On Rewriting and Life

Last December, I was struck with absolute creative inspiration. My kids had been playing with imaginary old ladies and I’d been feeling creeped out about it. But after talking to my mom, I decided to think of them as the kids’ great grandmas, and it seemed less spooky. Of course, that thought began a story…about a girl whose father suffers from serious depression and leaves his family, and the guardian angel grandmothers who return to earth to help her find him.

It was a pretty fun story to write. But I got done with the first draft, and there was little to no voice. I’d caught brief glimpses of her (Kate’s) voice, but couldn’t hold on to it. So after a couple weeks break, I went back to the book, opened up a blank document, and wrote the whole thing over again. With mostly the same plot, but this time the way Kate would say it.

As I wrote I kept thinking, this is beautiful. Wow, I didn’t know I could write like this. The feedback from my CP’s was overwhelmingly positive. I incorporated their suggestions and did some pretty massive revisions. I took risks. I added elements I loved that were unique. I sent it out to beta readers and each one wrote back telling me how it had made them cry, that they loved it. There were still some things that needed fixing. But I could handle that. I revised some more and believed that, other than a spit polish, it was pretty close to as good as I could make it.

Then I got a mentorship with three agented authors. The first one read and had many of the same things to say as my beta readers. It made her cry, it had a beautiful voice, a beautiful heart, an important topic.

But it might be better without the guardian angels.

Um, what?

I balked. I tried to wave away the suggestion. She just doesn’t get my story, my humor, I’ll see what the next mentor says. But I couldn’t get some of her words out of my head. She pointed (virtually, this is all in email) to the heart of Kate’s story, about the loss of a father-daughter relationship to depression and how to love someone in that state no matter what, and said my silly angels were a distraction.

Basically, I needed to dig deeper, get closer to the pain, closer to the heart. Stop messing with the fluff and get serious.

So I decided to give it a try. Taking a paranormal story to a straight contemporary. I changed those two guardian angels into a single grandmother with early dementia. And as I was driving across the country to visit family and working on my story in the middle of the night, I had another burst of inspiration. A way to weave just a tiny bit of magic into this serious, and gut-wrenching story.

It’s hard to say where creative inspiration comes from. Because it wasn’t there in my brain before I typed it onto the paper, but all of a sudden it was in my story and in that moment I just knew, this was the story I was meant to tell all along. Why had I been gumming it up with humorous guardian angels? Underneath all the fluff, there was a much more powerful story just waiting for me to uncover it.

My critique partner raved. I felt extremely confident. I sent it back to my mentor and she loved the changes. But now it was a whole new story. More like a first draft than the sixth or seventh it truly was.

Some of her suggestions required I part with things in the story near and dear to my heart. Things that felt like moments of clarity at the time about what my story needed to be and do. But I changed it anyway, clinging tightly to the last vestiges of my original story. The unique narrating format.

Then the second mentor read it. She too raved about the magic elements, the heart of the story, the beautiful language and voice. But she wanted me to change the narration. It felt like a bridge too far.

No. I’ve taken out the guardian angels. I’ve removed the notebook. And yeah, okay, it’s the most beautiful and powerful thing I’ve ever written. I still can’t believe it actually came from me. But now you want the whole format changed too?

And suddenly my thoughts were swarming with, “Is this even my book anymore?” and “Will I ever be able to write anything else without people tearing it apart and making me rebuild again and again from the ground up?”

The answer to those questions is, of course, yes. But as I’ve waded into the waters of this next revision with a lot of trepidation and angst, I also feel like I’ve gained new insight into life in general.

A lot of times we envision our life going a certain way, and sometimes it does. And it seems pretty good that way. Everyone else seems to like it. We like it. But then something comes and changes everything. Maybe it’s God calling you to something better. Maybe its a sudden tragedy. Maybe it’s illness, a job loss, infertility. Maybe it’s your own conscience whispering to you that there’s something else you’re supposed to be doing.

This story’s good. But it could be better. It could be a lot better. Better than you can even imagine at this point.

And sometimes when that happens, we have to step back, breathe, and then toss that old version of our life in the trash. We have to open that blank document and allow ourselves to fully walk into it and accept all the possibilities it offers. We have to be willing to open ourselves up to inspiration, changes we don’t see coming, to dig into the pain and the heart and all the gut-wrenching moments of our lives and find a way to make them beautiful. To let go of the fluff. So that one day we can look at it and say, “Is this really my life? Did I really make this?” (And of course, the Christian in me feels the need to remind myself here, no you did not. Not by yourself, at least.)

And even when you have this new normal. This new, beautiful, heartfelt, imperfectly perfect normal, it might still need to change down the line. And I hope you’re open to that. I hope you’re willing to let go of the things in your story that aren’t supposed to be there anymore and make room for better things.

I don’t regret a single draft of my story. I was complaining to my longtime CP earlier this summer about my unwillingness to make certain changes because that’s how I discovered the story. How could I change that? That’s what it is. And she gently, and kindly said (and I’m summarizing here) “Maybe you needed to discover Kate’s voice that way, but that doesn’t mean it HAS to be that way.”

And now I see she’s right. Every single rewrite and revision has been like an archeology dig. It’s less about me creating something, and more about uncovering the beauty that was always there to begin with. I hope you can look at your past with the same eyes. None of it has been in vain, even when you’ve had to start over and rebuild from scratch. It all led you to uncovering that better story.

Maybe you’re in the middle of rewriting your life. Or maybe you just got a painful critique from life, God, yourself, whatever. Keep going. Don’t be afraid to rewrite.

I don’t know if Kate’s story will ever go anywhere other than my computer files. She may never make it to a bookshelf or land me an agent. And I’m finally at this place in my writing where I don’t care. Don’t get me wrong, I really want to get this story published. But whether it happens or not, the process of rewriting and revising and rewriting again and discovering and writing this story has changed me as a person. Kate’s story, in its beauty and sadness and magic, has changed the way I look at the world. And I’m not sure I can ask for anything more than that from a book.