Street Talk

B.J. Hollars

B.J. Hollars is the author of Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Tuscaloosa (University of Alabama Press, 2013), Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America (University of Alabama Press, 2011) Sightings: Stories (Indiana University Press, 2012) and the editor of three anthologies: You Must Be This Tall To Ride: Contemporary Writers Take You Inside The Story (Writer's Digest Books, 2009), Monsters: A Collection of Literary Sightings (Pressgang, 2012) and Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction (University of Nebraska Press, 2012). He is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Lose the Arm, Save the Body: Revising Revision


It’s the end of the term and I’m trying to teach my creative writing students about revision.

“It’s sort of like...”I begin, though the metaphor soon eludes me. “Or what I mean is,” I retry, “let’s think of it as a...”

I pause once more, dumbfounded by my own inarticulateness.

The eager-eyed students await my sage advice, but I’ve got nothing. Instead, I just stare back at all those faces, wondering if my inability to revise my own words has instilled any confidence in my ability to teach it.

Thankfully, I am not alone in my stutters on the subject.

Revision—by which I mean the careful art of surgically removing or inserting (or on occasion, hacking wildly) at a creative work—is arguably the most baffling step of the writing process. While invention, too, is a mostly magical act, we seem to have fewer troubles describing it aloud.

When explaining invention to students, I usually just share my own tried-and-true technique: tying oneself to a desk chair and refusing to untie for any reason (including bathroom breaks) until the draft in done.

“See?” I say, clapping my hands. “It’s simple!”

The trouble in teaching revision, however, is that it refuses to be tied down. It’s mostly an invisible process, one we intuit but cannot see. Yes, there is an electronic paper trail, but our DELETE key does a fine job of wiping that trail mostly clean. For the computer generation, the evolution of a creative work looks a lot like this: we begin with a bad piece, revise to a better piece, press SAVE, and are then rewarded with the knowledge that we have ridded the world of our first
draft. Our ego is spared, though we find ourselves in a strangely beautiful land with no sense of how we got there, and worse still, no clear path for returning there again.

Equally troubling is the ethical dilemma inherent in the revision process, namely, the writer’s unavoidable conflict of interest: serving as judge, jury and executioner as each word’s put on trial. For days and months (and sometimes years) we serve as sole caretaker to our creation, and then one day—entirely unprovoked—some brutish inner voice demands blood, and we find ourselves forced to tear into the very thing we love. We can try ignoring the voice, but by doing so, we risk someone else revising our work for us. And so, much like young Travis Coates of Old Yeller fame, we heartbreakingly drag our beloved (though likely rabid) manuscript to the woods, stick a gun in its face, whisper, “Sorry, pal,” and pull back on the trigger.


In a recent social media post, an author asked other writers to describe the process of revision in three words. The responses were overwhelming, dozens of writers lining up to reflect on the trouble of revising their work.

“Cut what sucks” recommended one writer, while another added, “Delete delete delete.” Another touched on the self-loathing involved in the process (“I hate myself”) while another alluded to a possible cure for that self-loathing (“Pass the scotch”).

If William Faulkner was the facebooking type, perhaps he might’ve added his own three- word contribution, a phrase he popularized many years back: “Kill your darlings.” It’s a phrase I’ve kept close to me for years, scribbling it on sticky notes as a constant reminder that if the cuts don’t hurt, I’m not cutting deep enough.

If my more garrulous self were given six words to describe the process, I might have written: “Lose the arm, save the body.”

It’s the advice I should have given my students the night I turned silent, confirmation that sometimes what we lose is what saves us.


Amid all this talk of dead dogs and dismemberment, the coward in me wonders if revision might have a more painless alternative. We hate it, not simply for the pain it provokes, but because that pain feels a lot like work. The trouble with revision is that it possesses neither the joy of invention nor the hopefulness of new discovery. Sometimes it treats us to a little of both, though it’s an unintentional side effect. When we sit at our desks to revise, most of us know to expect a long and painful slog, not unlike driving a dulled plow through an endless field. Further, there are no guarantees anything will grow in the very field that once appeared so fertile. Revision is work, sure, but worst of all is that it offers no promise of pay-off.

In his book, Life Work, poet Donald Hall proclaims, “I’ve never worked a day in my life.” Forty pages later he contradicts himself, noting that the “best day begins with waking early,” in which he describes popping out of bed at 3:00a.m. “because I want so much to...start working.” What seems to have changed within the span of these forty pages isn’t the work itself but Hall’s definition of it. “Work”—as he first uses it—implies a kind of physical toil. Thus, Hall has never toiled a day in his life. But in the second instance “work” seems to have taken on a different meaning, a kind of unrestrained creative exuberance burbling over. That’s how I want my work to feel—like an alarm clock we embrace.

In The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop author Stephen Koch dedicates a full chapter to the hard work of revision, arguing that revision (at least in the early drafts) is performed in order to discover the narrative’s shape, the writer taking careful note of the big issues such as character, plot, dialogue and action. According to Koch, revision is far more than a matter of polish; it is a matter of heavy lifting. Sure, you can write a wonderful line in a terrible story, but if the story is fundamentally flawed, no singular line will make up for it. Much like the human body, prose must be worked from the inside out—more time dedicated to the functionality of one’s hearts than the vanity of one’s hair.

Despite Hall and Koch’s efforts toward explanation, revision remains a mostly unspoken art. Perhaps the inability for writers such as myself to describe it accurately speaks to our own uncertainty, as if our personal method of choice appears too sloppy and mystical to ever be shared with others. For me, revision often feels like little more than luck, happenstance, and a DELETE key locked in a Tango, everyone busily stepping on everyone’s toes, while I—the rhythmless wallflower—steers clear of the dance floor entirely.


When my students next ask of revision, I will say, “It’s like slaughtering Old Yeller or sawing off your arm or tangoing with a couple of strangers.” I will tell them also that revision shouldn’t always feel like work, and if it does, perhaps we’re not thinking about it properly.

“Writing,” I’ll say, “cannot be whipped into submission: by doing so you risk scaring it away. Instead, it must be coaxed, courted, and treated with respect. If it still rebuffs you, then sure, beat at it for awhile—it probably deserves it—but you might also try re-thinking revision as ‘re- envisioning’ instead.”

In an attempt to reinforce this conveniently alliterative argument, I’ll pause, inserting some grand professional gesture (a scratch of a beard or a tug on the Tweed, perhaps).

“Revising,” I’ll explain, “implies that something is wrong and in need of fixing, while re-envisioning means getting to know an old friend in a new way.”

Will the students buy it? I’ll wonder. Is it true?

“All right, look,” I’ll admit finally, “maybe revision is just hard.” But then I’ll revise my answer.