Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice (Boston, MA: Skinner House, 2018).

As a teacher of writing, I know that revision can be a difficult concept to teach. My students resist it. At least at first. The word revision suggests what is necessary—a reseeing, an opportunity to look again at what has been said, to review our intention and our actual words via a second (or third or fourth or fifth) draft until we get it right. This idea of reseeing—or, as my students consider it, starting all over again—can be daunting and perhaps even paralyzing, but as I hope to encourage my students, such an opportunity might also provide comfort. 

In her book Living Revision, Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew frames the work of revision in both practical and philosophical terms. Revision, she says in her introduction, is “at its core, the spiritual practice of transformation—of seeing text, and therefore, the world with new eyes” (xvi). It is, she insists, “the work of learning to love” (xvii). The book, and its homily of love and transformation and depth, is the natural extension of work that Jarret Andrew has long taught in writing workshops and in other books, including Writing the Sacred Journey, On the ThresholdSwinging on the Garden Gate, and even her novel Hannah, Delivered. A writing life, Jarret Andrew shows us over and over again, is a life engaged at its deepest level. To write clearly is to see clearly. To write well is to question deeply, to explore with curiosity, to wonder. “Every writing project,” Jarret Andrew says, “is an attempt to give words to the unnamable bond between the author’s heart and subject matter” (60).

Maybe that is why revision is so difficult. In our young life, and in our early days of writing, we like to imagine that we will get it right the first time, that we will excel at our work, our relationships, and our life. We may even think that this is what’s supposed to happen, whereas if we change course along the way, if we find ourselves starting over, recasting what we thought we knew, shifting directions, we think our earlier efforts were mistakes. It’s hard to admit, perhaps, that we are evolving selves, continuous works in progress. But if we stick with writing long enough, we inevitably learn that anything worthwhile only comes from careful attention and rewriting. In the same way, if we devote our lives to spiritual practice, we come to know the folly of expecting to get it right perhaps ever. 

This is a tough lesson, and it can be helpful to have practical reminders and guidance. To that end, Living Revision is here to help. The book is divided into three sections: Revising Our Ideas About Revision, Early Revisions and Big Changes, and Late Revision and Completion. Along the way, scattered throughout the book, are sections Jarrett Andrew calls “Toolboxes” that offer practical advice and specific exercises designed to force writers to revise, sometimes by cutting or expanding, sometimes by changing point of view, and sometimes by interviewing drafts or journaling to discover new insights. She often quotes from a variety of other writers, writing teachers, and spiritual seekers, lending a richness to her commentary and helping the aspiring writer see and understand from various points of view. For example, in an early section devoted to determining a story’s center or “heartbeat,” she uses an illustration from the poet Mark Doty of a triangle to illustrate what is spoken, unspoken, and unspeakable about a text (110). The “spoken,” she says, is the “outer story—the external, conscious aspects of the narrative the plot. The ‘unspoken’ is subtext, or what the author wishes us to read between the lines. . . . The ‘unspeakable’ [is] that realm we can sense but cannot name” (110). Using Terry Tempest Williams’s work “An Unspoken Hunger,” Jarret Andrew elaborates even further, offering specific examples of what she means, leading us to examine the idea of the work’s “heartbeat,” identifying the story’s essential purpose. 

Living Revision offers both inspirational and practical advice. Too often, books in this genre can be uplifting but then avoid concrete steps. How do I get there? we readers ask ourselves. Although not a textbook, at least not in the usual sense, Living Revision does provide specific exercises and prompts to help guide readers through their own revisions. Each concept is thought-provoking, urging aspiring writers to deepen their connection with existing drafts as well as to rethink their understanding of revision, and the exercises help address the how-tos of achieving writing goals. For young writers, I have found the exercises to be helpful, and for experienced writers, there is also much to consider, a refreshing change from bare-bones how-to books that do not offer enough insights. 

If I have one critique, it’s that Living Revision is dense. It’s not difficult to read, but it is so full of advice and thoughtful ideas that it can take patience to absorb it all—perhaps this might be another intentional lesson that we writers and spiritual seekers can absorb. Each page is a gem. Each piece of advice, each exercise takes us deeper into the various facets of revision, the goal of which, Jarrett Andrew tells us, “is to move beyond our impassioned, distorted relationship to our material . . . to see it directly, simply. This is at its core a contemplative practice” (180). As someone who works, in her words, “at the intersection of writing coaching and spiritual direction,” Elizbeth Jarrett Andrew has written an inspiring, contemplative work that belongs in every writer’s library.