing more and more that although I mostly view him as a teacher-- have claimed him as one of my own "Mr. Miyagis," if you will--I imagine that Stafford was writing out these smooth-stoned mantras--You must revise your life; If you get stuck, lower your standards and keep going--firstly, as reminders to himself.