Walking the Labyrinth of Revisions
The Losses and Gains of Revising a Manuscript
I came to the woods to work on my book. I rented a cabin and left my family and assigned myself to three days of revising yet another draft, the sixth draft to be clear, the sixth draft in a year.
I am surrounded by seven other cabins, all equally hidden in the trees, full of people who are also revising books or creating new projects or just looking for a little peace and quiet. I won’t see them. They’ll mostly work like I’ll mostly work, taking short breaks for short walks through the tall grass of the prairie.
This place is accented with various spiritual traditions. Every cabin has meditation cushions. Buddha statues peek out from under bushes. A stone chapel is always open for use.
At the edge of the gravel parking lot, a steep hill slides into a lush valley. Aisles are cut into the tall grass in a circular pattern — a labyrinth — offering visitors another place to reflect.
That’s all I know about the labyrinth. I’m an inconsistent yogi. I’m a meditation quitter. I’m an atheist. But I am a writer, and I know plenty about reflection. And right now, I could use a little; I have hit a wall in my book revisions.
The sun is just rising; the coolness from the night lingers in the air and the flowers shimmer with dew. Like the day, I am ready to start.
From the top of the hill, the labyrinth looks like a circle. I believe that I will start on the outside and work my way in: tedious but efficient. As soon as I enter through the wrought-iron archway, though, I notice aisles on the outside of me, as if I have started somewhere in the middle. Maybe I hadn’t used the entrance like I assumed. Then I see the end: it’s an open patch of grass just the next aisle over. Now I’m certain I didn’t use the entrance. I continue to walk in confusion, and the path meanders in the other direction; the ending point disappears from view.
I think to myself, where is this taking me? Of course, it wouldn’t be so easy as to have a direct path. When I sat down to write my book a year ago, I knew it wouldn’t come out perfect the first time. Nothing does. Anything worth accomplishing involves gains and losses. With every new draft, I thought it was nearing completion, perfection, only to find out there was still more work to be done. I got close to the end, then farther away again.
Spiders have spent the night draping their webs across the aisles from flower to flower, and as I wipe a silky strand from my arm, I walk through another. Mosquitos hum near my ears, and I swat the air erratically, yet the hum remains. Humidity seeps from the ground and rises around me; my skin is covered in beads of sweat, enticing more mosquitos.
I’m battling invisible obstacle after invisible obstacle, and I don’t seem to be gaining any ground.
The path winds again and nears the wrought-iron archway where I entered; I consider bailing out, stepping through the grass, leaving the way I came. This is torture. Why am I doing this to myself? What’s the point? Questions I am familiar with; questions I have asked myself repeatedly over the course of the last year as I deleted whole scenes from my manuscript, scenes that no longer fit its evolving theme. Time and efforts wasted, now in the trash. I could easily end my misery and just stop.
But I continue on. There are bailout points everywhere. It’s just grass between the aisles, not lava. I could step out at any point easily. It’s so frustrating to see the end and then to be steered so far away from it, to think I’m close to being done only to find out I’m not. Of course, that’s the point. The end isn’t always where we think it is; the journey’s not always done when we say it is.
Eventually, surprisingly, the path curves again but dead ends into the flat clearing of short grass. I made it. I finished.
There is a collection of stones and a few patches of clover. I feel a sense of accomplishment. I did it, stuck with it, saw it through to the end. I pluck a piece of clover as a token of my accomplishment, to prove that I made it, I had been here, much like when I completed my first draft and could now say I wrote a book. I finished. I reached a point of pause; I looked at what I had and thought, this is complete, but it’s not done.
Then, of course, there is nothing left to do but turn around and go back the way I came, like how revising means starting back at the beginning and working my way through again.
It is easier going out. The cobwebs had all been cleared, and I knew how far and how long it would take, unlike when I headed in. I still feel plenty of pangs of why bother finishing this? What is my reward? What would I have to show for it? I gripped the flower in my hand. Plenty of times I considered throwing it aside. Why am I holding onto this?
And then, just as abruptly, the wrought-iron archway stands ahead of me, leading me to freedom.
I end in the same place I began, only now sweaty, exhausted. I accomplished nothing. I walked in a circle for an hour. Anyone else might consider that, at the very least, a waste of time, at the worst, an act of insanity.
Devoting myself to anything always feels like an act of insanity. It’s impossible to know if something will be worth it; sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. But I can’t finish anything I don’t start. I can’t finish anything I give up on.
Writing has always been a form of meditation for me. It clears my head. It tests my patience. It challenges me to try new things. I don’t have anything to show for it exactly. I’m not a published author; I’m not making money from it and no one knows who I am. But does that mean it hasn’t been worthwhile?
When the writing isn’t going my way, when an essay gets rejected from submission, I want to discredit it all as a waste of time. But the labyrinth reminds me there is no such thing as a waste of time.
Back at my cabin, I place my clover on the table; it has become a sign of my resilience, of my determination, of my devotion. I sit down in the chair and open my laptop. My book is not yet finished. I have plenty of writing ahead of me.