Revising and the Ship of Theseus

The Ship of Theseus is a thought experiment from the world of philosophy. A ship, lying on the shore, needs repairs—new decking, fresh timbers, a new mast or two. How much of the original ship can be replaced before it's no longer the same ship? 

I ran into this idea in a recent TV episode, and now, of course, I SEE IT EVERYWHERE.

During my Admin Boot Camp (which I still haven’t written about, in part because it’s still NOT OVER, see ~ below), one of my tasks was to get that rattle in the Corolla fixed. 

Almost two days and $$$$ later, I’m now driving the Corolla of Theseus. Not really, but I pondered at what point I’d be driving a different car vs. the same car with all new parts.

AND the Ship of Theseus relates to revising. How much of a draft can you change before it becomes something new—not something that’s necessarily better or definitely worse than the original, but something decidedly different?

I’ve worked on pieces—usually essays, but short fiction, too—where I think I know what I want to write about but I’m mistaken. Really knowing what I want to say usually requires several drafts (sigh, see ** below).

Sometimes I even have to let go of my original idea. Turns out, that idea (an image, a character’s statement, my Grand Plan) was just a starting point—my open door. However, the door has become less important than what’s inside the room, and it’s the room (not the door) I want to show to the reader.

At that point, am I still writing the same thing? Maybe. Maybe not. I think the answer is different for everyone.

Say you set out to write a lyric essay about squirrels, and four months later, you have written a sonnet about the science of flying. Did you fulfill your purpose?

On the surface, the answer is NO. The form and content are both different. A lyric essay isn’t the same thing as a sonnet, and “squirrels” aren’t “the science of flying.”

But maybe the answer is YES. Maybe the process of revision during which Draft A of a lyric essay about squirrels became Finished Product B, a sonnet about the science of flying, was exactly what you wanted it to be. Nobody can tell you otherwise.

Whatever the answer, you get to decide. It’s your ship.

~ Admin Boot Camp is somehow related to Parkinson’s Law (work fills to take up the time available), but the exact parameters are still under investigation.

** I know in my head that multiple drafts aren’t “wasted work” or a “time sink” but I don't always know it in my heart.