For Kiese Laymon, Who Showed Me The Power Of Revision

A letter to a writer who loves us more than he has to.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Kiese,

I’ve been meaning to hit you up for a while now and have a long conversation, but I know you’re knee-deep in talking to people about the re-release of your incredibly dope book How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. Plus I’ve been out here writing publicly about a whole lotta otherwise brilliant brothas out here harming us who should be doing better—so now, I want to put the energy out in the world of writing to and about someone who loves us so much more than so many of us deserve.

You don’t know this, but I used to be afraid of my words after I typed them. I remember once in college I finished a final paper a week early and ended up turning it in late because I was scared to email it. The professor lectured me about procrastination and everything. Then when I started writing for publications, I spent years turning in first drafts to editors.

Thankfully (or not) for my career, the turnaround time and frequency of that writing was such that I was able to skate by, but the thought of scrolling up to the top of the page, reading over my words, and coming face-to-face with my thoughts terrified me. I wouldn’t even read the articles when they got published. Revision meant reckoning, and the prospect of doing that undoing and reshaping seemed too painful. I was powerless to my own insecurities.

You were one of the people who changed that for me. I watched from afar the way you considered every syllable, working and reworking ideas. The way everything you said meant something. The way Heavy changed the goddamn game, man. Your earlier work showed me what I already knew: that revision is necessary. But this year you showed me that revision is power. Not just any power; a power we deserve to wield.

I miss home. Our home. Jackson, Mississippi. I’ve spent most of the last few months working on a book and writing about Jackson and Mississippi and the people whose spirits are still all up in the state. Medgar. Mrs. Hamer. Hollis Watkins. Dad. The kids from Lanier and Tougaloo. All that. I’ve been feeling like I need to be home to write about them and channel those angels. I’d planned on being in Jackson a lot this year, but the pandemic has ruined that. To help me feel closer to that space, I’ve had your books* and Jesmyn Ward’s books and Natasha Trethewey’s Memorial Drive and Margaret Walker’s work in each room of my house. Y’all brought me home.

I say all that to say that I was reading the older versions of HSKY and Long Division when I saw that you’d bought them back and were re-releasing them. I couldn’t believe it. Not just for the sheer badassness of being able to pull that off, but also the willingness to go back and revise works from all those years ago. I spent much of my life scared to go back and look at words from an hour earlier, so the idea of looking at something almost a decade ago is unfathomable. Going back and changing and refining your thoughts from then and working on yourself through your work (or vice versa) is a type of stretching and twisting you do when you’re trying to create the best of something. I can’t imagine.

But you know the part of revising that feels like love? It’s the conversation between Long Division and Heavy. The former had so many biographical elements that I imagine you’ve had to revise some of your real life to fit. But then you wrote Heavy, your actual memoir, so it feels like you were revising Long Division without ever touching the text therein. You’re revising the past through your work for the future. And that’s what you were telling us all along through the time travel story of Long Division. You’re sending us messages through the portals you unlock with every piece of work you do. Fam. That’s some mind-boggling shit.

Revision isn’t just necessary to put out the best possible work because that’s how we love ourselves and our readers. But revision is power. It’s power over your history and the power to dictate what comes next. It’s refusing to run away from yourself. You did that and continue to do that not because you have to, but because you’re making a conscious choice. You’ve shown me that looking at my life and my art and doing what is necessary to make both of those things better is a work of love—work that I owe myself, work that I owe people who loved me enough to believe in my writing. I’m a better writer and a better person because of your example.

I admire you, fam. You inspire me every single day. You’re really someone I’m grateful for and I’m gonna tell you that as often as I can. And I’m telling you that again right now. We gonna talk soon, my man.

Love you brotha,

David Dennis, Jr.

*By the way, I’ve been wanting to ask you about that. I wonder what it feels like to write about home when you miss it, the way you did for some of HSKY and Long Division, as opposed to what it’s like to write while you’re there, like you did for Heavy. What does it feel like? Can you feel the difference when your fingers touch the keyboard? Who’s talking to you when you’re writing in Mississippi? What is it like to write about a place you remember as opposed to writing about that place when you’re in it? What becomes more real? What feels fabricated when you’re digging through your memories for home?

Level Sr. Writer covering Race, Culture, Politics, TV, Music. Previously: The Undefeated, The Atlantic, Washington Post. Forthcoming book: The Movement Made Us

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