The novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gives a wonderful TED talk about the human inclination to tell a “single story” about others, especially those we barely know. When she left Nigeria for college in the United States, her roommate was surprised that she spoke English so well and knew how to use a stove. “Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity.” The roommate’s single story of Africa was one of tragedy and poverty.
Single stories are the stuff of stereotypes, “and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” The same fallacy occurs in writing. A first draft is a single story. Revision insists that we reject the single story in favor of layered, complex, and contradictory stories. Just as intimacy and awareness break down our stereotypes, intimacy with and awareness of our material break apart our over-simplifications and half-truths. The central work of revision is to discover radical new ways to see the subject.
Isn’t this also the life-long work of personal growth? We’re always breaking apart the containers we’ve made to hold our limited understanding and creating new and bigger containers–ones better able to hold paradox, better able to ask the big questions, better able to embrace the enormity of loss and joy and mystery. With every revision we, along with Adiche, “regain a kind of paradise.”
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Thanks to Jill Mazullo for introducing me to Adiche.
Interested in learning more about revision? There’s still room available in this summer’s retreat, Alone Together: Write that Book!