The French have a wonderful saying, l’esprit d’escalier, that translates to “staircase wit”: the smart comeback we think of after we’ve left the conversation and are already on the stairs. Too little, too late. Perhaps it is a witty reply, or perhaps it is the more thoughtful, appropriate response that failed to come to our tongues in the thick of the moment. We have all experienced regrets at saying or doing the wrong things. But what if we had the opportunity to do it all over again?
This concept of a “do-over” is one that has preoccupied me and the imagination of many people, especially in books and movies. The 1990s comedy film Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, is probably one of the most famous examples of this type of time travel. My own novel The Repeat Year delves into this theme of a second chance over the course of an entire year. The protagonist, Olive Watson, a young intensive care nurse, wakes up on New Year’s Day in bed with her ex-boyfriend to discover she’s reliving the previous year. What a blessing (and a curse!) to have the opportunity to try to do things differently the second time around. But she soon discovers that the old adage “hindsight is 20/20” isn’t necessarily true as she struggles to rectify last year’s wrongs.
Unfortunately, we’re not all given this magical ability to try to fix our own mistakes. But as writers, we do wield the power of the “do-over.” Isn’t that really what writing and revising is all about? On a subconscious level, perhaps we are rewriting the stories of events in our lives we wish would have gone differently. Maybe your main character meets his or her love interest in a cuter, quirkier way than you met your own spouse. Maybe your protagonist is always calm and collected under fire in a way that you’d like to be.
In a more cognizant way, we also have the God-like ability to revise. We can delete scenes or cut out entire chapters. We can obsess for hours over a conversation between two characters until it flows effortlessly as a snappy dialogue with the perfect witty comebacks. We can shape our characters’ lives in a way that we cannot shape our own.
American author Robert Cormier said, “The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon. You can always do it better, find the exact word, the apt phrase, the leaping simile,” and I whole-heartedly agree with him. So I say hurray for revision, which is not always an author’s favorite part of the writing process. Though painful and tedious at times, it helps us to understand our own lives and choices a little bit better. It also reminds us what a unique gift we’ve been given as writers.
Andrea Lochen is an alumna of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She earned her Master of Fine Arts from the University of Michigan, where she also received the Hopwood Novel Award for a draft of The Repeat Year. Kirkus Reviews called The Repeat Year an “engaging, satisfying read that explores friendship, love and who we really are when it truly matters.” She currently lives in suburban Milwaukee and teaches Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha. For more information, visit andrealochen.com.