Revise your life; nix the shoulder pads

Posted in Duff 'n Stuff

Duff ’n Stuff, Sept. 18, 2012

My good friend Molly Larson Cook, the writer, recently moved off Whidbey Island to Bellevue. I hated to see her go. Molly is one of those refreshing sorts of people who do not suffer fools gladly and I love her for that, among other of her smart and quirky qualities. It’s a trait she carries over to her writing and she, like me, understands that the editing process is probably the most important aspect of writing anything, and a fool it is who thinks revision unnecessary.

Before she moved away, Molly gave me a few things from her cottage that she didn’t want to carry across the water. One item was her small, old fashioned chalkboard, which she used in the original Skylark Writing Studio space in the Bayview Cash Store where she first taught her writing classes on the island. It read: “The two rules for writing: 1. Get the words down. 2. Fix them.”  The words remain in Molly’s cursive, chalk hand on the board, which sits in front of my desk so I can forever be reminded that writing is always a process and that change is good.

I’m thrilled to be able to welcome Molly as my guest with a post from her new blog “Good Golly Miss Molly.”  Here is the divine Miss M, purveyor of metaphors, champion of change.

On My Way to Somewhere

Moving – as in relocating myself and whatever possessions I choose to take along – is a way of my life – my Zen practice, I sometimes think. I’ve done this – moving – more than 50 times now.  A few years ago, I even wrote and performed a one-woman show about it, “On Our Way to Somewhere,” vignettes of women leaving one place for another.

I won’t bore you with the details or the genesis of my relocations – they range from family moves when I was young to moves for jobs, love, college, my children, and once in a while just for the plain desire to get to that new place.  My move to Manhattan in the early 80’s counts in that category as does the move to Maine a few years later. Moves to Ft. Hood, Texas and North Carolina, not so much, although there’s no place prettier than the Carolinas in the spring.

I’m a writer. I teach writing. I teach literature. I live my life with words and, more than that, I live my life in metaphors. I first became aware of this with an “I Am” poem I was once assigned. Now I assign it to my students – a poem to describe one’s self in metaphors. Not that you are like something (that would be similes), but that you are something. It’s an interesting exercise.

While I was packing for my most recent move in early September, I taught a half-day workshop for writers, a workshop about revision and editing.  As a writer, I love the revision process and the editing, and I realized this was the perfect metaphor for my move from a five-room cottage on an island to a two-room apartment in the city.  Not only did I need to rethink what I would keep. I also had to rethink why I would keep it.

“Friday Inspiration,” an oil on canvas by American painter Edward Hopper.

I went through every room of the cottage, measurements for the new place in my head, and evaluated every piece of furniture, every file folder and notebook, each skirt and blouse and jacket in my closet. (I followed my daughter’s dictum on the jackets – “Get rid of anything with shoulder pads.”) I looked carefully at all my shoes, my hats, the towels, the pans, the dishes.

Everything was up for grabs – everything but the books. Over the years I’ve edited the books down to exactly what I need. My books are the throughline of my story and they stay. The old vinyl records I still have all stay, too. Out of a collection of a hundred LPs, I’ve kept a dozen that hit the highlights of my life – jazz, classical, rock. I can name the places and the dates for each one, and I hang onto the turntable on which I can play them, too.

In the writing process, revision comes first – the global overview of what it is you mean to say. Revision comes in large chunks and happens only with an open and honest mind about your intentions. Once these are clear and you’ve sorted through all the closets and cupboards of your work (where you’ve stashed the treasures you just can’t live without), you get to the details of editing. As I worked, I knew that my choices were not just about how much space I’d have in the new place.

The move from two-lane island life back to the city is not small. The city is an entirely different place – more diversity, more opportunities, different choices. New problems, new pleasures.  My decisions had to take all this into account.

Poet William Stafford wrote a book titled “You Must Revise Your Life.”  I took Bill’s good advice as I worked. We writers are so often loathe to give up an idea or a sentence or a particularly precious paragraph, and yet the work would be so much better, more meaningful, stronger without it. Isn’t this about the same when we realize we won’t have room for every treasure in the closet?  And that even if there is room, the story has changed and some of those treasures are simply no longer part of it?

What to keep. What to give away.

I say let our lives be like the loveliest of prose – every word in its place, every choice meaningful to the larger work.  I tell my writing students that every word has to count. As I moved from five rooms to two, every object I packed had to count.  My choices were not the same as anyone else’s would be but they were mine and they speak to my revised life ahead.

This move was about where I want to be and why as the home stretch approaches. It was about letting old ideas and dreams and expectations go and thinking as clearly as I can about my future.  I was not willing to drag along pieces of the past this time that are no longer useful to me – or relevant to my story.

The “I Am” poem that got me started?  Here’s mine.  I encourage you to write your own.

Edward Hopper’s “Automat,” is an oil on canvas painted in 1927.


I am the night sky in winter, a star in Orion’s belt.

I am a church with silences and prayers and bells on certain days.

I am a long haul driver with an empty rig and home no place in sight.

I am the sound of water over rocks.

I am fresh laundry in the wind on a line that stretches into a distance

            I cannot calculate to a place

            I cannot see.

Molly Larson Cook moved in early September from Coupeville to Bellevue, Wash. She’ll continue her Skylark Writing Studio programs, including e-workshops and coaching for writers, from Bellevue.  Read more about Molly at Skylark Writing Studio or contact her at Read more of Molly’s blog posts at “Good Golly Miss Molly” or at “The Flowered Cow,” where she focuses on the art and craft of writing.

Take Miss M’s advice. Make a revision and consider becoming a member of the Source, or encourage your friendly, neighborhood business to buy an ad; we’d like to keep this puppy going.

From the heart,

Patricia Duff




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