Oh, revision. How dreadful it can be.
I don’t know about you, but I hate revision——or, at least I used to. Until recently, I would despise “revising” my work because it felt like editing something I already wanted to be done with. “Revision,” in an academic sense, usually happens by force, typically so you can achieve a better grade.
But what, really, is revision? Let’s define what it means to revise something (you know I love definitions): “to re-examine or make alterations to.”
To re-examine or make alterations to.
I love the first part of this definition: “to re-examine” because it feels much deeper and more significant than editing does. Editing is surface-level——it is grammatical or organizational. Revision, on the other hand, is deeper——it demands that the core of your piece (your primary question, your thesis, etc) be re-examined. Revision demands you take a step back from your writing, inquire deeply about why you are returning to your work, and then set out on a new path that will drive your piece forward.
When returning to your writing, I think it is helpful to consider the following questions:
- Why am I returning to this piece? Is it to edit, or to revise?
- If it is to edit, you might consider:
- What are the areas that need attention?
- Are my title and opening sentence engaging?
- Is my argument both provocative and clear?
- Is the flow of the piece effective?
- If you are revising, you might consider:
- Since last reading this piece, what has stuck with me? Do I remember feeling like something was missing?
- Is this piece still as relevant now? Or perhaps it has lost or gained relevance? Why?
- Are there areas I can go deeper here? How can I engage with my own story to invite empathy and reciprocity from my reader?
Allow me to let you in on my own recent experience with revision.
Dr. Essin asked me to write a final post in my semester series entitled “On Revision.” I really should’ve written this post a few weeks ago, but I couldn’t find a hearty reason why I needed to write about revision… (because, really, I was thinking about revision as editing.)
But a few days ago, devastatingly, a friend of mine from high school, Dylan, passed away. Dylan’s passing sent me back to an all-too familiar feeling I had when I was a senior in high school and another friend, Malcolm, died. For me, Malcolm’s death will always be tied to the musical Rent, which I wrote my final blog post on last semester. When this tragic similarity stirred up in me, I knew I wanted to revise my post on Rent. With a new sense of urgency to tell the redemptive story of Rent’s power to heal communities in tragedy, I got to writing.
Below is the revised version. You can read the first version of this post here. Pay special attention to the way this post engages a personal story (to encourage empathy and reciprocity from the reader) where the first version does not.
In the winter of my Senior year of high school, one of my friends tragically died of a brain aneurysm. At only fifteen, Malcolm was full of joy and life until the very moment he passed.
Throughout the entire winter semester, I was in rehearsals for a blackbox performance of Rent where I would play Mimi Marquez. On the morning of our only performance, Malcolm’s death was announced during our chapel service. I remember the deafening silence of the building ringing through my ears. I couldn’t tell if I wanted to scream, cry, run, puke, or hide so I just froze. When we all stood up to leave the chapel, it felt like the whole school let out a collective cry.
It was obvious that we could not perform Rent that night, but we were faced with the decision of whether to perform the show at all.
That night, sitting in my room as I thought through the options, I couldn’t help but acknowledge parallels between the moment I was in and Rent’s very own premier. Months before Malcolm’s death, when we chose Rent as our show, I did some research on the creation of the musical. I learned that the night before Rent was set to premiere at the New York Theatre Workshop in 1996, Jonathan Larson, the creator and composer of the musical died suddenly.
I took to Google to learn more about Larons’s death and discovered he also died of an aneurysm. I also discovered that the cast of Rent decided to continue on with their opening night performance the next night. I sat in this tragic similarity wondering how they did it. In an interview with Playbill, NYTW director James Nicola said, “Life was imitating art in more ways than one, and the group of angst-ridden bohemian rockers danced in celebration of Larson’s life and work.” After the first performance, it was clear that a Broadway transfer was imminent for the show. Producer Kevin McCollum said, “We had no choice… Everybody had a higher purpose, and it was to get Jonathan’s work heard and seen. And there was no looking back. … We were breathing life into the voice of a young man who had much more to say … There was no room to be afraid.”
In that moment, I knew we had to perform Rent for the school—not in spite of Malcolm’s death, but because of it. Like the original cast of Rent, we had a higher purpose, and we had the opportunity to “breath life into the voice of a young man who had much more to say.” There truly was no room to be afraid. It was a beautiful and powerful performance that led our community toward healing. In that performance, I discovered Rent’s ability to move across time and across tragedy to address timeless questions of life and death, uniting communities through the paradox of joy and sorrow along the way.
Three years later, I would be reminded of this unique ability as I watched Rent again and felt an eerily deep connection between the musical and the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Rent opens with the title song and imagery of New Yorkers shouting on balconies, living in the tension of paradoxical celebration and mourning. In a similar way, today’s New Yorkers meet each other on balconies and fire escapes every night at 7pm to sing communal praises to the medical workers fighting COVID-19 on the front lines. With shouting, cheering, and crying, New York exhales a collective acknowledgement of the joy that exists—particularly the joyful reality of a shared experience—and a plea for better. While the connection between Rent and COVID-19 is related to New York City, it goes far beyond just geography.
The musical begins on Christmas Eve in 1989 with a simplistic film reel shot by Mark who is played by Anthony Rapp. Mark is filming a documentary about New York City—specifically about the lives of the homeless population and those affected by HIV/AIDS. The reel shows a shot of Radio City Music Hall, moments of extreme poverty, people experiencing homelessness, etc. These shots—which you can watch below—felt all too similar to what I can picture NYC looking like right now, absent the masks. Mark sings, “How do you document real life when real life’s getting more like fiction each day. / Headlines, breadlines blow my mind, and now this deadline: ‘Eviction or pay’ Rent.” I did a double take thinking about the transcendent reality of this lyric. Not only are Americans struggling to pay rent, but breadlines have returned, except this time people have to stay in their cars.
Rent tells the story of watching an illness unfold with no ability to stop it. Its characters find solace in the community of those around them, particularly those who share the same experience as them. This community is most emphasized in the “Life Support” scenes where the characters who have AIDS meet as a support group. Some of the most beautiful moments in the film are when characters take a moment to acknowledge their illness—both Angel and Collins and Mimi and Roger share sweet sighs of relief as they recognize their shared reality.
The illness that unites this community, though, is also what ultimately shatters it (before coming back together, of course). Back in Life Support, Mimi begins to sing “Without You” as she grieves the end of her and Roger’s relationship, but we start to see the people in Life Support lose their lives and fade away. The shot fades into the Subway where Collins is holding Angel, who is dying. That image is harrowing as it once again brought my mind to the COVID era. Collins and the rest of the friends watch Angel lose her battle, unable to do anything to heal her. We see the same fate begin to unfold for Mimi, too, who takes her last breaths in the final scene of the movie. Roger holds Mimi in his arms as he sings the song he’s been writing for a year, Your Eyes, and Mimi is revived by his love. In this final moment of the movie, we feel the weight of Angel’s death and the harsh reality of life with AIDS wash over us, while simultaneously celebrating the life that we have. The cast sings “No Day But Today” as Mark plays his finished documentary in the background.
Rent doesn’t present a perfect parallel to COVID-19, I know that. But that’s the beauty of it. Rent can speak to us in its original form because the questions it asks about life transcend time. Rent can speak to me in the wake of a friend’s death, in the midst of a global pandemic, or just on a random Tuesday.
I think, now more than ever, the question of how we measure our life is incredibly important. In the middle of quarantine, maybe we did measure our life by cups of coffee… but as we continue to navigate this pandemic, I challenge you to consider what Rent’s central question—what would it look like to measure your life in love?
Thank you for tagging along with me all semester. If you ever have a moment of renewed passion to revise one of your pieces, I encourage you to do so! Most importantly, I hope you don’t let this class end today. Press on discovering, friend.