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?
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.