Eight lines in, I spotted the homophone error. Though twelve years later I can't recall the exact misuse (there/their? your/you're? to/too/two?), I do remember thinking that even a million such errors couldn't detract from the quality of the poem. The high school student who had written it was that talented. The imagery and emotion of her poetry, the rhythm, the language, were breathtaking. It was my pleasure--my joy--to read and comment upon her work. I circled the error, knowing she'd fix it in the next rewrite--she was forever willing to revise, always pushing her work to be better--and meant to keep on reading, wanting to stay in the flow of the poem. Yet something was nagging me. Staring at the circled word, I could see in my head her last draft. That line--a beautiful line in no need of changing--had been the same last week. But the word had been correct then. Their had been there. Or to had been too.
I couldn't make sense of how a mistake had made its way into an unchanged line. Perhaps homophone gnomes?
When I asked her about it ("This probably seems strange that I remember, but I have a memory for words, how they look on paper," I tried to explain), she looked bemused.
"I typed the wrong word this time."
"But you didn't change the line."
"But I made a mistake when I typed it."
"But..." Wait, was it possible that she didn't understand how to use "Save As..." to create a new draft of a document? Or couldn't use Cut and Paste?
No, she assured me when I tried to broach the subject diplomatically. ("I know the mandatory Computer Class was way back in ninth grade and you might not remember how to...")
"I start from the beginning every time," she told me. "I rewrite."
And I, who had been writing and teaching fiction for years, who had quoted Hemingway's "All writing is rewriting" too many times, and whose pet peeve was students tinkering with their essays and stories instead of revisioning, realized in that moment which of us was the real writer.
Back in college, I had come to regard the computer--with all of its shortcuts--as a savior. I'd spent high school and freshman year of college pounding out essays on Moll Flanders on a blue typewriter, inserting strips of white correction paper to correct misused homophones. To rewrite was to have to make peace with hours of additional typing. Getting a computer meant being able to revise without paying what seemed like a exorbitant price (in terms of time) for, say, adding a single sentence to the middle of a story. It meant being able to pay attention to tiny details--was the protagonist's dog really a dachsund after all, or might not it be more evocative to change it to a poodle?
But perhaps that's one of the limitations of this type of rewriting, too. One doesn't see the forest for the, well, poodles.
What my student was doing--rethinking her entire poem from the beginning each time--was part of what made her work feel so whole. She truly re-saw. She truly re-vised.
For the record, though I still use the Cut and Paste features for copyediting changes and small additions, I retyped the last several drafts of my novel from scratch. Each time I tried to think of the story as if coming to it for the first time, consulting a printout of the previous draft, but not feeling wedded to having to keep lines--or paragraphs, or even scenes--just because they worked or because they were already "there." To one misused homophone, and to that brilliant student, I owe the most important thing I know about writing: that to revise is not to "fix," but rather to approach one's work anew.