Lately I’ve been devoting less of my writing time to drafting new works and more to revisiting old ones, paying particular attention to a collection of essays I wrote during medical school. Over the past few years, my edits and reworkings of a few of them have led to publications in various medical and writing journals. So while there are certainly new topics that I’m eager to explore, I’m going to allow my thoughts on those to marinate while I take another look at my earlier works. Not only do I have a few more years of experience and perspective to call upon, I also have another tool that wasn’t in my arsenal back when I first penned those essays: a willingness to edit ruthlessly.
A few years ago, I attended a writing conference at the University of Iowa. One workshop instructor shared an anecdote that has had the largest impact on my writing of any advice I’ve ever received. Back when she was in school, she had enrolled in a pottery class. After she and her fellow students had completed their first project, her teacher look around at all of them holding the fruits of their efforts and told them to smash them on the ground. His point was this: you cannot grow and improve as an artist if you are unable to part ways with your own creations in order to make room for something better.
In writing, that means editing, revising, reworking, even removing words that you have worked long and hard to put together. Just because you are really fond of a particular passage doesn’t mean that it is necessary or even beneficial to the piece as a whole. This is the advice that I channel as I revisit my own words, or the words penned by a younger version of me. And I have to smile as I come across sentences and phrases that made me swell with pride when I wrote them, the ones I thought were the most compelling and perfect, and I realize now that they are the ones that have to go.
Happily, the passage of time has lessened my attachment to my own creations and has thus given me the opportunity to see how much a piece can improve when I can edit without letting my emotions get in the way. These days, no matter how much a series of words – be it a phrase, sentence, or entire passage – meant to me when I first penned it, if it doesn’t carry its weight in terms of developing the piece or moving it along, it’s out.
It get easier to slash (or smash) your own work the more you do it. When I started using this tactic, I worried that I would later regret cutting out those once-treasured words, so I copied them into a catchall document for safekeeping. I can’t speak for my writing instructor and her classmates who once stood with the shards of their hard work littered about their feet, but I have never once wanted to put my own scraps back together.