“When I Was a Runner”: Some Notes on Revision

Yesterday I had a personal essay published at Catapult, a great new journal & press that pays contributors & takes great care of their work. I’m especially excited about seeing this one go live — not just because of its content, which is deeply important to me, and not just because my work now appears alongside some great writers (Padgett Powell! Joy Williams! Mary Gaitskill! Alexander Chee! Jesse Ball!) in such a beautiful & professional publication. No, this piece is especially important to me because of how much I like it now, and how bad it once was. If I ever give a master class on revision, this is the piece of writing I’ll use.

I finished the first draft of “When I Was a Runner” in April 2014. I was sitting in a coffee shop in Savannah, GA with my fiancé — then my girlfriend — and I remember being happy that I’d stuck with the essay, all the way through. At points, what I was writing seemed dull — or it seemed like there wasn’t enough content to consitute an essay, or maybe I just couldn’t decide what story I was telling, or maybe I was repeating things I’d already written. I thought, more than once, that I should just ditch it. This happens a lot. I get a page or two down, and the sad, limp lifelessness of those few pages are enough to make me ditch the idea (or, rather, to store it in a file folder not easily accessible from my desktop). But I fought that urge with the first draft of “WIWAR.” Instead, I strangled it into a something that was interesting enough to keep my attention, to fuel my future revision. It still needed work, but not that much work, I thought. I had no idea.

To me, the word “draft” implies a checkpoint. I might spend days revising a piece, combing through it several times before recognizing progress, reaching a stopping point, printing it out and labelling it a draft. Usually, I think counting drafts is arbitrary and dumb. I’m on what I call the second draft of my novel, but some parts are more like a first draft, while some parts are more like a fourth. George Saunders claims to have written more than a hundred drafts of “Victory Lap,” but he also loosely defined the word “draft” as “a read-through of a story in which changes are made.” My first draft of “WIWAR” might have actually been a fifth or sixth draft, by that definition. It’s never what I first put down, but rather the earliest point I can justify the title — the first point at which I allow myself to imagine it as a piece of writing that might some day live up to my own expectations & might some day draw the eyes of readers much smarter than me.

From April 2014 to December 2015, I went through nearly twenty “drafts” (my definition) of “WIWAR.” I workshopped it with a summer writing group, submitted it to journals, then took it off the market and workshopped it again. After acceptance, I spent another month revising the essay with Mensah Demary, an editor at Catapult. Someone like Saunders might estimate my draft total closer to a hundred.

April 2014 was when I completed that first draft. But of course the essay goes back further than that.

In January 2014, I started drafting an essay about weight — the correlation between my inability to run and my putting on a few extra pounds. Looking back at it now, the first page is somewhat familiar — there are few lines (“the added heft around my waistline”) that landed, in different forms, in the final draft of “WIWAR” (“A small paunch has appeared, evenly rounding my torso, reminding me of its presence with each step.”) But after that first section, I try transitioning to a conversation I had with an ex-girlfriend about weight — about masculinity and muscle, how she said I was the last skinny guy she’d ever date. After that, I offer some general resentment toward “weekend warriors,” then go on to describe, in very poor prose, my eating habits as a runner — a section that, with the exception of an embarrassing confession about the number of Taco Bell Cheesy Gordita Crunches consumed in one sitting, also made it into the final version of “WIWAR,” albeit in much-altered prose.

Sometimes I tell that story [about the Cheesy Gordita Crunches] as if it’s something to be proud of. I can put this in because this is what I put out. This, I brag, is how I burn.

There was promise here, I think, but the draft went no further. The problem, I suspect, was that I was straining to incorporate cultural crticism, forcing the draft into being an essay about gender and body image — a topic worth writing about, for sure, but not one that really interested me, outside the realm of running. I saved the file and abandoned it for months. I don’t remember going back and mining it for parts, but at some point I must have.

I tried again in March, with a flash nonfiction piece I called “Mantra.” I’d been reading Pam Houston’s A Little More About Me, and was fascinated with how quickly she entered and exited narratives, how clear and memorable her essays were. I revised this piece into a much more polished draft, but though I liked it, I never quite felt like it could stand on its own. I saved and abandoned it, but not for long — some time between March 8 and April 20, I went back to it and used it as a cornerstone for “WIWAR,” naming it a section and writing three more to precede it.

This is the first time I can remember building a prose piece like this — approaching an idea from multiple angles in multiple failed drafts, then ultimately assembling it from spare parts. It strikes me as something more common among poets — or lyrical nonfiction writers who work explicitly with fragments — but perhaps not. Perhaps I’m being stubborn when I resist thinking of scenes and descriptions as scraps unto themselves, interchangeable parts.

But back to that first draft that turned into a second draft, and then, with helpful suggestions from friends, a sixth. I revised from April 2014 to August 2014, describing and explaining and reshaping, until I thought I’d found a way to tell the story I wanted to tell. I sent the essay out into the world, and was met with nine straight rejections, almost all of them encouraging.

When rejections start to pile up in the tens, I usually crack a beer, open the file and spend some time reassessing whether the piece is actually done. In most cases, I do a lot of nodding and end up reassuring myself: this is good work, this is work I believe in, this is work I’m comfortable putting out in the world. But in this particular case, I opened the file and immediately started picking at the prose — a surefire sign I’d sent it out too soon.

I cut a thousand words in four successive drafts, then submitted the essay to workshop, where it was well received. Should be, I grumbled to myself. It was February 2015 now. I’d been working on the essay for nearly a year.

I used feedback from my classmates to sharpen a few pivotal scenes, then sent the essay out again that March. The result: five more rejections, before a Catapult acceptance on August 14, 2015.

Finally, I thought.

We have just a few suggestions for edits, Mensah said.

He and I spent the next two months going back and forth in Google docs. He smartly pinpointed areas where the essay still needed explanation — I wasn’t disclosing enough about my relationship with Mike, or I wasn’t disclosing enough about myself, where I was and what I was doing at certain points in time. We wrestled over language. At times, I thought it was a bit much. I mean, I’d been working on this essay — this one stupid essay — for more than a year now. I had a pile of printed drafts that took up half a shelf on my bookcase. I accepted most suggested edits and stood my ground on others. Ultimately, Catapult made the essay better. They helped make it complete.

I’ve always been a sloppy first-draft writer. I’ve always enjoyed the process of revision: corralling the sprawl of early-draft ideas, using those ideas to fit a shape to the piece, adding specificity and vivid detail into each successive draft, taking placeholders and stock images — common language — and making the writing more vivid, more personal, more evocative, more alive. I enjoy both revising ideas — feeling along the wall, blind but attentive, for possible shifts and turns in plot — and editing prose, rewriting sentences ten, twenty, thirty times, however many it takes to get it right. In other words, I am a voracious and enthusiastic reviser. And I have never been tested like this essay tested me.

This past summer, when I was working on my novel and waiting to hear back on “WIWAR,” I wrote a flash nonfiction piece and revised it within a week. The edits were just small tweaks in prose, getting the words right. The arc of the piece — subtle, but not unimportant — didn’t change from start to finish. Neither did the organization or style. In other words, the essay came in less than an hour, written on a whim, and the first draft was not so different than the last. I submitted it to a small contest and received the notification of my win in just a few short months.

When writing comes that easy, it’s a goddamn miracle. Kate Christensen says that a novel is “a tremendous act of will.” I agree, and I’ll take it further: most of the time, my writing exists in its published form due to sheer force of will. I just beat at it until it finally submits.

As if writing — the actual act of writing, of arranging words into sentences that move or inform — wasn’t hard enough, and as if revision wasn’t even harder, we also have to have good judgement: when our writing lacks energy and voice in early drafts, when our hopes are high but our enthusiasm is low, how do we know to give up on it? When do we get stubborn instead, insisting in the work’s potential and molding the thing, draft after draft, until it’s incrementally closer to being a piece of writing we might some day be proud of? When is such dumb persistance worth the risk of wasted time?

I have no answers, except to say that, for me, that fear of wasting time never quite seems to go away. When it’s worth it, I just know. I feel compelled to get the story right, trying it again and again in different forms until I happen onto something that doesn’t bore me. Until I pick and pick and finally uncover a long and vibrant thread just asking to be pulled and rewoven.

And then, of course, the real work begins.