on redoing things

Kevin Kelly: “To make something good, just do it. To make something great, just re-do it, re-do it, re-do it. The secret to making fine things is in remaking them.” Salter said the same thing, telling the Paris Review that he hates the first, inadequate expression of things, that much of the joy is in finding the right words.

I find myself constantly in the process of redoing. If I buy something and it’s not perfect I return it. If I write something and it’s not good I rewrite it. Three days ago I read a book on creativity and there were two contradictory pieces of advice: 1) write like you’re in jail, like you have all the time in the world and nothing to do, and 2) set a deadline. I’m trying to do both.

There are rewards to rewriting: the first draft was so embarrassing I couldn’t bear to let anyone look at it. The second draft is still not great, but the core of the story is there. John McPhee, from Draft No. 4:

Dear Jenny: The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something—anything—out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again—top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time.

I’m working on the third draft now, and it’s starting to feel alive. And it’s getting easier, just like he wrote: throughout the day I have thoughts about paragraphs that can be switched out, plot points that should be reworked. It’s worth doing something as many times as it takes to make it good.


The funny thing is that writing kind of reminds me of love. Dating is also a process of doing and redoing, trying to find the right person and the right relationship. Even if you stay with the same person you have to revise the relationship over and over. Just like writing, it only works if you make meaningful changes.

I started dating when I was 14. I’ve had three relationships of around two years, though they’ve each been on and off, and two of around one year. More first dates than I can keep track of. But I’ve said “I love you” to only three people, give or take, and meant it for two.

When you work out the math the emotional overhead is insane. Still, I’m optimistic. I want to be in it for life. I’m okay with doing and redoing it and redoing something until I get right.

Alexander Chee, from How To Write An Autobiographical Novel: “You write the novel because you have to write it. You do it because it is easier to do than to not do. You can’t write a novel you don’t have to write.”

This, too, reminds me of love. I’ve noticed that whenever I meet someone I like, very quickly I have all the useful thoughts—the appraisal of their flaws and my flaws and the things about the relationship that are broken—and then it’s the feelings that remain, the feelings that drive it forward.

Reasoning reaches a dead end but emotionally you’re stuck: what if, what if? Writing is the same way, where I’m forced to continue because I’m compelled to, stuck on the story like an ex-girlfriend, unable to look away.

The novelist John Keeble argued that the first page of anything should contain the concerns of the entire work. That’s exactly how relationships are. The seeds of everything are in the beginning. It’s just that you can’t always see it.


The last way that writing is connected to love is that I write about love: I resurrect people on the page. I write what might have happened but didn’t. And then I write what did happen. Disguised, of course, only recognizable to me.

You said: You’re in my dreams occasionally and they’re always terrible. Each day you don’t message me I’m equal parts disappointed and relieved. I thank God and then I think fuck you. I’m waiting for this to become a funny anecdote, waiting to be disappointed when you lose your sting and shrink to memory, history. I know the precise tone of voice you’ll use to brush it off two years later: breezy but sincere. One brief moment of madness. You know?

I think the first take is that we can’t control ourselves and are drawn to stupid situations, and the second take is that we can control ourselves, that we want precisely this level of exposure, this exact amount of pain: it’s a controlled mechanism to feel what we aren’t able to feel in our daily lives, and even the dissolution is controlled. I was watching Industry last night and midway through the episode the girl made the boy tell her that he wanted her. He jerked off in front of the mirror and then she made him lick his own come off his fingers. Freud said masochism is just sadism turned on the self. You know?

Well, actually, you don’t know but I do. Because I’m the one writing. I’m the one who’s redoing and redoing it until it’s good.

It’s winter in Park City and I’m thinking about how writing is memory but writing is also exorcism. How I treat it like practice, and how viewed through that lens, it’s okay to fuck up again and again. And again and again and again.