With special thanks to Theatrikos Theatre Company and Angele Anderfuren for requesting an original essay as a companion piece to the live performance of A Christmas Story 10 December 2016
Marc and I were sitting on the sofa opening our Christmas cards and presents, having a “private Christmas” a few days before my parents came to stay with us for the holiday. We had saved our Christmas cards for last. Marc had been hard at work since Thanksgiving hand-making and drawing all of his Christmas cards. Each card was a miniature art piece. I ran my hand over the bumpy watercolor paper card he gave me, noticing the beautiful drawing he made—a pine tree in a snow-covered field at sunset. I opened the card, closed it, and put it on the living room table.
“Thanks!” I said.
Marc looked at me closely and asked, “Did you read the card?”
“Sure, honey, it’s beautiful.” He wrinkled his eyebrows.
“Really? You read it?”
"I love it!” I exclaimed, noticing his face getting redder by the minute. I had a sinking feeling that I had said the wrong thing.
- - -
My husband, Marc, and I have never had a traditional relationship. We decided a lot of things a long time ago, without ever really discussing anything. It came instead in waves of realization. There we were, drawing each other in our community art class, even though we never spoke to each other. The same way we found ourselves on Friday night at his apartment or mine watching X-Files instead of going to loud parties with friends. And, on our wedding day, we found ourselves dressed up at a picnic with a small group of friends, a justice of the peace, and the Vice-President’s dogs running under the buffet table.
I should start with how we met—at a community art class. The class involved meeting at different coffee shops every week to learn how to draw by studying the people around us and trying to capture them on paper with charcoals, pastels, and pencils. At the end of every class, we sat in a circle and showed our drawings. I always drew Marc and he always drew me.
It took the better part of two months for us to move beyond drawing each other, but when we did, we made a plan to meet at the local art supply store. Marc was going to show me what charcoals to buy. Instead, he bought them for me. I treated him to dinner. I wasn’t even sure that it was a date, but realized several weeks later when we had seen each other almost every day since that first shopping trip and dinner that, in fact, we were dating.
I found myself looking for his next apartment with him because, he told me, he hoped I would join him there in a few months. I did. A year later, we found ourselves relocating to another city. We weren’t married, or even engaged, and all of this moving and moving felt like we were moving toward getting engaged and married, but it never happened. I had been engaged once before. It ended sadly, as those heart-heavy relationships always do, and honestly, I was afraid to jinx whatever Marc and I had by asking too many questions.
But then it came time to make a decision—our rental house in the new city came on the market and the landlords were giving us first dibs on buying the house. A few weeks later, we found ourselves in the real estate office with two realtors, two attorneys, and the landlords, signing and signing what seemed like a mountain of documents. The only thing that made me panic was the term of the mortgage. Thirty years. Thirty years? I was only 28 years old at the time, thinking I would be old and dead in thirty years. I might not even be with Marc in 30 years! Everyone paused to look at me. Apparently I had said this last thought out loud. Marc told me it was okay, and put his hand on my knee. I believed him and kept signing.
- - -
Well, let me get back to the Christmas card. Marc picked up the card from the coffee table and handed it to me again.
“I really need you to read the card.”
“But I did!”
“No, I don’t think you did.”
I was mad. I was already nervous about my family coming to our new house for Christmas. Was he trying to make me more upset about something?
“It’s beautiful!” I said again.
“Read. The. Card.”
I opened the card. Marc had written
“Merry Christmas, Stacy. Will you marry me?”
- - -
I no longer felt worried about my family coming for Christmas. Or worried about signing 30 years of my life away on the mortgage. Instead, we put on our coats and walked out into the December dusk. We walked around the neighborhood holding hands, watching Christmas lights come on house by house. When we came home, I looked through our living room window at the happy tableaux. A Christmas tree. Wrapping paper on the floor. Marc’s Christmas card on the table.
Oh, and in case you were wondering about the Vice President and his dogs, the dogs at least were uninvited wedding guests. We got married in a park adjacent to the Vice President’s residence in Washington, DC. As Al Gore jogged by on that beautiful October day, his two dogs thought the wedding picnic looked pretty fun. They ran across the park and decided to chase each other around and under the buffet table. The two Secret Service agents eventually captured the dogs, but not before my mother yelled across the park, “Hey, Al! Come have a beer with us!” He gave us the best Vice Presidential wave he could, but he did not take my mother up on her offer.
And, one last thing: don’t forget to read your Christmas cards very, very carefully!
I keep these feelings, this anger, locked up. At the jail where I volunteer, the sergeant tells me no papers with staples. That the inmates collect the staples, stuff them into the locks. I think about this. What can I stuff into my locks that will prevent the anger from getting out? I could simply collect all the locks and decide to throw them away and just let my whole self overflow. Overflow into the seat next to me. Into the space all around me. Unlocked and overflowing into something that no one can approach because every single space near and around me is full of something. Of skin and teeth and bile. Of memories hurtful and small. Of the angry air, which has just left my mouth.
“We are not merely always telling the truth; we are making it.” --Ira Allen
I told the truth that night, what seemed to be the truth as I was making it the truth at the time. I said I was staying.
Plus facile à dire qu'a faire. [i]
I said things like, “We’ve had worse before!” and I thought we had. This was part of my carefully constructed truth.
J’ai le cafard. [ii]
But in the making of the truth that followed, I saw that things could be worse than before because I had been incapable of conceiving “worse” at the time I was constructing that piece of truth, my own square acre of truth.
Ma faute. [iii]
Collectively, the worse was being made among our own truths, made obdurate. Their truth. Our truth. My truth.
La moutarde me monte au nez. [iv]
I said I would stay, which was my truth. It happened twice before. The second time, we were in Paris. We ate crepes on the street, assuaged that we had voted early. The truth: believing my vote mattered.
Laissez tomber. [v]
Why did I promise to stay? Why was it the first thing I said aloud, at the television, sitting alone? Who was I promising? Would I have made this commitment to myself, to the television, to the air, had my truth been more malleable? If I had some sort of imaginings of what was worse or the worst?
Je sais très bien mais tout de même... [vi]
I fell into fitful sleep where I dreamed of moving to Paris. I put down an $800 deposit to buy some kind of apartment near Montmartre. I had my choice of master-chef kitchens with cupboard doors with glass inserts of different designs: clear, or pinstriped, or free-formed hand-blown. After putting down the deposit, I walked out into the fall afternoon, smelling wood smoke, the leaves blood red drifting down onto the cobblestone streets.
What of this dreamscape-constructed truth?
J'ai aimé ce rêve. J'ai vraiment aimé ce rêve. [vii]
When I woke, I looked around the room, thinking that I could leave all this behind. The sofa, the bed, the side table. The lamps, the dishes, the desk. The blender, the radio, the television. Start again.
Je dis ça. [viii]
Instead, I went to a lecture about the truthfulness of fantasy and the fantasy of truth. I learned that I had a truth and was making the truth. And now I had a decision to make. A decision. Because in my life of reading, I believe I am part of a long line of thinkers. That I have inhaled the air of ideas from people who defined truth, and wrote about truth, and defined and wrote about truth. Now there is something else that I must do.
Je sais très bien mais tout de même… [ix]
[i] Easier said than done
[ii] I’m feeling down
[iii] My bad
[iv] I’m getting angry (literally, the mustard is getting to my nose!)
[v] Let it go/drop it
[vi] I know very well, but all the same…
[vii] I loved that dream. I truly loved that dream
[viii] Just sayin’
[ix] I know very well, but all the same…
(Please excuse the poorly constructed French slang; all errors are mine [and the internet's].)
Let me number these things as a semblance of control and order.
First, I want to write “Firstly” because it goes best with "secondly," even though we know I should just write first, second, third.
2. Or secondly. Or second. Last night I fell asleep alone with my arms wrapped around myself. Sometime during the night, I noticed I had rolled over, away from my own self.
I was awakened by the sound of nothing, which was the third thing I noticed, in which case thirdly does not work. The room should have been filled with the sound of gunfire or screaming from the television. Instead, there was a pause between murders and infomercials and election results and emergency weather alerts and the talking and the talking and the talking.
I did not know where I was.
4. I fall asleep with the television on, listening to true crime shows. I used to listen to the news, but it was too violent and gave me bad dreams of people talking into the nothingness, creating blue flickering forest fires of words they could never take back.
sometime after turning off the television, I noticed the dampness of my pillow for which no amount of folding and unfolding could yield a spot of cool dryness against my cheek.
Lastly, I folded myself into a yoda-origami of nothingness, making more room for myself while hoping that I didn’t notice myself or hold too tightly to myself alone in a sea of white flannel sheets.
In my loneliness, I turned the television back on and, with eyes closed, listened for the world to burn.
Part Three of Three
In all of this cleaning and organizing, there is no ignoring that at some point two things were true—that I had the financial resources to buy these now-unnecessary things and that I thought I somehow needed these things. Divesting myself of unnecessary or no-longer-needed items has become its own sort of problem. It started at a bookstore in 2014 when I happened upon Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I bought the book hoping that simply owning it would make me a tidier person.
Kondo is a woman who started organizing her room and her life at such a young age she presents an impossibly high standard, especially for someone starting in their late forties. I figured out that she doesn’t want me to be like her, though. She just wants me to learn the things she’s learned along the tidying way. I’m not sure what to think about any of the advice she gives, but I feel more virtuous having read the book, even though it took me another year and a half to implement some of her ideas.
I tell my friend about the book and, after reading it, she immediately divests herself of clothing and odds and ends. Fourteen bags! she reports in one email. My heart sinks (although I am happy for her) thinking what 14 bags would look like. Do I have that many clothes? Do I have that much stuff?
Yes. I am ashamed to admit I do.
There is a great divide between decluttering and minimalizing by choice and by circumstance. Stephanie Land addresses a type of “forced minimalism” or streamlining based on our economic circumstances in her article “The Class Politics of Decluttering.” Moving to smaller apartments forces her to pare down her belongings regularly; storage costs money whether a rental storage unit or a larger square foot apartment. Land also found herself reflecting on items that were not just “stuff,” but things that reminded her that she had “a foundation of support growing up […]”
I have never had to get rid of anything meaningful because of a move or financial circumstances. Everything I get rid of now is by choice. But I am still chasing some imaginary ideal of a living space where every surface is devoid of books and paper, bookshelves are tidily organized, and the only small items I have are meaningful gifts from friends, not things I purchased to “decorate” or to make myself feel better.
Although I no longer purchase the home/lifestyle magazines, some of the images of minimalist perfection are burned in my brain. I can’t forget Sunset’s zero-waste house with the pantry stocked with tidy glass jars of bulk food. Or Martha Stewart’s recipe for vinegar window washing solution or her monthly cleaning calendar.
I am still thinking about that Christmas tree stand. Now it is bothering me. Was it irresponsible of me to foist this piece of metal onto the local nonprofit—should I have just taken it to a recycling center or the dump? Shoes, clean clothes, books—I can see other people needing these things. A tree stand? I’m not so sure.
None of the decluttering projects I started this summer are completed and I have thrown in the proverbial towel with the beginning of the school year. The garage is starting to take on more things again now that I cleared some shelves. Books are on the floor, papers are back on the table. It may be because these orphan objects have nowhere specific to live in this house. It may be because as much as I try not to consume, there is always another book to buy.
As I go to reference Kondo’s book for this post, I can’t find it on any of my bookshelves. And then I remember—it wound up in a bag of other books that I dropped off at my local used book store. Hopefully someone else is benefiting from Kondo’s advice.
The Class Politics of Decluttering by Stephanie Land
The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
The Zero-Waste Home, Sunset Magazine
Part Two of Three
The garage has its unique set of problems. It has its utilitarian purpose—a place for the car, some tools, some yard equipment. Our garage is also a catch-all for household items that need “temporary” storage. The previous homeowners built a full wall of shelves for one wall of the garage. On the opposite wall, they installed a series of old kitchen cabinets. Seems like a lot of storage. Maybe the actual problem is too much storage space.
I have always thought dedicated space would have its own set of rules. For example, the shelf closest to the door might be for things we need regularly. But it is over-stuffed with a mish-mash of things that need to be “hidden” (see previous post). Also, if tools are generally in one area, shouldn’t all tools be in said area? Where I find tools is where I last used them--a screwdriver for something near the front yard, is put on a table closest to the garage door rather back in the tool box.
Putting like-objects together creates a new set of problems. I am mad at myself seeing in front of me all of the things I re-bought because I didn’t know where the initial items were and therefore could not remember we had them. At least four large water jug things, two separate sets of stemless wine glasses (really, only my husband drinks wine), canvas grocery bags (at least 37), and shoes. So many shoes. Shoes I haven’t worn in eight years because they were in a box I never opened thinking it was a box of something else.
The tangled web of items creates problems such as: should this be relocated to the house, or should like-objects from the house be moved to the garage? Should I stop doing what I’m doing in the garage to look inside the house?
Divesting myself of things has created new relationships. When we first moved across the country, I gave away clothes and furniture and yard equipment on a local free recycling network. I would tell people about the item, someone would claim it, I would put the items on the front stoop, and then, they disappeared. Here my relationship is with a local nonprofit that takes the flotsam and jetsam of our life and turns it into jobs. I’m not quite sure how that happens, but here I am, with another car load. How will the old Christmas tree stand holder help create jobs? I’m not sure, but I dust the inside of its spider eggs and load it into the car, along with a set of plates, some coffee mugs, and the shoes.
Part One of Three
I’ve had this project on my mind (and to-do list) for a while now: clean the garage. It seemed as though I would finally have time this summer. The Garage Project (TGP) has been on the list for at least three years but became critical last summer when my father and I could not get to the tool box to finish our lawn furniture repair and refinishing project. Screws and nuts were still in hardware store bags, I seemed to have at least six Phillips screwdrivers in different parts of the garage (had my husband and I kept re-buying them thinking we didn’t have one?) and the path between the garage door and the tool box was absolutely cluttered with all of the things I “hide” when people come over.
I wind up hiding things because I have a hard time putting them away, especially frequent-use items. Surely, I’ll need all 27 books and 14 literary journals by “my” side of the sofa. Along with my laptop, cell phone, tablet (free with the cell phone!), e-reader, box of tissues, assorted pens and pencils and highlighters, cuticle moisturizer, hand moisturizer (paper is hell on hands!), nail files, stick-it notes, bookmarks (brass and paper and torn pieces of tissue), television remote, bills, catalogs, the house phone, and plenty of snacks (chocolate and salted varieties).
What I know is that most clutter-busting experts recommend keeping a basket in each room of the house so that this avalanche of every-day items can be quickly (and tidily) “hidden” in plain-sight. My living room basket is currently full though (I’m really back-logged on literary magazines) and the other baskets are nesting together, emptily, in another room of the house, looking pretty (and neat!) stacked there.
When I go to friends’ beautiful, clean homes and spend time in their curated living rooms and kitchens, I notice how, well, messy, I am. They have one decorative blanket slung over a chair; I have six stacked in the corner. They have an eclectic assortment of plates and glasses, I have 18 matchy-matchy place settings even though we no longer entertain large groups of friends. They keep their bedroom doors open, beds covered with colorful pillow cover/duvet ensembles and beautiful art work displayed in small collections throughout the room. Our bedroom door is shut, with three weeks of clean laundry (bed/floor/bed…wait, is this dirty?) to fold and put away.
Early on in my home ownership and home comfort-creating life, I thought I was messy because I needed to learn more about housekeeping. The first resolution to my “messiness” problem was to look to housekeeping magazines for help. Soon, the side table was stacked with Real Simple, Martha Stewart Living, Dwell, House Beautiful, Better Homes and Gardens, Southern Living, and Sunset magazines. Every trip to the hardware store yielded a specialty publication—how to organize a kitchen (an entire magazine), how to organize closets (a separate magazine), how to organize the garage (another separate magazine), and how to build a garden shed for garden equipment that would be so beautiful and homey that me and my friends would eat my never-grown home-grown tomatoes (from a specialty magazine on container gardening) with an artful splash of balsamic vinegar (from Bon Appétit magazine) off the clean-swept floor.
With the advent of HGTV, I learned that all of these beautifully photographed closets, garages, and kitchens are “staged.” Everyday household items are edited from the room (mixing spoons! books!), fresh flowers are brought in, hardwood floors polished, and expert lighting technicians make these spaces much more photograph-in-a-magazine-worthy. Several years ago, I got rid of the magazines and stopped acquiring them on trips to hardware and grocery stores. Already, less clutter—certainly an added bonus.
Looking at these photos, even knowing that these spaces are staged for mass-consumption, still gives me a case of home anxiety, or something I’ve been calling “house porn.” I’m addicted. Although I got rid of the magazines, I will spend hours on Pinterest if I’m not careful. Looking around my messy living room, I need an orgasmic fix of beauty and order. I sit down and open the laptop. What if we changed the tile in our hallway? Surely I’ll need to know how to paint the old oak cabinets in the kitchen, or to xeriscape for our high-desert climate, and, yes, I still collect photos of tidy (and unrealistic) gardening sheds even though I have never gardened and now live in a too-arid climate.
Something has started bothering me, though. What has caused this rise in surroundings dissatisfaction? Shouldn’t it be more than enough that I am in a position to live indoors? Maybe it’s the absolute difference between the real and the staged. Surely there has to be something in between? Something where everyday items manage to be utilitarian and displayed interestingly in a non-cluttering sort of way. After all, let’s be honest: I’m not getting rid of any books. Do I need more space or less stuff? What else is happening?
Compounding this disorder and dissatisfaction is a third factor: my projects have a way of multiplying. What at first seems like a weekend project (cleaning the garage) migrates and morphs in such a way that it becomes a project of epic proportions. I have a breakdown. I sit in the middle of the newly-created mess, wondering what went wrong--wasn't this supposed to be easy?
The Empty Brain by Robert Epstein
This morning as I applied my makeup, I looked into my own eyes in the mirror and counted years, a tricky thing to do because I still need my fingers to count and mine were holding eyeliner. I was counting years back to the last time I was considered the “right” weight for my height and size (according to the CDC’s body mass index); 23 years and, if your hands are full also, that was back in 1993. Even then, I felt incredibly overweight. In fact, I simply had an hour-glass shaped figure in an era of supermodel thinness.
My friend has a picture of my husband with a beautiful woman—long dark hair, a red blazer with fine wrist bones peeking out from underneath her sleeves—laughing next to him. I ask who she is and my friend and husband both look at me because it is me, unrecognizable in this body, now not mine.
My appearance and weight actually do not occupy a lot of my mind-space or time. My clothes all fit me for the size I am right now. I have let go of clothing in my closet that is a size down or a size up. I know my size, so I can shop on the internet without dealing with too-small dressing rooms in overly-lit fluorescent department stores with grandmotherly sales clerks who tell me I have such a pretty face, if only…
The unfinished thought hangs heavy, and so today, I finish it: “if only I would lose weight.”
Phillip Lopate writes on the necessity of turning oneself into a character while writing personal essays. One of the key steps is being able to have some distance from ourselves in our essays, something he calls a “ceiling view.” I think about the way I view myself and how I sometimes surprise myself. Most days, I can look in a mirror, comb my hair, apply my makeup, and move on with my day. But once in a while, I catch an unguarded glimpse of myself—seeing my reflection in a window on the street or in a mirror at the store, and think “that poor chubby woman!” before realizing it’s me.
I want to get to this “ceiling view” of myself that Lopate talks about. For now I seem stuck standing eye-level with myself in the mirror wondering which image of myself I will see today. How do I laugh about this situation I find myself in, or discuss health issues and medication without being defensive (or worse, making excuses) about the weight gain? How do I get out of my self enough to see that delusion that someday, I will wake up, preferring broccoli salad over cheeseburgers? How do I convince my friends that it’s okay if I call myself fat because it is a part of acknowledging my body as it is now?
I recently went to a party where all the women wore cute dresses. One friend noticed me looking at her slim gold segmented belt, encircling her waist, somehow capturing both her purposefully too-short lime-green cardigan and blue flowered dress in a perfect symmetry of togetherness and style. What my expression must have relayed I can only wonder. My head of course was mentally inventorying my outfit—gray cargo pants and a large, flowing flowered top. I think about how, even if I was thin, I would not have the wherewithal to put that outfit together. I know there is so much more to our identities than constructing the perfect outfit, or, conversely, being overly-aware that those clothes I adore from the J Crew catalog just won’t fit. That I can buy and return the black and white striped boatman sweater over and over again? “Too short,” I’ll complain on the return slip or, “not as shown in the catalog.” In the catalog, the tall, slender brunette wearing the striped boatman sweater has a puppy or a laughing child, or both. Perhaps, I’ll settle for “does not meet expectations.”
This is not a screed against what I read of the “culture of thinness” in our society. Nor do I want to belong militantly to any “body positivity” movement. I am genuinely curious how I arrived at this place. There must be others in my situation who aren’t in an either/or camp. Not liberals or conservatives, but moderates. Libertarian, even—because I can take responsibility for my own state of affairs and won’t blame the government for not abolishing high fructose corn syrup.
The distance from myself I can’t seem to find is asking what I have to add to this conversation of weight and body image. I am beginning to understand that what I do have is a brain that makes connections and leaps, tying together disparate things. I’m just not sure how to apply it to this issue of weight and body image.
By at least starting this inquiry, I wonder if I can elevate my perspective, if not fully to Lopate's ceiling-height, at least a few feet off the ground. Perhaps coffee table height. That seems a good place to start.
On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character by Phillip Lopate
Fat Girl by Judith Moore
The Worst Thing to Say to Your Fat Friend
Yesterday, I spent some time with friends cleaning a public art installation in our town. Someone had intentionally smeared feces all over the project. My sadness turned into something else as I drove home. It turned to anger.
I am still learning the power of my angry words. Fortunately, I (still) have friends who have told me how I have hurt them with the turn of a phrase. It is unintentional—I can’t stand the thought of hurting someone I love with words, especially when I consider the power that others’ words have had over me. But this is not always true with my writing.
Arriving home, I barely spoke to my husband and instead went to the computer, where I found myself at the keyboard writing about the vandalization and the clean-up. I couldn’t take the time to hand-write this essay—instead, I chose the most expedient way, typing. Somehow, it seemed like the finished product should be more public, and so I posted the essay as a note on Facebook. The last thing I did was make the post public, purposefully sharing it with everyone.
One of the things I’ve been learning as I turn to writing full-time is to write for myself and not care what others think about what I write. There is personal satisfaction in finding the best words and, at times, working over a sentence until it expresses exactly how I feel. But this essay was different because I did put it on social media—not just the words, but my anger as well.
Here is the problem with anger in general—it is uncomfortable and it makes others uncomfortable. My harsh words created discomfort for those who may not have ever seen me truly angry or hurt—their instinct was to remind me of all the good things about the installation and project overall. These reminders made me angrier, mostly because I have this tendency myself—to prettify the putrid and hope for better days—and seeing it reflected back to me was in itself uncomfortable. I wanted to respond to every one of those who tried to cheer me with even more anger. Why?
Others had a different response, which was to absorb my disgust and anger and to share my words with others. It is my most-shared, most-read piece of writing according to Facebook’s analytics.
This is what I wanted, wasn’t it?
This anger was now not my own. It had spread to others. I had queasy misgivings late in the day and early into the evening about putting my anger on display and, worse, spreading it around for others to inhabit. I wanted to edit and delete the piece so much so that I turned to the thing I know how to do—cleaning. I distracted myself by scrubbing the heat disbursement plates of the outdoor grill. And then painting a door in the garage. These projects just made me angrier. I wrote finally to a wise friend who reminded me to accept and be grateful for the anger.
We are used to labeling anger as “bad,” but my friend was right. Anger is natural when we are confronted with something that assaults us. I don’t want to push this anger away—it spurred me to action in the form of writing and I did bring awareness to the issue.
I’m still examining why I posted the piece to Facebook and made it public. I am not sad about the essay itself because, like many, I don’t always know what I’m thinking until I see my thoughts written. Rather, what was the need inside myself that brought the essay to a public forum? What in myself necessitated this sharing of my anger?
This essay today is like the scrubbing of the grill. What I really wanted to write about when I sat down this morning was the outright murder of Philando Castile. But the heat disbursement plates need to be reinstalled before I let my anger burn again.
On the Pleasure of Hating, by William Hazlitt
(with thanks to William Bradley for introducing me to this essay)
This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things (the original Facebook post)
Understanding Racist Violence
A friend recently asked if I could recommend any good essays on editing. I was hard-pressed to think about editing at all because, although it is not something I hate, it is something I consider with a little bit of fear.
Editing has become easier with computers, of course. But this power of easily deleting a paragraph or a page or a whole essay or short story is all-powerful and not to be taken as lightly as it is. There’s no recalling lost words (unless, of course, you scour your temp folders or patiently “undo typing” in Word). But is it so bad to lose words in the first place? Clearly, something compels us to get rid of the awkward, the ill-phrased, and those not-perfect musings on the page.
Because many compose their work on computers, editing and writing seem to go hand-in-hand. Delete, copy and paste, start again. This style of composition and erasure also works with our multi-tasking minds. Write, re-write, delete—but when do we look at the whole? How can we re-write and delete while composing? Don’t we have a hard enough time coming to a blank page without our own worst enemy—ourselves—taking away words before we’ve even had time to appreciate their structure and meaning? Are we constantly removing the bracings and framing before the whole house is built?
The hardest thing with writing is to let our minds wander freely. We set out intent to follow the course of our original idea. Our brain always has other plans. It sets out with a topic, but is easily distracted. The coffee smells divine. The sun is hitting the writing table just so and the whole tableaux reminds us of another time writing on another subject and off we go. Then, we must admonish ourselves. We got distracted. The brain then reminds us of preposition usage. It questions if what we wrote is really important and necessary to the piece. It asks one of the most damning questions—will readers even be able to follow us? Do we make sense to anyone but ourselves?
When we are unsure of ourselves, rules can be comforting. Surely we can’t let our brains run freely on the page. What if we let others see what we are thinking? What if we are wholly exposed to our own selves?
I’ve returned to mostly composing on paper with pen. It is slower and, sometimes, I do lose my train of thought or find that my hand and pen cannot keep up with the flow of my thoughts. The benefit of handwriting for me is that whatever I’m working on is more connected to me as a piece of art (not to be confused with being “precious,” which is a topic for another day). This is a kind of creating for me that I thought for a long time was possible only with oil paints and pastels. The feel of a pen on paper, the idiosyncrasies of my own ever-changing handwriting—these things keep me in touch with the feelings I have for the piece I am writing. Is my writing slanted because I’m rushing to get the thought out? Upright and loopy because I feel dreamy and am lost in the possibilities of the piece?
Afterward, I look at the piece and make some initial corrections. I don’t even consider this the editing process yet. Simple things like noticing spelling errors and drawing sloppy arrows to this paragraph here and moving this other block to the second page. The next step is transcribing what I wrote onto my computer. The goal is to leave the piece relatively intact as I move from paper to bytes, but I do try to compose and transcribe the same day to keep the original intent and feeling of the piece.
Editing comes in a day or two because, I will admit this, I am so in love with what I wrote I need to take a break. It’s not the piece, it’s me. I lack perspective. Being in love with a piece doesn’t mean I won’t get rid of anything. But I won’t get rid of anything while sitting at the computer. It’s old-fashioned, but I print the piece and go through it with a pen or pencil. If it’s a challenging piece, I take scissors to it and lay it out on the floor, thinking about which parts better go together. With this round of notes in hand, I return to the computer to transcribe again.
Lastly, I am fortunate to have an amazing grammarian and copy editor in my husband, who goes over each piece with his red pen. Sometimes, he asks a question or inserts his own voice into conversation with mine as marginalia. The grammar edits I accept; the other comments, I pick and choose. Being able to understand when a comment will help the piece or take me in a direction I don't want to go in has been the biggest part of my self-awareness as a writer. Now when I work with journal editors, I am able to implement suggestions that will augment my piece as well as discuss why a certain change won’t work. In the end, we all want the best piece that I can write and everyone is on my team.
For me, composing and editing must be separate processes. When I allow grammar rules or self-recrimination (“Really? Is that the best way to write this?”) to sneak into my writing time, it interrupts my brain in an unpleasant way. And, if I let the editing brain in long enough, the piece is abandoned as stupid and unworthy of being fully written, killed before it even has a chance to sprout. I’m tired of tending the garden of neglected ideas. I’d rather plant seeds where I can and see if anything comes to fruition with a little bit of love and time.
Suggested Essays/Further Reading
Revision Advice from the Judges’ Table by Caitlin Horrocks
On Keeping a Writing Notebook (or Three) by Randon Billings Noble
On Keeping a Notebook by Joan Didion