Revising in a Tumultuous World

For the past decade I’ve been an ardent champion of revision, in my own and my students’ writing, consistently reflecting and blogging about it and finally collecting my thoughts in a book, Living Revision, due out this August. To many people the realm of revision seems rarified, even masochistic. When I pitched my book at a writer’s conference, two publishers laughed at me outright. My mission is to overturn this stereotype, to crack wide the experience of revision and make it accessible to everyone who writes.

Since the presidential election, however, I’ve come to think of revision as a coping skill—one we all need to navigate these tumultuous times. Writing is a means to develop this skill.

Revision is basically re-vising, or seeing again. The word closest to revision in English is respect. When we look a second time, then a third, fourth, and fifth, we come to know and love the complexity of what we see. There are many facets to any subject, and revision asks of us the forbearance, humility, and creativity to seek out as many facets as possible. Revision demands we put down our initial understanding of a subject, which inevitably stereotypes (our “single story,” as Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche puts it), and humbly welcome other perspectives. Revision is the process of discovery.

When an initial draft stinks, revision gives the writer a chance to push against that failure, to reconfigure it or reject it in favor of a brand new start. When an initial draft shines, revision asks the writer not to be complacent but to keep exploring—to find what else might shine within the scope of the project. Writing is revision, so many writers claim. What they’re saying is that the essence of writing is exploration, listening, discovery, truth-telling, ever-increasing freedom, and the journey toward wholeness. “I think in terms of revision,” Diane Glancy writes, “because I have been revised… I desire to be rewritten, so to speak. Don’t leave me as I am has been a way of opening prayer.” Revision, then, is a movement toward open-heartedness.

Isn’t this exactly what our country needs? We can’t go back to a pre-global-warming environment or coal energy or the white-washed world of the 1950’s or even to the hopeful but complacent liberalism of Obama’s era; we can only look directly and ever-more clearly at what is, and build from there. We need to revise, not regress or repress or restore. We need to see again, and again, and even then, stay open to seeing again.

Any of us can practice this on the page. We can exercise our revision muscle in private and then bring it to bear on our public agency. The amazing consequence, as Glancy shares, is that we get revised in the process. And this is what ultimately matters.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew



Do you live in Waukesha or Marinette, WI?  I’ll discuss incarnation, Christianity, and bisexuality at noon on April 5th at the University of Wisconsin–Waukesha and at noon on April 6th at the University of Wisconsin–Marinette. Please join me!

Kate Kysar’s anthology, Riding Shotgun: Women Write about their Mothers, has been re-released in paperback from the Minnesota Historical Society Press.  I’ll be reading my essay, “Enough,” at Magers and Quinn on April 22, 7-8 p.m.  Please consider giving Riding Shotgun at Mothers’ Day this year.

Second Fridays; 1:30-3:30 p.m.:  Spiritual Memoir drop-in sessions, Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.

April 14: Living the Questions
May 12: The Natural World
June 9: Looking Back, Seeing Again



October 2-6, 2017: Alone Together: Living Revision at Madeline Island School of the Arts.

September 24-28, 2018:  Alone Together: Living Revision at Madeline Island School of the Arts.

2 thoughts on “Revising in a Tumultuous World”

  1. Elizabeth:

    I have been participating in your Wisdom Ways monthly spiritual memoir sessions since February. I ADORE those Friday afternoons. I imagine that you receive a lot of fan mail and thus, do not expect a response, but felt compelled to share a few of my thoughts in response to your current blog on revision.

    I was struck by how your how much your reflections on revision as a coping skill resonate with the principles I teach about reframing as a tool for developing resilience. I volunteer at Pathways, a health crisis resource center in Uptown, where I facilitate a group program called Renewing Life Through the Expressive Arts. In one of the modules, we help participants learn to identify old unconscious beliefs that limit them or cause suffering. We teach how to instead choose and state beliefs consistent with their chosen values. By doing so, they experience the same events through reframed lenses—usually with open hearts—which offer opportunities for growth and a sense of wholeness. They give up the single story, revise, and discover. Reframing is the process of creating their own reality.

    I thoroughly enjoyed this experience of noticing how spirituality and wholeheartedness transcends the language and practice of various professions, disciplines or trades. Whether viewed through the lens of a writer, coach, teacher, plumber, or even baker, it’s about our shared humanity and going deeper.

    1. Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

      Dear Katherine,

      Thank you for sharing these connections! Your reframing work sounds wonderful, and very similar to the healing that happens when writers begin reworking their memories. I always figure that, if we have the skills to separate ourselves from a hurtful story frame and create a new, healthy frame, we can apply these skills to other things as well–our communities, organizations, governments… Thank you for sharing your enthusiasm and reflections.


Leave a Comment