Monday, December 12, 2011

Healing Between the Lines

by Zinta Aistars

No better editor than the one who can gently point out all the rifts and fault lines in your manuscript and still remain a cherished friend. I’m lucky. After dinner this weekend, I sat down with my friend, the esteemed editor, to go extensively over the manuscript I’d recently finished—what I had half-jokingly called my fantasy autobiography. Past and present truth leading into an imagined future.

And we writers all, without exception, need such an editor. Any who think this step isn’t necessary should sign up for a few therapy sessions to understand ego issues.

When it comes to editing my work, I leave ego on the other side of the door. After all, this isn’t about making me feel like a star. I’m not fishing for compliments. This process is about making my work as good as it can possibly be. Sometimes, it can also mean flinging my work into a bonfire.

We talked for hours, into the late night, about my first draft. My chosen editor asked me a great many pertinent questions. Some of them I could answer. Some left me hanging. I had no idea. Slack mouthed and wide eyed, I could only shrug.

They say writing is therapy, and I would say it may just be the best kind. To write true, the writer must stand naked in the spotlight, fully exposed, even the skin cut and peeled away to expose the meaty red beating of the heart. Hide one chewed off fingernail and a good editor will catch you on it.

Mine did.

Yet it wasn’t that I attempted to hide. Not knowingly, at least. My modus operandi in this first draft was to write so fast that I would outrun my inner critic and censor. I expected the work to be dirty. I was still hoping to achieve some kind of clarity.

Instead, what I now saw exposed on this stack of pages was not one fleshy heart, but two. I had not one voice in this story—I had two. Inside one main character, I had exposed two conflicting and conflicted persons, each one pulling in the opposite direction, and so the character twirled in one place where someone else might skip along ahead with a carefree whistle.

For the rest of the weekend, I mulled and pondered over our discussion. The weekend was almost entirely over before I dared pick up the manuscript to read the editor’s notes in the margins. I couldn’t argue with one single point. Not one. My respect for my editor friend was immense.

I rolled up the manuscript and considered tossing it into the fire pit on the deck out back. Certainly wouldn’t be the first time. At least one layer of the depleted ozone layer is due to my burning of my manuscripts. Deep inside, I always know when I have fallen short of the level I wish to achieve.

This didn’t sadden me. I recognize it as part of the process. I’d grown up watching my father, the artist, discard canvas after canvas, paint over many of them, or cut out a salvageable corner where he’d hit the mark and toss the rest. Early on, I learned that having good work to show meant having a very full wastebasket.

Was this salvageable? Was there a corner I could save where I’d hit the mark while tossing the rest? There probably were, and quite a few, but sometimes I think it is best to keep the exercise incorporated in one’s writer muscle and proceed on a clean sheet.

Yet the fault lines here went deeper than that. This wasn’t about writing skill. The fault lines were about me, my life, and where I had found my way and where I was still twirling and thrashing. Where I was still looking for answers, my writing lacked definition. Where I was still unsure about the values I admire, my heroine stumbled. Where I was still ambivalent about my own direction, my storyline got lost in the woods.

The next step for my manuscript wasn’t so much about new writing as it was about taking a moment to look in the mirror for introspection. Yes, writing is indeed therapy.

I remembered the first time I attempted to write a novel, still in my early 20s. I was just a few pages in, intoxicated with the joy of the process, when I suddenly hit a wall. I came to a dead stop. I can see myself at that moment as clearly as if it were yesterday. I sat down right there where I stood, in the middle of the kitchen, and sat cross-legged for a long, long time, thinking.

Like any story, my new novel had a main character—call him my hero if you like. What would he look like? How would he behave? What did he want in life? What caused him conflict? What kinds of mannerisms were distinctive to him? How did he respond to others? What were his ideals? What made him howl in pain, in rage, in bliss?

Holy moly, I had no idea! To move him even one step forward in the story, I had to answer a great many questions. And all of those questions came back to me. What were my values? What did I admire in a person? What made someone good or evil? To create another, I had to first define myself.

I’d once heard someone advise a writer to take his or her character out to dinner. Observe how this character behaves, eats, treats the waiter, dresses, converses. Something like a first date. It’s all in the details.

When writing my fantasy autobiography, I was taking myself out to dinner. It was a revealing experience. Where real life can tolerate indecision and waffling on goals, fiction is much less tolerant. In reality, characters move in and out of our days without ever making a second appearance. Thoughts go unfinished. Mysteries remain unsolved. If all that were brought into a book, readers would lose patience. In our books, we like our stories to have beginnings, middles and endings, with all loose ends tied up.

While something in me protested about so much orderliness in a work of literary fiction, I knew that my plot waffling reflected on my internal waffling. In my pursuit of my best dreams, I wasn’t nearly making the kind of progress I might be if I were to make a few more hard, solid, nail-them-down decisions.

I set the manuscript aside. I will make THAT decision later. There was other work to be done first. It might just require a few hours of sitting in the middle of my kitchen, cross-legged on the floor, and asking myself: Just who is my heroine? What does she want more than anything else? How will she get there? What demons must she face before she does? What is she willing to give up along the way?

Only then, answers to questions firmly in hand, can I return to my second draft.

1 comment:

  1. Nothing better when an MS is hanging, perhaps, by a thread. A glass of red wine often helps.