Revisions, Scars and Our Original Face

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Many people, entrepreneurs in particular, are fond of saying that they’ve “re-created” themselves or that they are “self-made.”  While reinventing yourself can seem spectacular, I tend to believe Tolstoy was right when he said, “True life is lived when tiny changes occur.”  Even the self-made woman grew, cell by cell, thought by conviction, into the self she proclaims as “brand new.”

Many people, entrepreneurs in particular, are fond of saying that they’ve “re-created” themselves or that they are “self-made.”  While reinventing yourself can seem spectacular, I tend to believe Tolstoy was right when he said, “True life is lived when tiny changes occur.”  Even the self-made woman grew, cell by cell, thought by conviction, into the self she proclaims as “brand new.”

As a writer, I pursue regeneration in the form of revision.  When I teach, I tell writers that revision is not tinkering, but rather the work of allowing your piece to reveal itself to you in its wholeness and subtlety.  In fact, many times revision turns out to be nothing less than bringing the work fully into being.  A good deal of revision turns out to be listening and waiting for the phrase or edit that is just out of reach.  Like an old-fashioned doctor or nurse, we must sit with the work, watching for what it can teach us about itself.  We are midwifes to our writing, I tell my students, not mechanics.

As a woman “remade” in part by cancer, surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, and more recently by a total hip replacement (necessitated by the aftereffects of cancer treatment), I am interested in regeneration.  Could biomedical engineer one day insert a starfish gene into breast tissue and allow women to regenerate what they’ve had to sacrifice on the altar of staying alive?  Could necrotic bone tissue be taught to grow again?

Curious about how far I could carry the metaphor of remaking, I did a bit of research to see to what extent the human body recreates itself.  Most of us have heard some version of the “fact” that the human body completely replaces itself every seven years.  Turns out this is not the case.  The latest research (or at least the most recent that’s been popularized in media outlets) comes from Jonas Frisen in Sweden and supports what scientists have known for a good while now:  different cells replace themselves at widely differing rates depending in part on how much wear and tear they receive.  Some quite slowly, others (like our gastric lining) every several days.  (Nicholas Wade, NYT, Aug. 2, 2005)

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The friends that have it I do wrong

Whenever I remake at song,

Should know what issue is at stake:

It is myself that I remake.

One of the most infamous of revisers, William Butler Yeats, wrote this quatrain in defense of his continual rewriting.  Like Yeats, I believe in remaking the self.  And in my writing as a means of self-creation and self-understanding.  Revision, then, for me as it was for Yeats, is at least in part a “coming into being” of the work.  A form of growth and refinement that takes us as writers (and people) closer to the heart of what we want to say (of who we are meant to be).

I often use the Buddhist phrase “original face” to speak of the poem that waits beyond our revisions.  Revising, we move word by sound by image, incorporating contradictions and associations, toward a wholeness only glimpsed in our early attempts to get something on the page.

What relationship does the remade self have to the “original” self?  If we assume that the “original” poem is the first flash of feeling or first splash of words, we will not allow time and space for the poem that embraces as much of possible of what prompted that first flash.  On a physical level, if I assume that my younger self or some image of that self is my “original” self, I deny that my original face contains every version of the body/face I have experienced so far, as well as those I have not yet known.

I am/am not the five year old who played in that sand pile.  (A sand pile inexplicably built right next to the gasoline pump where my grandfather refuels all his farm equipment.)  I am almost completely not her on a cellular level (which for me is where metaphor begins).   Toward what kind of wholeness am I being revised?  Toward what does my writing (as expression of being) aspire?

So far in their research, the Swedish scientists have found that cells in the brain and in the heart may persist for a lifetime.  Brain and heart, I am still in some ways that girl — not fully realized yet, but all there from the start.

Original face embraces duality — what might be and what has not yet been, what is gone and what is here, what is us and what is not, the absent breast, the hip implant.  Writing and revision teach me that the process of “remaking” is real — every scar a story to be held fast or shared, a healing accomplished or not quite achieved.  At its best, writing clarifies us and enlarges us toward what we may never fully become.

see also The Scar Project

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One Comment on “Revisions, Scars and Our Original Face

  1. Howdy! This post could not be written any better!
    Going through this article reminds me of my previous roommate!

    He constantly kept talking about this. I most
    certainly will forward this post to him. Pretty sure he’s going to have a very good read.
    Many thanks for sharing!

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