Fear of Revision

By Julie Wu

My roommate once made a clay pot in art school.  Threw it on the wheel, drew up its walls between the tips of her fingers, fired it, glazed it.  When she and her classmates held up their finished pots, gleaming and beautiful, the instructor led the students to a pit and ordered them to throw down their pots.  The point was, he said, not to become attached to a particular piece of work.  You can always make more.

Some students cried.  My roommate was traumatized, still bitter about the experience years later when she told me about it.

Hearing her story made my stomach twist.  I had written a few short stories, and they were my precious babies, conjured up as I sat cross-legged in the dark in an apartment overlooking the Hudson River.  My stories were praised in student workshops, but their strengths were no more robust or reproducible than the street lights’ glinting on the water’s surface.  Even after the literary magazine rejections came in, I revised only a sentence here or there, hoping that would be enough.  Because I was afraid that if I revised more, I would ruin what was good and never get it back again.

I was one of those art students, crying and clutching my pot at the edge of the pit.

Here’s the thing: that instructor was right.  It has taken me ten years to understand that.  Make one beautiful pot–maybe you were lucky.  Make another from the ground up, and another, still more beautiful, and you are an artist.  It takes practice, study, the making and smashing of many pots beautiful, average, and ugly, to really know that clay, to know exactly how to push your hands into it to get what you want.

It took me ten years to understand, because it has taken me ten years to write my first novel.  I have revised it countless times—a little when it first didn’t sell, then more and more.  Eventually, I changed its structure, its point of view, its tone, its style.  With each revision I received comments and started over, page one.  Each time, I learned more, until I could revise without fear.  And it was then that I sold the book.

In writing we have a safety net: the computer.  Open a new file and you have smashed your pot and kept a picture of it at the same time.  How to proceed at that point is a study in humility, in open-mindedness, in self examination.  It’s remembering all the advice you read about in the craft books—that you must have an interesting protagonist, a need, lots of conflict—and admitting you need to take that advice yourself.  It’s hearing all the feedback from your readers—that the protagonist is unsympathetic, that nothing happens, that what happens is implausible—and admitting that they are true.  It’s realizing that there’s power in depth, and that depth is a function of your narrative arc.  It’s an equation of equal parts emotion and mechanics, and it’s fueled by that elusive beast, imagination.

After so many years, book one is almost done.  I’m thinking about book two.  I’ve got clay in my hands again, but I feel different now.  Because I’m not afraid.  Because I know now I can make a pretty good pot.  And because if it doesn’t turn out well, I don’t have to cry.  I can throw it into the pit, and make something better.

Julie Wu’s novel, The Third Son, which will be published by Algonquin Press in 2013, won a short-listing in the 2009 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Novel-in-Progress Competition and will be published by Algonquin Books in Spring, 2013.  The Third Son takes place during the tumult of post-World War II Taiwan, where the disfavored son of a Taiwanese politician fights his brother for the woman he loves and for the chance to make a life with her in America.

Her short fiction has won honorable mention in the 2010 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Contest and has been published in Columbia Magazine.  Also a physician, she has published creative nonfiction in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).  She earned a B.A. in Literature from Harvard and spent a year studying opera performance at Indiana University in Bloomington, many lifetimes ago.


  1. Diana Renn says:

    Excellent post, Julie. I relate a lot; Book One took me about seven years. It can take a long time to learn to let go of what’s not working, to re-envision and reshape. I’m wondering, though, what do you do with all your pottery shards? I have countless abandoned attempts and drafts, which take up lots of space, both physically (papers) and digitally (files). I thought they’d hold archaeological interest, but I think I’ve moved on and may let them go. I think seeing all the old attempts empowers me at times to plunge forward with the second book, and sometimes it intimidates me, thinking of all the work ahead.

    • Julie Wu says:

      Thanks so much, Diana! Glad you can relate.

      Good question about the shards. My office is stuffed full of them. Raid them for short stories? Have a celebratory bonfire when your book comes out? The possibilities are endless . . .

  2. Kathy Crowley says:

    Julie –
    I love this. Not much more to say than that. It really takes courage and a belief in your abilities as a writer to revise in a serious and substantial way. Scary and worthwhile. Thanks so much for the post.

  3. Donnell says:

    Wow, so, so true! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Lori Parker says:

    What a wise essay! I’m facing a re-write that has me shaking in my boots. Thank you so much for the reassurance. And congratulations on your upcoming book!!

  5. Javed says:

    Julie – I loved your description “their strengths were no more robust or reproducible than the street lights’ glinting on the water’s surface”…very insightful and not something that can easily be taught, only realized. Thanks for the great post!

  6. Robin Black says:

    This is such a great post! I remember when I used to think of revision as a kind of polishing up of sentences. . . You put the reality of it beautifully here!

    Thanks for this!

  7. Congratulations on publishing your novel, and after sweating through the tears and fears and whether or not this or that change would ruin or take out the good along with the not-so-good. You’re an inspiration to the rest of us struggling with a way to form this sloppy clay into a pot. And I love how you said that we need to take heed of those (craft) words to ourselves. It’s so easy to see the need in others’ works, but hard to do in our own. As my grandmother would say, “Can’t see the forest for the trees.”