Sunday, October 2, 2011

Editing's Not Torture

Sometimes in the heat of editing, I flash upon a feeling of utter despair and futility at the insurmountable task ahead of me. Maybe it’s the vestige of the memory of what I used to go through in the middle of two hundred plus pages of manuscript, long before I knew I would ever see a bit of my work (any work) in print. The feeling came out of wondering if I might be better off spending my time on something more useful and noble to the human cause than the current machinations of fictional characters who can’t possibly have that much impact (any impact) on what ails the world. Then I mentioned to a friend on the phone that I was editing, and I got a second whiff of my old feeling in his groan of sympathetic concern over the futility of my project. I almost wanted to say, don’t worry, it’s not that bad. . .but maybe his reaction came prior to mine and led to mine. Now I can’t remember. In any case, sometimes the intent is there, and the piece is not, and you have to make your peace with it, whether you are going to eventually try to flog it in one of the available marketplaces, or whether you are going to start over again. You are always starting over again, and it’s nice when you’ve worked the proper bit of alchemy and sent something over a transom, even if it means they want you to consider moving this bit here or there. In other words, don’t mess with it too much, but you have to mess with it enough so that someone will want to take it; you have to mess with it enough to allow them to want to mess with it just a bit.
So maybe I don’t really love editing, I just know it is a kind of tricky preparation for the real deal, getting published, that you can never be completely satisfied with.
I’ve never believed in writer’s block because there are so many parts of the writing process that one can be doing while not writing new material--such as editing--and if you don’t want to do them, a lot the time time, if you check yourself, you might just be being lazy. I’m often lazy, or resting on my laurels, but I know I can dig through a pile of papers and find something to edit. I usually carry drafts of pieces around in a one inch three ring binder and look at them fifteen percent of the time. You come to respect editing, I think, after you learn how to edit yourself, because editing is where you will make the piece come alive. Philip Roth said that here (interview on Daily Beast see at 1:14). Which is also why I’m wary and doubtful of writers who claim to not revise (There is a distinction between editing and revision, perhaps, but I’m not making a distinction; to revise is to edit).
In any case, some writers claim not to revise. Besides the fact that this sounds bogus, how can one write unless they revise and edit as if it were a religion? You edit to the point where you reveal the key (to yourself) of your piece, and then tighten it some more. Otherwise you are just proud of yourself for the ability to spew--but does anyone really want to read that?
Maybe they can get away with that, but it seems like if someone (publisher) is allowing that, they are not doing the reading world a favor--nor the writer--and I’d be surprised if any writer could sustain their work if they didn’t somehow have a rigorous self-editing process.
I used to think I could edit the life out of a story, but I’ve since learned that writing is like shaping with clay, or perhaps painting a canvas (and less so is is crafting a chair as I thought and said only a few years ago, unless you are carving the chair.) You take away, and add, and at some point, you might see it. You sort of know when you do.
But that is a lot of work, a lot or re-reading, and hearing it, not just looking at it on the page.
I find that at minimum, a piece needs to go through seven drafts before it’s gotten to the point where I’m not seriously worried about sending it out. As for seven drafts, I can go to more--I can even now, do less. In some situations, I’m onto draft 17 or 18 and I have lost most of what I set out to edit and/or revise in the first place. In which case, if you haven’t sussed out the ghost in the machinery of the piece by then, maybe it should be removed from life support.
One of my favorite quotes is from Marilynne Robinson on the editing and revision process sums up what I’m trying to get at:
“I try to make writers actually see what they have written, where the strength is. Usually in fiction there’s something that leaps out--an image or a moment that is strong enough to center the story. If they can see it, they can exploit it, enhance it, and build a fiction that is subtle and new.”
Robinson goes on further to say:
“What they have to do first is interact in a serious way with what they’re putting on a page. When people are fully engaged with what they’re writing, a striking change occurs, a discipline of language and imagination.”
I feel like I’ve learned how to edit mostly from reading and taking work apart. It’s still a surprise to me when I can reasonably string words together compellingly. Maybe this is the thing I’m not supposed to admit, but I’m pleased with myself for a.) knowing what I’m doing after all and b.) not being called on too many glaring missteps from editors when they take stuff. It’s amusing to be edited by writer peers who have standards that no legitimate (i.e., titled) editor who has seen the same work feels the need to mess with so extensively. But maybe as a fiction writer you’re allowed--even recognized--to be doing it your own way. It reminds me of my first workshop experience in 1997 where I eagerly and naïvely submitted my first short story to a group and received, to my estimation, an incredulous raking through the coals for work that had more feeling than sense, but I sure learned from the experience. (This is where I thank those people for helping me to open my eyes.)

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