I consulted a poet friend that I have mentioned once or twice here before. His name is Craig Cotter, and over dinner I asked him why he made certain word choices or phrase constructions in several of his poems.
For one of his poems, Craig brought his first draft along. This was a hand-written scrap that he had somehow decided to save. I compared this to the actually published poem, and what I found surprised me. Very little had changed. From the original to the final draft, he made about four edits, but the rest of it was intact.
What I realized was that Craig had initially limited himself to what edits he was allowed to make. The source of his inspiration, the motivation that got him to write this poem in the first place, he felt, was preserved in that first draft, not in the idea of that first draft. That meant that he couldn't revise everything. He couldn't start from scratch with the same idea, because that would be a different poem--one that he could write at a different time. By him staying true to what inspired him, he felt that this work captured a very specific idea at a very specific time. He was staying true to the experience of writing this poem.
I thought about my own work.
I thought about how sometimes revising too much can make a piece feel unemotional and dead. The fact is, when you write something, that piece is a reflection of you in that moment of creation. You build rhythms in your sentences based on the sentences before it. And, if you then go back and revise something in the beginning of a story, often times, that affects everything after it. So, you end up chasing that first revision and making hundreds or thousands of other revisions to compensate for it, even if nothing was wrong with the rest of the piece to begin with.
So, now I'm asking myself if it's sometimes better to stop. Maybe a clunky second sentence is acceptable if it keeps you from altering the rest of your story that may already be working. Can you really revise everything?