revise v. 1. To amend or alter: to revise one’s opinion; 2. To alter something already written or printed, in order to make corrections, improve, or update: to revise a manuscript.

1567, “to look at again.” From re- “again” + videre “to see.” Meaning “to look over again with intent to improve or amend” is recorded from 1596.

purgatory n: 1. (in the belief of Roman Catholics and others) a condition or place in which the souls of those dying penitent are purified from venal sins, or undergo the temporal punishment that, after the guilt of the mortal sin has been remitted, still remains to be endured by the sinner. 3. Any condition or place of temporary punishment, suffering, expiation, or the like. Adj. 4. Serving to cleanse, purify, or expiate.

Think about the connection for a moment.

I’ll tell you how I view this pair of definitions. “To revise” actually means “to enter into a condition that is much like purgatory.” You will suffer. You’ll atone for whatever terrible thing you did in your draft or manuscript or whatever you call the thing you’re revising. If you’re like I am, you’ll make a big mess of whatever you’re revising and then you’ll fall into a weeping, slobbery pile, which (as the symbolism might tell you) will purify, cleanse you of your writerly sins. You’ll lie there in a heap until you pull yourself together and get typing or cutting-and-pasting or whatever it is you need to do. If it’s winter in the Midwest, you’ll take your vitamin D and use your happy lamp and meditate on the fact that spring is coming; with this in mind, you’ll get your goddamn revision(s) done and then celebrate with a bottle of whiskey and inappropriate dancing.

Or maybe you won’t celebrate at all until you get feedback from your boss or your director or your agent or editor or whoever you secretly hope will tell you that your revision is, without a doubt, the most brilliant thing she’s ever read. That it should go into print right now, that [insert name of your favorite press] will publish it right now, and that no more revisions need to take place.


I’ve never been much of a reviser, so you might not want to trust my description of this process. I will say this: I’m becoming more acquainted with revision, and I’m trying my damndest to pretend I’m Joyce Carol Oates, who 1) has no personality; she said so, and 2) thinks revising is “fun.”

Watch this if you don’t believe me:

Joyce Carol Oates Video

If revising is “fun,” I’m missing out on some serious good times. One thing I have in common with JCO is the fact that I don’t know how many things I’ve written. Ongoing projects? Can count them on one hand. But everything? Who knows? (And, perhaps more importantly, who cares?) One thing I don’t have in common with her is that, maybe unfortunately, I know exactly how much money I have in the bank. And it’s not much.

Here’s the thing. I think I agree with what she says about (lack of) personality, assuming that she’s exaggerating. But how can we tell if she’s exaggerating if she has no personality? How do we know?!

What happens to me is that I become my protagonist.

That was hyperbolic. I’m sorry.

What I mean is that I become her shadow; she becomes my shadow; we dance a complicated dance, in which she directs me and I argue with her about how things are going to go. This is really no different than being a kid who has an imaginary friend. It’s just that I’m a grown woman and I hope that my imaginary friend can one day surprise and delight an audience. And, at thirty-something, it’s socially unacceptable to argue with a fictional character in public. Right? (Hence the whole “I’m locking myself in my home office until I finish this” thing that happens.)

Honestly, though, the whole protagonist/me thing is a character flaw. Mine, not hers. Just ask anyone who talks to me while I’m writing or, as one might have it, revising. It might mean that my shadow’s voice is compelling and that people want to read about her experiences, but, alas, my own personality, which is ordinarily pretty strong, you know, with a decent sense of humor and semi-interesting things to relate to others, erodes into some abyss and is replaced with hers. She has her own set of flaws; I remind her of this on a regular basis as I rewrite her story. And so we dance into a spiral that ends. . . where?

I’d love to hear other comments about this (heavily edited) Oates interview. Or “visit,” or whatever the New Yorker called it. Do you know how many things you’ve written? Do you know how much money you have in the bank? Do you have a personality? Is revising fun?

(Disclaimer: I revised this post three times.)