This Modern Writer: The Importance of Revision by Andrew Ladd

People often meet their future spouses at grad school, but when I moved to Boston for a master’s program I had the express goal of avoiding any serious relationship. I was there for a degree in fiction, I told myself. To get better at writing stories, and nothing else. Which is why it seems fitting that when, after two months, I did get into a relationship, with a woman named Mallory — the relationship I’m still in, four years later — it was my callow obsession with story writing that almost killed it.

The trouble began years before I even met Mallory, actually, during my only adult break-up. Alison and I had started dating a few weeks before my first semester of college, and called it quits again a few more before my last. That pleasing symmetry was lost on me at the time, though, and mostly I drank and cried my way through the gloomy, Montreal winter that year feeling utterly miserable.

What saved me, as graduation approached, was a magazine piece about a school of psychotherapy that asks patients to write about traumatic events in a positive light. The theory, backed up by some promising studies, was that people are basically a reflection of the stories they tell about themselves — that our lives are shaped not by our actual experiences, but by the significance we ascribe those experiences in our larger, imaginary biographies. If you cast a messy break-up as the moment where your life went wrong, said the article, you’ll likely plunge into depression. But if you tell yourself it was a valuable turning point, one that allowed you to grow emotionally, you’ll come out of it largely unscathed.

In practice, of course, deciding not to view a messy break-up as a failure is easier said than done, but in theory the idea that every person is just the sum of his or her tales was one I found very comforting. It seemed to imply I had more power over my life than I’d previously thought.

As an aspiring fiction writer, too, I found the idea compelling. After all, writers spend hours agonizing over pacing, and narrative arcs, and defining moments — and that these things were apparently as important to real life as they are to a good fictional one provided some solace during those dark nights at the keyboard.

But if consciously shaping your life’s narrative really does have the power to cure or to curse, then putting that power in the hands of a fiction writer, someone who obsessively drafts and re-drafts plots all day, is to court disaster. Even the idea that the right events, orchestrated precisely, could make the difference between a happy life and a miserable one — a bestseller or a flop — eventually came to rule my life to the point of stupidity. And that’s what happened with Mallory.

After Alison, and graduation, I felt totally lost. Stripped of my carefully plotted future with her — my fevered adolescent fantasies of our wedding, and the cramped, bohemian apartment where we would live afterwards, and candlelight dinners with our unborn child kicking in her womb — I had no idea how to even start getting my life back on track. (It’s a novelist’s worst nightmare, too: writing an entire draft only to be told in an editor’s memo — the Dear Johns of the fiction world — that the last two hundred pages need to be completely rewritten.)

So on a whim I decided to move to London. My break-up would no longer be a disaster, I told myself; it would be a transition, launching me towards better things. All I had to do was insert a white space, or an asterisk, or any of those other pernicious tools that let writers avoid difficult passages, and suddenly I would reappear in a cosmopolitan new setting, surrounded by new characters and, most importantly, a new love interest to fill Alison’s shoes.

I can see now, though, that I was still suffering from a bad habit all successful writers eventually must kick: a lingering attachment to the “old” story. Many an intermediate draft is ruined in fiction by an author trying to shoehorn new material into structures that weren’t designed for it. Imagine trying to change the killer in a good whodunit. You can’t just ascribe killerdom to a new character. You have to reimagine whole elements of the story.

All of which is to say: my initial attempts at writing beyond that white space were abysmal. Not because I wasn’t meeting plenty of women, but because I was helplessly trying to insert them into the narrative I’d written for someone else. From that first kiss, I had to be able to imagine them in my make-believe bohemian apartment. Otherwise what was the point?

So I tore through date (too boring) after date (too self-obsessed), writing off perfectly lovely human beings after cursory first impressions, simply because they weren’t enough like my original heroine. Even worse were the women who I really could imagine ending up with: the women with the same fiery, feminist convictions Alison had, and the same sense of humor, and that soft-focus smile that left my palms sweaty and my stomach in a knot. With them I would become such a pathetic puppy-dog I was lucky to get a second date. Sometimes I didn’t even get a first.

Gradually, though, my outlook began to change. Because wasn’t I still having a lot of fun going on all these dates? And hadn’t I missed out on the single life being in a relationship all through college? Eventually, I did what I’d been unwittingly avoiding, and settled on a new story — one in which I’d be a swinging bachelor for “a while,” before settling down “somewhere,” with “someone,” to “at some point” start a family.

Later, in my grad school writing workshops, my classmates would have pounced upon such vagueness, scribbling lengthy marginalia about the loss in narrative energy it caused. But internal stories, sadly, aren’t subject to such close scrutiny by your peers, and though I was peripherally aware of the problems I was creating for myself, all those wishy-washy platitudes meant the prospect (if not, ultimately, the occurrence) of a lot of casual sex. So I let them slide.

That, finally, was how I ended up within a breath of leaving Mallory. When I’d moved to Boston it had been with my hazy new story in mind, with visions of becoming a hip, single writer, and of embarking on a rapturous cavalcade of literature-fuelled orgies — not, as I said, of settling down. So when, after two years, Mallory and I still seemed to be in a stable, mature, adult relationship, I was suddenly panicking about having to reject yet another carefully planned story. It wasn’t really time to settle down, was it? Surely this wasn’t “someone,” already? Surely we weren’t “at some point”?

Understand that, even as I thought all this, I knew Mallory was a perfect foil. She shared my cornball sense of humor. She indulged my neuroses with good nature and a keen sense of when to stop. She just seemed to get me, really, in a way no one had for a long time. But she wasn’t hordes of supermodel nymphomaniacs — an unfair standard to hold her to, I admit — and worse, to my narrative-obsessed mind, she didn’t make for a particularly dramatic alternative. There was no grand plot arc here, no exciting climax, not even a formulaic Hollywood sense of destiny. We just met, and got on great, and it all seemed too ordinary — even if it was wonderful — to possibly make for good reading.

Thankfully, alone one night after a few self-enforced days without speaking to her, I came to my senses. I supplicated myself on her doorstep. I allowed her roommate to empty a drink over me. I made things right.

It wasn’t because I’d given up entirely on that magazine article, and I still believe writing about life events positively can be a valuable therapeutic tool — it certainly helped me get over that first break-up. But there’s an important distinction that I hadn’t understood until that near miss with Mallory: rewriting past events is one thing, but if you’re serious about growing emotionally from them, that also means not outlining future ones too strenuously. In that respect, a break-up really is like the white space at the end of a chapter. It can let you bring one section to a sensible close, but it doesn’t do anything for the next — and shouldn’t — except give you room to start it.

So Alison was a first love, and London was a youthful release, and Mallory? I wouldn’t presume to say. The pleasure in life, I tend to think these days, is not in guessing at the ending from the first 20 pages, but in yielding, without firm expectation, to whatever happens next. Perhaps that means my fiction will suffer — or perhaps, with a real story finally unfolding before me, I’ll actually start to get it right.

  • Really interesting idea, about how we want life to conform to some sort of story we have in our heads. I like the lines about how a break-up is like white space at the end of a chapter and about not guessing the ending from the first 20 pages.

  • The pleasure in life, I tend to think these days, is not in guessing at the ending from the first 20 pages, but in yielding, without firm expectation, to whatever happens next. Perhaps that means my fiction will suffer — or perhaps, with a real story finally unfolding before me, I’ll actually start to get it right.

    I want to print this out and hug it. Wonderful essay, Andrew.