Recently, a piece of mine came out with the magazine Us of America. They’re a new publication, and each issue has a section focusing on a different state in the US. I squeaked in right at the Minnesota deadline with an article about walleye, Minnesota’s (kinda creepy looking) state fish. By the time I submitted it, I’d been working on that piece for about 11 months. For one article. Maybe some of you will raise your eyebrows while others nod knowingly.
Revision is necessary. It always makes a piece better. If you think your first draft is perfect, that’s like saying a construction worker is done and satisfied with building a house after erecting only the frame.
I wrote the first draft of the walleye piece for a food writing residency I was about to attend. The woman running things, Molly O’Neill, said we needed a feature-length piece on anything relating to fishing or seafood. We should talk to plenty of people, fill this story with characters, go fishing ourselves. I tried all of those things, and not knowing what “feature-length” meant, ended up with 10 pages. Single-spaced. I realized how nutty this was on the first night of the residency when everyone was asked to read their drafts aloud for initial feedback. I barely got halfway through before Molly stopped me. I felt so embarrassed. And also like I hadn’t done justice to the my research at the Minnesota History Center or the interviews I’d conducted. I’d thrown it all on the page to see what would stick. But you have to do that before anything else.
Over the course of the two-week residency, I cut and cut and cut. The other folks at the residency along with some guest lecturers helped me see what really stood out about the piece and what was just filler. I went through seven drafts in those two weeks, hunched over my laptop on my bed in the upstairs dormitory. We stayed in Molly’s house, a Dutch-style affair from the late 1700s/early 1800s. It was creaky, and the spiraling chimney wound through the space. I went to sleep every night feeling the press and warmth of the house’s history.
After the residency, I kept revising. Three more drafts. After pitching to eight venues, the ninth–Us of America–accepted it. And asked me to write the introduction to the Minnesota section.
I don’t write all of this to sound like some peppy keep-going-you-got-this-see-what-happens-when-you-stick-with-it? talk. Though if that works for you, yes, that is why I wrote this. I don’t really know why I’m writing about this, all these drafts on walleye of all things. It reinforced for me the power and necessity of revising. I knew the first draft was garbage. That’s what first drafts are. They are the drafts that have to come before your pretty, polished piece. It may be dopey, but it reminds me of sculpting: before the finished product, you have to chip away at the stone. Things look rough and blocky and wonky for awhile, but you keep chipping and chiseling until the form emerges, until what you have in your head is finally there in front of you, the product of your work and ideas.