Recently I suggested that members of one of my writing groups choose a piece of writing from the past and try their hands at revising it. The idea was to make the writing sharper, more precise, more readable, and more memorable. The group had mixed reactions: “Once I finish a piece, I’m done with it”; “It’s more fun to write a new piece”; and variations of “It’s too hard.” We discussed this project for several minutes, and then I encouraged each person to try the re-writing assignment.
The next morning I woke up thinking about the process of rewriting and why it is so hated but at the same time is so important. As I mused, one of of my favorite TV shows, Barnwood Builders, came to mind, and provided a perfect metaphor for rewriting stories – and for life.
Mark Howe and his team of weathered and bearded “hillbillies” travel the country to rescue and reclaim decades-old decaying log cabins and barns. It is a sacred task for all of them. They carefully deconstruct the building on site and choose what to do with the timber. If they are planning to reconstruct the building on another site, they count and label all the logs so that they can perfectly re-create the structure. Sometimes they can’t save the whole structure, but they can save logs for new builds. These they move to their “bone yard” which may be hundreds of miles away. Timber and barn wood that cannot be used to build or restore a cabin are saved for building furniture. Tin roofs and sturdy windows are salvaged and recycled. Nothing is wasted; even farm tools and equipment found in the barns are saved and donated to museums.
The Barnwood builders teach that 100+ year-old log cabins have value, though they may have to “edited.” Sometimes a log may have been invaded by termites or bees and those damaged parts have to be cut out. Sometimes the notches on a log may have have been damaged by rain and other weather events and have to be re-cut. Sometimes boards are worn and gray and need sanding and re-staining to bring out their former glory. Despite the work that needs to be done on them, these logs and beams can be made beautiful again.
This example from the real world can be encouraging to writers: re-writing or re-imagining can make a piece of writing even more enjoyable or valuable. When we revise, salvage sentences and paragraphs that are well-written and rewrite or re-imagine weaker sentences. To the Barnwood team, the structure of a barn or cabin can be elegant, but it may also be enhanced by the finish work they can do. To a writer, strengthening the structure of a piece of writing and enhancing it with more precise or elegant language can make our goal of memorable writing possible.
The Barnwood team gives us a life lesson as well. We should never give up on the work of art our lives can become. Old mistakes can be studied and learned from. Tired excuses can be sawed out of our thinking. Lack of confidence can be sanded over and bright new ventures constructed. And just as Mark Rowe and his crew can cherish a barn that has lost its former glory and imagine its reinvention, we can see a vision for other people who may have lost their way. Most importantly, we can remember that God sees the image of himself in each of us. He also sees the damage that time and life have done and understands that nothing goes to waste. And he yearns for the transformation that can blossom when we work with the Carpenter to become what He envisions.