12 August 2013

The Edit

It started when I shared my last week's short story with my son. He said it was overwritten. After he kindly highlighted the overwritten parts for me, it was clear that he was right.

A dose of objectivity from a trusted source is always refreshing. In this case, it was revolutionary. My son uncovered a wider-than-expected gap between what I want to say, and how I say it. He showed me there's more work to do, if I'm to learn to edit well.

In any medium, edits are a tool or element of process. As an artist, I build up, then take away, doing as much work with a gum eraser as with a piece of charcoal. The taking away is an editing process, and it's always been more important to my art than any other aspect of it.

In writing, I had edits on an equal footing with inspiration, time management, technique, story structure and voice. Now I've learned that edits are my primary tool there, too. I also see just how much the emotional connection to one's work needs to be broken when one edits - otherwise, one seduces oneself into keeping dross.

I'm not upset by this discovery. I'm thrilled. A facing-off with a previously-unrealized fact is a moment on a long journey, it's movement, it's real, it affirms the work I'm trying to learn to do.

A cascade of events followed that took me to a new place, a country almost, where there are plenty of things to say, no lack of courage to say them - and edits rule.

In that place, I found: a New York Times article by Vanessa M. Gezari, titled "How to Read Afghanistan," a second New Yorker Magazine article by Richard Brody on the Godfather movies, titled "'The Godfather' and Style," a photograph by Hendrik Kerstens of his daughter wearing a plastic shopping bag on her head, lit and composed like a Dutch Old Master painting, further readings from William Least Heat-Moon's "Blue Highways," especially his descriptions of the Palouse region of America, excerpts from Carl Jung's autobiography "Memories, Dreams, Reflections," Arthur Szyk illustrations for Andersen's fairytales, and finding that all of Andersen's stories are now available online, and, finally, a series of movies that are either modern fairy-tales, or are allegorical: Tangled, The Rise of the Guardians, Paheli, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, Jab We Met, and Harakiri (Masaki Kobayashi's version).

From the Gezari article:

"...Afghanistan is a predominantly oral culture, where stories may be read aloud once, then memorized, told and retold, changing slightly or significantly with each telling. The door between literature and everyday language has long been ajar; even in casual exchanges, Afghans rely on allegory, metaphor, parables and jokes to convey meaning. / Such indirection is common in violent and repressive societies, but after more than 30 years of war, the Afghan penchant for elegant and oblique expression is particularly well honed. Stories give the teller power over the chaos that surrounds him. They are also a kind of code. Knowing how to read them separates Afghans from the people known in Dari as haraji, outsiders — namely, everyone else..."

From the second Brody article:

"...golden-age Hollywood style essentially depends on collectively acknowledged codes—on repression, omission, even censorship. The very nature of style is irony: a secret public confession of saying what one isn’t saying, of showing what one isn’t showing, of confiding publicly in sympathizers, and assuming that those who don’t see the style are complicit in the code of silence at which style is a sly wink. Style is a mark of savvy that creates its own secret inner circle, a dispersed and democratic aristocracy of taste. (Perhaps the ultimate evidence can be found in the films of Howard Hawks, whose apparent clarity of manner, which mimes transparency, is as severely artificial as the prose of Ernest Hemingway..."

This soup of seemingly unrelated items has a point of unification: we tell stories to understand who we are and to tell others of ourselves, and in doing so, we make personal myths, these myths are our most lasting and valuable artifacts, and edits are integral to story-telling and myth-making.

I'm full of insights that are fresh, to me. Like a someone who's just quit smoking, I want everyone to see through my eyes. But I recognize the tunnel vision that afflicts me for now, and how strange this state of mind will come to seem in a week or two.


What I've learned is so valuable to me that I made a Fairytales, Myths and More Pinterest board, with links to all of the above, as a memory aid.

And I've started adding more old poems to a Scrivener project in which I hope to revise the poems into a body of work. I've worked on the project off and on, but had not been feeling too confident that I'd be able to do what I wanted.

And I've come to a fresh awareness of the importance of stories, whether written, told, acted, or made into art, and that good edits are the making of any strong story, poem, piece of art.

Finally: from the bottom of my heart, I affirm my appreciation for the truth-tellers amongst us - the silent ones, the outliers and the clowns - who pay a price for that, as they keep us closer to what's real.