My tomato plants seem to have grown a foot while I was at the Glen Workshop. They’re reaching up out of the tops of their cages, and busting out the sides, producing flowers and fruit and causing me to wonder if I wasn’t, in fact, away for more than a week. There is also an evil, prickly weed sharing the tomatoes’ plot. Well, sharing is perhaps a generous word—this weed is at least four feet tall, and has sprung up from some mysterious source since I last saw my garden.
After corralling the spindly growth of my tomato plants back into their cages, and gloving up to hack away at the monstrous weed, I go inside and hug my children again—partly because I have a lot of hugs to catch up on, and partly because I want to better gauge their size, using my arms and the level of my chin to their heads (rather than my sight, which isn’t as trustworthy in these matters).
I’m beginning to think my perspective on growth isn’t trustworthy in any sense. I spent the past week in a memoir-writing workshop, mentored by Lauren Winner, whose own memoir, Girl Meets God, changed my approach to both faith and writing when I first read it eight years ago. Sitting around a seminar table day after day with Lauren and a dozen other writers was bound to result in all kinds of growth (ideally the sort that’s akin to my healthy tomato plants, not the monstrous weed).
And I know I did in fact grow—perhaps just not how I expected. Here’s what I expected: that I would get all kinds of specific feedback on my book project—this part is working, this part isn’t, here you could use more dialogue and less exposition, here I would like to see this character more fully fleshed out, etc. I expected to leave with revisions on my current chapters, moving them closer to “perfection,” and an eagerness to tackle writing the rest of the book, chapter by chapter, following the outline laid out in my book proposal. That, I thought, is what growth looks like.
But on the second day of class, Lauren Winner said this: “Revision means ’seeing again.” Of course that makes perfect sense, so why had I never considered it before, in terms of my writing? Lauren went on to explain that because revision is about seeing again, subsequent revisions do not necessarily look more complete. That is not the goal of revision—the goal is to revise in such a way that helps us see better so we can move forward.
A revision, in other words, might appear more like regression than growth to the casual observer. It might involve rewriting an entire chapter of my book in dialogue, not because I ultimately want a chapter that’s all dialogue, but because I want to be able to see better what’s going on in the situation I’m writing about. It might mean writing 1,000 words from which I extract just one perfect paragraph.
Writing, Lauren said, is a process of getting to the heart of the matter, and discovering Truth.
Now, starting today, I will be writing and writing, not to watch my page-count grow, but to help myself grow. I will be writing not to get further along in the story but to get deeper into the story—to excavate, discover and learn what it is that I really need to be writing about. I’ve been approaching my book and the idea of progress in the wrong ways. My guess is this has a lot to do with why the stress-to-joy ratio in my writing has been all out of whack these past several months. As Lauren said, it is time to give a Valium to all of those questions (especially the questions around publishing) that get in the way of writing what I really need to write.
So did I grow this past week? Absolutely. In some very exciting, dramatic ways. It just might be a while before anyone else can see evidence of that growth, and for now, that’s just fine with me.