MFA Nugget: Revision vs. Re-Vision

MONTPELIER, VERMONT: “We have this whole thing wrong,” acclaimed memoirist Patricia Hampl told us, jolting the group of eight writing students to attention. We were having a private consultation with the visiting writer here at my MFA residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Patricia, a woman whose prose often is meditative and tranquil, was worked up.

Memoirist Patricia Hampl

What had riled her? The negative perception of revising work she sees in the writing community. “We write a first draft and then we revise it,” she said. “With the first draft we say ‘Write it,’ but with the revision we say ‘Fix it, stupid!'”

The idea that we need to “fix” our prose suggests it is broken, Patricia said, calling that mind-set both “mean-spirited and false.”

“Don’t think first draft,” she told us. “Think generating. And don’t think fix it, stupid. Think re-vision.”

Any piece of prose–or painting or musical composition–has a starting point. After that, we just continue to find new ways of looking at what we’ve generated. I like that.

What are your thoughts?

ABOUT THIS SERIES: As promised, I am posting occasional “nuggets” of wisdom I am acquiring here at my second residency in the MFA for Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Previous posts include “Illuminating Your Story,” “A Window on Your Narrator,” “Creativity and Wasting Time,” “New Year’s Tradition,” “Storytelling vs. Fragmentation,” and “Reading Your Work Aloud.”

27 thoughts on “MFA Nugget: Revision vs. Re-Vision

  1. Oh, I love this. I think it’s the way I intuitively try to frame the process, as well. Any piece has to start somewhere, so I like that she uses the word “generating” for this stage. (A little more positive than Anne Lamott’s “shitty first draft” though I love Lamott and that term always kind of makes me laugh).

    For awhile now I’ve tried to look at the positive aspects of revision built into the very word. Re-vision. Exactly! It’s not about simply “fixing” what’s on the page; it’s an opportunity to clarify the deeper *vision* of the piece. What is our aim with the piece? What are we trying to convey? It’s a more encouraging way to think – that we are expanding the possibilities of the work by refining our vision.

    Thanks for these nuggets, Patrick. I’m eating them up!


    1. Glad you’re enjoying them, Sion, wish you could be here in person for them. It’s such a simple change, the insertion of a hyphen, but it really does change the perspective! (Which is what we’re supposed to be doing in revision.)


  2. I love this idea. I try to avoid any and all negative speak in my classroom as an art teacher. The artistic process can be so naked and vulnerable, the last thing I want is to suggest to my students that the work is failing in some way because it is incomplete! I hope I can incorporate this into my everyday speak as teacher and as artist/writer myself!


  3. This is a great paradigm shift!

    A few weeks ago, a student asked me if I’d had time to comment on his first draft. I responded, “I read it, but it seemed so early in your thinking process that I felt it would be intrusive to make any comments.”

    In “re-vision” terms, what I meant was that he hadn’t generated enough for the piece to be ready for someone else to see, yet. He didn’t have enough of his own vision in it. Had I given him my “new way of looking” would, I would have hijacked his fledgling thought process.


    1. Fascinating, Cheri. It sounds like you gave that student real value.

      Patricia said in workshop she encourages students not to say what they liked and disliked, because she assumes the work will undergo changes. She instead encourages readers to simply state what they saw and what they heard, because that will help the author to re-vision his or her own work.


  4. This is a wonderful way to re-think the writing process. I don’t know that I’ve ever thought, “Fix it, stupid” but I have thought “Fix it.” 😉 I really like the re-vision concept and I think I’m going to take this piece of advice to heart. Thanks for sharing this wisdom!


    1. Thank you, Melissa! I’m very pleased, particularly since I do write a lot about writing but I view the theme’s blog as more broadly the pursuit of creativity and an art-committed life. I was pleased the judging didn’t hold against me that I don’t dedicate every post purely to the writing craft.


  5. I don’t even consider my first draft a first draft. It is the purge, the parts of the car before put together, the baby in the womb being formed. The second draft is the beginning of a story and the third draft is when I begin revising. My stories nearly always begin with a character who has been stalking me, so in the first draft, I am merely getting to know him/her. Yet it isn’t a character sketch, because the character’s story is there; I just haven’t been told yet.


    1. Hi Nannette, I like this notion of the character stalking you (well, I wouldn’t like it if you were REALLY being stalked!). That’s a great way of putting it, getting to know the character and then learning the story.


    2. Nannette —

      I love the analogy of the “parts of the car before put together”!

      Last month, while pondering how to respond to some students’ “1st drafts” (which seemed thrown together 15 minutes before class!) I realized that there was nothing actually “bad” or “wrong” with what they’d submitted. The reason I couldn’t comment was that it was simply too early in the process. They turned in the barest beginnings of a “start.” And while a start is good, calling a start a “finish” is confusing.

      I’ve been considering promising them my famous brownies. Then, on brownie day, dashing into class late with a Safeway bag, pulling out flour, oil, and eggs. I’ll apologize profusely that I didn’t have time to actually make the brownies. They would have been SO GOOD if only I’d had the time…

      The point I hope to make is that there is nothing “bad” or “wrong” with flour, oil, and eggs…unless you’ve been expecting to feast on hot-out-of-the-oven Ghirardelli brownies!

      To stretch the analogy further, if I start opining about a “first draft” that involves only flour, oil, and eggs, I might suggest that they chocolate when they were actually planning on banana bread!

      Oh, how I wish they could believe in the importance of thyme…I mean time… 😉


      1. Wow, that would be quite a move to make with the brownie ingredients! Perhaps if they show improvement they could taste those famous brownies later in the semester. I know they’re good, if they have Ghirardelli in them. Yum!


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  7. Ah, this post made me happy. As a fellow Minnesotan, Hampl is well-known here! Being kind to ourselves by re-seeing (revision!) our work is certainly better for our creative process than ripping our early drafts to shreds. It’s all about changing the lens through which we see our work.


    1. “It’s all about changing the lens through which we see our work.”

      I like that line. And as for Patricia, I stayed in St. Paul a few years ago and enjoyed it (the downtown was lively and fun, while also manageable), but I really KNOW it, I feel, when reading Patricia’s writing.


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