by Sidney S. Stark
January marks the beginning of a new calendar year with parallel fresh initiatives. NO, I didn’t say resolutions. Happily, I’ve learned not to rule my life with ‘shoulds’ anymore. But starting something new is often energizing, and the beginning of my new writers’ workgroup is living up to that promise. It’s composed of authors writing pieces for publishing, specifically full-length novels and memoirs. As we’ve begun to work together it’s been obvious right from the start that our primary goal is editing. To that end, we’ve been reading some wonderful books on the subject and I’ve discovered that to be the best writers we can be we have to be the best editors. It’s like finding out you have to learn a whole new skill in order to perfect the one you were originally focusing on; daunting as well as exhilarating. Each achievement leads to another, ad infinitum. But then that’s life, isn’t it?
I’m expending all that effort for someone else’s benefit but what’s in it for me? The goal in learning to edit others’ writing well is to eventually become a consummate self-editor. Backing off to view your own work with the cool head of dispassionate reason is very difficult. But it’s definitely something that gets easier with practice, like most skills. I had my first exposure to the art of self-editing in my sophomore year in college with a creative writing professor who’d published both novels and poetry of his own. I was annoyed. It seemed as if the class should have been called ‘creative editing’ rather than ‘creative writing’. Our first assignment put my resistance up. What right did this professor have to tell me how I should rework my own creation? I didn’t feel his success with publishers qualified him to take apart my artistic endeavor and tell me how to put it back together again. But the dilemma lay in the fact that I had to complete the task or forfeit the grade. I didn’t want to blow my intoxicating, very new and unusual academic success in college, and so decided to comply by making a game of the project. I’ll bet you’ve already guessed the outcome. Playing with the assignment became the means to a different end, and I found I enjoyed the editing as much as I loved the writing.
But recently I’ve also discovered something else fascinating. Editing writing is very much like editing life. It takes the same honesty, tolerance, courage, creativity and determination; and the rewards are just as precious. When you start practicing to become an artful editor, you can’t help but notice how personal lassitude complicates people’s lives in the same way literary laziness messes up a book. Often people need help in order to start the process of clearing out their cluttered living the same way authors need help to reorder their written work. Old habits need to be exposed for their redundancy and one’s most beloved personal burdens must be discarded. We have to extricate ourselves from the tangled web of self-deception we weave for false protection like the knotted rhetoric we’re convinced supports our writing, but only strangles it. Artful editing can teach you a lot about skillful living.
Eventually, if we’re very conscientious about learning and applying the process of editing, our lives, like our books, can be improved in the best ways we can possibly live them; or write them as the case may be. We’ve got to “cut the metaphysical speculation and throat clearing” author and teacher Darin Strauss has said. That’s the perfect place to start editing your writing and your life. Get rid of all the ‘speculation and throat clearing’. You don’t need it to write what you want to say or live who you want to be.