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Facing the Mess of Revision

Memoir writer Jen Gaites feels overwhelmed by her son's messy room AND her memoir manuscript. She learns to revise one step at a time.

By Jennifer Gaites

February 09, 2023

My fifth grader is that funny age between grammar school and middle school but he still lets me read to him every night. So, the other night as he wound down, I grabbed a book and went into his room, side-stepping around the detritus of a 10-year-old boy. I tiptoed between legos, a guitar, and dropped towels. And, just before making it to his bed, I tripped over a humidifier and landed hard on a paint set. Then, I kind of lost it.

I surveyed his room, every inch jam-packed: piles of books, a keyboard, three lamps, a lizard, playing cards, two bean bag chairs, crumpled sweatshirts, and video games. Each object delighted and entertained him. Me? I had a headache.

So, I Did What I Normally Do …

I ignored it. The problem was, no matter where I started, organizing his room was going to be a major undertaking loaded with emotional attachment. Every step would lead to another and then another; even the humidifier couldn’t simply be put away … it had to be taken downstairs, cleaned with a vinegar solution, disassembled, air-dried, and then put in the closet. It felt like there were 40 or 50 tasks that needed to be completed before his room would feel organized. And since I didn’t have time for all of them, I did none of them.

Hmmm, Feels Familiar …

My memoir manuscript, it turns out, is the literary equivalent to my son’s room. I spent a year in the Memoir Incubator mining memories, collecting scenes, and writing the beats. Now that I’m in Book Revision Lab, I recognize that my first draft needs a major overhaul. But each individual edit feels like it will lead to so many other changes that I become paralyzed. I feel stuck.

Cue Anne Lamott …

When I set out to write this manuscript, I wondered, “How can I possibly write a whole book?” The answer, Anne Lamott’s oft-repeated advice, is bird by bird. Revision is a one-step-at-a-time process as well.

I received feedback from five readers, thanks to my writing community. I also learned plenty of tips, including one fellow writer’s suggestion to make a list of what needs to be done and rank the tasks by level of complexity. If I have a half hour, I can do a simpler task like a word-use frequency search. If I have a large chunk of time, I can begin a reverse outline. We’d discussed a range of techniques to find a way into the work.

My favorite bit of advice? Every time you touch the manuscript, make it better. One step at a time. Like dealing with a messy room. I just have to find a way in.

Jennifer Gaites is a writing instructor at Project Write Now, and a book inc Peer Artist Leader. Her work has appeared in Literary Mama and is forthcoming in Hippocampus.