You Must Revise Your Life

You Must Revise Your Life

by Carrie Heimer, May 2016

You look beautiful. You really do. You are shiny and pretty and happy and smiley and excited and proud and you’re dressed in all this red. Truly, you look totally amazing. You are beautiful. And that’s why my last gift to you is going to sound a little weird, but believe me when I tell you it’s the best gift I can give, and it’s going to be a relief to admit it without any pretending, and just sit here with this fact for a few minutes. Are you ready? Here it is, and I’m willing to say it straight to your face: You all are a hot mess. Utter basket-cases. (Whew! Doesn’t that feel good? So liberating. Let’s just bask in that for a second. Ahhh, hot messes.)

And do you know why? Because you think you’re the only one who doesn’t have it all figured out. You think every other person in the arena has their plans together and their goals organized and color-coded, and they feel settled and focused and purposeful, and that’s patently false. They might be able to say fancy words and repeat their answers when all these sincere people who are crazily in love with you and your potential ask those terrible questions about The Next Step. But even the people with the best-sounding plans are also total wrecks. And that’s NORMAL, because you don’t know if this will work. This whole Be An Adult thing? Sounds highly suspect.

You’ve never been where you’re going, so how are you supposed to trust that a billion little pieces will come together and you’ll wind up with this Actual Life that you like? Especially when it feels like every action is some irreversible choice, and every step you take closes a door? One of you put it really well in a memoir for Brit Lit: you said you feel like you’ve been living in pencil, and suddenly you’re being forced to live in pen.

I’m here to let you in on a life-changing secret and vital truth you are only just now finally old enough to process: not one adult you know lives in pen. Not one of your parents lives in pen. Not one of your teachers or administrators lives in pen. Not one of your admissions counselors or future employers lives in pen. No one on the planet lives in pen. This whole messy and marvelous experiment is in pencil. If you’ve worked with me in class over the last couple of years, imagine your most insane draft and the comments you and I and your readers scribbled all over it. It was so covered in afterthoughts, changes and additions that you could hardly make out what it originally said. THAT is your life. That’s what you’ve been doing, and that’s what you’re going to continue to do. So here comes the title of my speech, which I credit to the poet William Stafford, and the idea that’s going to bring comfort and freedom to the chaos of your next few decades: You must revise your life.

There are terrible clichés that try to convince you the things that happen to you are permanent and indelible stains. The worst and most potent may be, “Life isn’t a dress rehearsal”, but what you must understand – or be desperate forever – is that it IS, and that’s ALL it is. Your life is only and always unending and constant rehearsal. It’s being able and allowed to say, “I botched that completely. Can I try again?” and “That didn’t go how I hoped. I would like a rematch.” Certainly there are some things you can’t take back, actions that have lasting consequences, but those aren’t as frequent as you think and usually those are the culmination of dozens of other smaller actions that were so little most people would forgive them and let you try again. 98.6% of the time, the others in your scene will say Okay, and, Yes, Please, when you ask if you can revise, and I can tell you why. It’s Big Secret #2: there is no audience.

You’ve somehow come to believe there’s this grand crowd scrutinizing your every move, checking your performance against a script, only too happy to criticize when you miss a cue or flub a line. But here is your freedom: there is no one big objective and faceless mass watching. The only people watching are on stage with you; they’re part of the play, too, with their own scenes to think about (and that includes every person in the stands tonight). And when you ask them if you can try again, most of the time they will say YES, because they also need to try again.

Revision – re-vision – is about re-seeing. It’s making adjustments as you go because you have in mind an idea of what this might become. You have a rough vision of what you’d like to make, and when you take a step that doesn’t seem to match, or have the sort of impact or result you hoped, you go back to the moment where the step occurred – that conversation, that silence, that choice – and you try it again. But with changes. And if you can’t change it, you let that experience change you as you continue to collect information. If you will do this as you go, by small degrees, you won’t have to make a radical overhaul or toss out an entire draft once you are years off course and far removed from how you wanted things to turn out.

For instance, you’re allowed, as you go, to revise your view of yourself. You aren’t condemned to be who somebody else thinks you are. You don’t have to be perpetually ashamed of the things you said as a freshman, or what you did as a sophomore, or the picture you posted as a junior. Revision gives a little grace to those younger you’s. Revision says, “You didn’t have all the information. You weren’t as mature then. You would handle that differently now. Why not try this new approach?” Revision means you can drop the baggage of old mistakes and incomplete ideas that embarrass you and move forward experienced, but unencumbered. It doesn’t mean you’re not accountable. It’s not asking for all consequences to be erased, but it is trying to see an alternative that keeps more consequences from piling up. It allows you the opportunity to take on challenges that might have scared the “old you.” It invites you to try on new perspectives and find the one that is the best you can see at the moment, without being stuck to an opinion forever just because you said it once on facebook.

You’re also allowed, as you go, to find another meaning or use another lens in how you see each other. You have the freedom to revise your view of the people around you. You don’t have to be the victim to a grudge for 20 years. You don’t have to decide somebody meant to harm you. You don’t have to commit to believing that person can never change. You don’t have to wind up a bitter old loon some day. Revision says, “I don’t know everything about her life. He may have had reasons I didn’t understand. She may see things differently now. He was probably just trying and failing at that time.” Revision can go a long way to curing bitterness because so much of revision is about forgiveness – forgiving yourself and others for not being perfect in the process.

Let me be clear: Revision is not delusion. You’re not scratching a lie over the top of truth. You’re not ignoring reality. And you’re also not living without commitment; you’re not abandoning a hard topic for a totally new subject just because this one takes work. Revision means you have the option to look at the same hard topic in another way, to explain it using another frame, to reshape meaning that is still valid. And you owe it to your commitments and relationships to offer and to ask for second chances, third, fourth, and fifth, as you go.

Revision certainly isn’t the easy way out. It’s a serious challenge because you can’t hide all your mistakes if you’re going to revise. You’ll have to let go of stubborn pride and blame, and you’ll have to let some of your stuff hang out there and be authentic about what you want and what you need, and that involves trusting other people. Not every person you meet will allow your revisions, and they don’t have to. Other people have the right to refuse. But that doesn’t mean the revision itself is impossible. It just means your do-over might not be in the same location or with the same person.   Nothing is ever done, but sometimes it is due. This is true for you, too.

So if it’s all this work, why bother to revise at all? Ultimately, it’s so that, at the end, when it’s due, you can own Raymond Carver’s “Late Fragment”, a short poem he wrote the very same day he died. It was the only thing he didn’t get to revise, and he didn’t need to. If you will revise, as you go, you can say this when the whole thing is due:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

Congratulations on bringing your draft this far. Now go make it better.

The Power of No

The Power of No

by Carrie Heimer, May 2012

To earn your seat here tonight, one of the required classes you took was British Literature, and that means nearly all of you experienced the YES/NO essay system where each essay earned either a YES – 100% – or a NO, a big fat zero, and you had chance after chance to write your way to a YES during the semester. Now I can only imagine that the reason your class asked ME to speak is because this is your favorite grading system EVER, and most of you probably know I caused it. So let me just say first: I could not get Mrs. Kraska to let me go through your diplomas and mark them each with a YES or a NO. You can celebrate right now the fact that everyone here tonight is getting a YES. (You may clap for yourselves).

I suspect, for many of you, the essay that finally came back with that first YES on it was just as important to you as your actual diploma will be, and I want to take a few private moments while we’re alone like this, in a quiet and intimate little gathering with no one watching us or recording anything we say, to tell you WHY.

Like the diploma, the essay that finally got the YES matters to you because it was a legitimate accomplishment. It was not a participant ribbon or a consolation prize. It wasn’t a party favor, and it certainly wasn’t a guarantee. You did not get it just for having a pulse. That YES was the real deal. There was a concrete expectation you didn’t meet, and then later you did. That YES means you grew. You made measurable progress. Your ability changed. YOU changed, and that is tremendously important because it means you are not stuck and you are not stupid. You worked, you learned, and it showed. And all that valuable stuff would never have happened, in fact could never have happened, without that most beautiful and glorious word: NO.

You need NO. More precisely, you need what happens to you when you hear NO. There are 4 monumental effects of No I want to share with you, and they lead up to a choice, so listen for it.

First, No is the catalyst for reflection. It’s the word that helps you stop and contemplate what just happened. It’s a moment of pause in a world that keeps pushing and pushing with a frantic GO GO GO. No says, “Wait here for a minute. Let’s think this thing through.” And you need that pause. Based on years of reading your essays – about 10 of you have literally written 50 essays for me in four years – your first ideas are not your best ideas. Neither are mine. The first drafts of this speech had long, convoluted references to my favorite dystopian novels by Huxley and Orwell, and a former student who read it for me said, “That’s out of place. Try it again.” Trust me, this version is much better. NO gives us the time and the incentive we need to sift the gems out from the jumble.

No is also the catalyst for creation. It’s the word that spurs you forward to invent a new solution because there’s a problem to provoke it. No says, “Get past your old assumptions about what used to work. Lift up your head and look around for a fresh perspective, a new insight.” You need this, too. You’re a creative lot. You’re a class full of emerging photographers and painters and graphic designers and poets and scholars and dancers and potters and engineers and carpenters and chemists and politicians and maybe, if you’re very lucky, even teachers. You need the inspiration to create, and if you haven’t figured it out after four years of lit classes, that inspiration often comes from struggle and difficulty. No is the source of most of the best novels and poems. No puts up a wall and says, “Now what?” and the answers are some of the most important ideas in history. I’m a better teacher because some of you were really hard to teach. You said No with your disinterest or your preparation, and I had to find another way. Next year’s seniors will get a better Heimer because I had to get creative for you.

Beyond creation, No is the cause of evaluation. It’s the word that prompts you to appraise the true value or worth of something. If there’s no real cost or delay, if something comes free and easy, you lose the motivation to appreciate it. There’s no compelling reason to treasure something that was free and required no pursuit. You can’t chase something that doesn’t run, and if you never chase it, you never have to question whether it’s worth chasing. No says, “Is this really worth the trouble?” And if your answer is Yes, then the achievement is all the sweeter for what you poured out to get it. My husband and I had to work to find each other. It took us six years of dating and we broke up three different times, by my count, before we got it right, and every time, we each had to ask on our own, “Is this worth it?” We decided, independent of the other, that it was, again and again, and that’s why I trust our marriage. It was something hard, and we’ve said No to each other a lot, but that made offering Yes a huge celebration for us and for our friends.

Closest to my heart, No is the source of compassion. Compassion means to suffer alongside, and you can’t grieve with someone when you don’t know how loss feels. No is the word that hurts enough to jar you out of your complacent belief that everything revolves around you. And once No rings your bell and rattles your cage, you have the chance to see people around you a little more clearly. You have the chance to feel with them, and then to act on their behalf. You have the opportunity, even the responsibility, to care for someone because you have been where she is, and your own No’s have shown you there IS a way out. I know a few of you very well. You’ve cried in my room, sometimes giving me warning even scheduling appointments for your meltdowns. You chose me for that because you thought I’d understand, and mostly I have. You could fall apart in front of me because you knew I’d experienced the same kind of No, and that I’d care about where your pieces fell and might even be able to help you fit them back together. I can’t do that for you without No in my own life. I can serve you because of No.

When you put all these results together, and look at reflection, creation, evaluation, and compassion in a group, you start to see a pattern. Without No, everything human disappears. So you could say that No demands you make a choice. What kind of human are you going to be? When No diagnoses your depression, are you going to crawl under a rock and forfeit your hope forever? Or are you going to reflect and discover you can still be whole even when you need help? When No takes away friends or family members, are you going to drown in your grief and lose yourself completely? Or after a period of sorrow, are you going to create something so others see they aren’t alone in their losses? When No comes at you in disrespectful and damaging treatment at the hands of others who don’t honor how valuable you are as a human being, are you going to sell your soul that cheap to someone who doesn’t want it anyway? Or are you going to evaluate your actual worth, and when you affirm that you are in fact priceless, move forward to help others recognize the same about themselves?

No is a permanent part of your story, but it doesn’t have to be the final word. You do NOT LET NO WIN. You don’t hear No and sit down in defeat at the brick wall. You build stairs, or else you start digging. You invent a catapult, or dynamite, for that matter, but you get over, under, around or through. You matter too much for No to stop or stunt you. No should push you into strength and smarts and courage you didn’t know you could have.

No has one more result, depending on your choice. No can make you interesting. PLEASE – as a personal favor to me – be interesting. Please don’t be the boring man or the empty woman at the dinner party where other guests roll their eyes at each other when they see you coming and have secret signals that mean “Get me away from this person because he’s boring me to death!” Being interesting isn’t that hard. You just have to have a story. It has to be your own story, and you get your own story from facing up to No. If you’ve taken Creative Writing, you know stories don’t exist unless there’s a conflict. There’s no play if the character wants something and gets it right away. There’s no Hamlet if Hamlet wants to kill Claudius, walks off and does it in Act I, Scene 2, and goes for ice cream.

I want your story to be interesting. I want you to be the character who struggles up to meet the master on the mountaintop, not the character who stumbles on the genie in the bottle. Getting your three wishes without any work never turns out well. It’s a sure road to ruin, and I don’t want you ruined. I like you too much for that. I’m confident you’ll get plenty of No, and it’s even a good idea to say it to yourself once in a while – now your job is to go and make good use of it in reflection, creation, evaluation, and compassion, and then to tell the story.

Now, enjoy your night of YES, because they don’t come around that often.