Sometimes You Have to Break It So It Can Come Back Stronger By Amy K. Nichols
A friend called a while back, wanting feedback on a story she’d written for a contest. I jotted down notes as she read the piece to me over the phone.
She liked hearing me tell her which lines I thought were good and which bits of dialogue made me smile. She didn’t like hearing me suggest she make some changes, though. Using less adjectives, getting rid of passive voice, cutting that one cliché.
It wasn’t a harsh critique, and I made it clear from the start that I enjoyed the story and thought it stood a chance of winning. But I could hear in her voice that my comments had crushed her motivation to enter the piece at all.
I asked her how many times she’d revised the story. Turns out she hadn’t. This was her first draft. When I asked if she would consider revising it and letting me read it again, she gave me a half-hearted, “Maybe.”
Ugh. I felt awful, but I knew just telling her the story was good wouldn’t help her. If she wanted to win that contest, she’d have to revise.
But, ugh. Revising is hard. We don’t like breaking the things we create.
We get a story idea. We pound it out. We step back and congratulate ourselves (as we should). But there’s a crucial next step that a lot of people don’t take: returning to the work and improving it. I’m not talking correcting typos here. I’m talking about bending it, shaping it, even breaking it.
A first draft is like a broken bone. Sometimes the doctor needs to break an arm or leg again and reset it so it will grow back stronger. It’s an ugly and painful process, but it has to be done.
Just like revisions.
Listen, I know. I’ve been there. Revisions can get ugly. Chapters cut and spliced. Sections orphaned off into a separate file, or deleted altogether. More track changes comments in the margins than there is actual text on the page. It’s grueling. Sometimes it feels hopeless. For me, there’s usually a tipping point where either everything is going to come together or I’m going to toss the whole thing in the trash. This is usually the time I walk away from the computer, throw myself on the couch and cry. Then my husband, in all his wisdom, reminds me about the swans.
One of my hobbies is making jewelry out of PMC clay. A couple of years ago, I decided to make silver pendants for Christmas gifts, but that plan wasn’t going as planned. My ideas weren’t coming together. My hands kept fumbling. The clay got dry and difficult to work with. My husband, sitting near by, heard my grumbling and asked how it was going.
“Awful,” I said. “These totally suck.”
He rolled his eyes. “You always say that. ‘These are ugly. These are horrible. I hate these.’ Then when it’s all done, you step back and say,”—he flourished his arms in dramatic circles—“Oh, look! I made a swan!”
I laughed. But I also though, No, these pendants really do suck. Still, I kept at it. I sculpted them. Fired them. Burnished them to a high sheen, then dunked them in a bath of liver of sulfur and waited.
When I fished them out of the tray, they were black and ugly. Really ugly.
I rinsed them again and set to task buffing the black to silver again, leaving the recessed areas of the designs dark. It was difficult, detailed work. In the end, the pendants turned out pretty good. But they had to go through a lot of ugly to get there.
Ugliness and brokenness are part of the creative journey. A difficult, necessary part.
If I’d left those pendants when they were still tarnished by the sulfur, I’d never have seen them shine.
If I hadn’t revised my novel, it would never have gotten published.
My friend didn’t revise her story, and she never entered the contest.
I could go into a spiel about caterpillars becoming butterflies. Iron forged into chandeliers. Winter blossoming into spring. But instead I’ll just say this: your writing is going to go through an ugly phase before it ever turns beautiful. Let it. Don’t be afraid to break it. It will come back stronger. Just stick with it and see it through to its conclusion. Then, when it’s all done, you’ll stand back and see: you made a swan.
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