Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A hatred of editing turns to...love?

When I was in college, the writer Junot Diaz came to my school to read from his short story collection. It had been out (and popular) for several years and when one of the audience members asked him when we could expect his next book, he said something to the effect of, "It'll be awhile." He then went on to explain that it wasn't that he didn't have material, in truth he already had a new book written. It was his editing process. He said that he often wrote his first draft, and then rewrote it--the whole thing! we're talking hundreds of pages--several more times. Not just going in and tweaking things several times, or reading through it several times, but rewriting it, start to finish.

I was in shock. You see, I used to be anti-editing. I use to say, "Oh, I edit as I go." Only in the last year or so (the few times I sat down to write) have I realized the importance and downright awesomeness of editing. I'm now convinced that the lines we love in books, in movies, in songs are, at least 7 times out of 10 the result of editing. I've grown to appreciate the fact that I can go back and read over my writing, press the delete button as many times as I like, and none of my readers will ever be the wiser. Heck, I can even continue to go around saying, "Oh, I edit as I go."

If I think of writing as spewing, then I like to think of editing as cleaning up the spew so that the bathroom (the story) looks spotless--cleaner even than it was before the spewing began. This a gross and not very good metaphor, but it works for me.

Today, I ended up getting out a story I started this summer because I remembered thinking that it might go somewhere. When I read over it, I noticed so many odd turns of phrase and jolting sentences, what the English major/almost-teacher in me would call "bad flow." So I spent the better part of an hour going over it with a fine-tooth comb, and while I didn't really add much to it in terms of word count, the reading and re-reading helped me think about where I might want to go with it and made me examine my own words for the meaning that might help me move forward.

It makes me very nervous, but I'm going to post what I've got here, because a promise is a promise. Nothing worse than an untrustworthy blogger.

The house was next to a tiny creek and because it was Maine in February they had joked that it was a beach party house warming. Only a few close friends remained now, the time almost midnight. The invitation had said Open House, Six to Ten. The few voices from the kitchen seemed deep and clear in contrast to the din of mangled party chatter that had previously filled the rooms. Ella walked the perimeter of the living room now blowing out candles. When she reached the stereo she turned the dial down for the first time all night. The Doobie Brothers sounded tragic at such a low decibel. She heard her husband Tom’s voice in the kitchen: “Okay I’ll walk you out, let me wash out your coffee pot quick.” Ella knew then that it was Lilly and Michael leaving. Ella had awoken this morning at five am to start her cooking to find their three-year-old coffeemaker, a wedding gift, suddenly broken: when she lifted up the silver switch nothing happened. She waited until nine to call Lilly and within the half hour Lilly was at the front door with two biggest size lattes from the local coffee shop and their coffeemaker for the party that night. The two women hugged at the door as Lilly left a few minutes later. Lilly whispered good luck and offered help later in the afternoon.

Before she blew out the room’s last candle, Ella wiped some missed dust from the mantle and pretended it had never been there, willing it erased from the memories of any of her guests that might have seen it. She turned when she heard footsteps coming towards her and when she did saw Michael in a bright and patterned Hawaiian shirt—his way of playing along with their joke—his flapping sleeve brushing up against her upper arm as he passed. He had taken the long way around the couch. Their eyes met and he whispered the first words he’d spoken to her all evening, “See you Ella. A good party.” He smiled gently, halfway—his back was to her by then, but she knew what he looked like from the back when he was half-smiling.

He walked out the front door and shut it behind him; he did not grab a coat—he had not brought one—and she imagined the pale skin of his arms turning spotty red as the cold hit him. Just like that, the moment she’d been dreading and imagining all evening had come and gone. Tom and Lilly were pattering in line down the front hallway towards the front door. Tom had the coffeemaker held to his chest and Ella walked over to them and hugged Lilly for the second time that day and took the coffeemaker from her husband and handed it to her closest adulthood friend. “Thank you for everything,” each of the three muttered and then Lilly was gone too. It was as though he had been swept away and Lilly was the trailing wave of absolution, promising that he was really gone. Tom threw the bolt on the front door and kissed Ella’s forehead. “Three more to go,” he whispered and went back into the kitchen to—stoically but without seeming to try—carry the conversation with the last three, the old college friends who would not leave until just after 2 am, after Ella had gone to bed. The dishes waited until the next afternoon—a snowy one, perfect for doing dishes and straightening up the house—and the party was remembered.

She loved Maine and the prospect of cold at nearly any time of year. She loved ordering wool blankets and flannel sheets from the L.L. Bean catalogue and proudly telling Tom or her mother that they really needed them, it got cold up here. She loved the easy solidarity with neighbors and shop owners in town and the grocery store manager when a Nor’easter was on its way. She loved the big deep couch and the big TV in the living room for curling up and watching movies on the snowy days when nothing else was possible. She was comforted by the prospect of isolation and solitude that the ever-present threat of big winter storms provided.

Her reality had been skewed ten years ago by her younger sister’s murder, and with that came the love for cold and overcast days and a mild, but always present disdain for sunshine, clear skies, beaches. She felt that the only places she could be happy were where most others could not. Ella often thought that it was not the violent act that was so terrible, but everything after, and she meant that word everything. She heard love songs about lost lovers and how they should have known all along that so and so would bring only pain and heartbreak and Ella flashed to her father in his olive green corduroys and checkered shirt standing over the kitchen sink, his face creased and his eyes prematurely elderly, thinking, of his murdered daughter, I should have known you’d only bring me heartache. She thought of her sister while she made love with Tom, just thought of her, nothing more, never allowing herself to fall over the edge into the pleasure. Just before the guests arrived for the housewarming, she cried quietly, slouching and shuddering over her own kitchen sink as she thought of her parents’ parties and she and Jeanette dashing through the human corridors of family friends, laughing, their own party within the party. She cried because she realized that though she and her sister were oblivious at the time, her mother must have noticed their misbehavior, and yet she said nothing to her daughters. She must have thought they were cute. Ella could not stomach the thought of children. All she could imagine was having two and then having to choose which one would fall away.

But none of this was crippling to her—she could go to the grocery store and wave to friends and she answered yes to party invitations and sent emails with the subject line “quick hello” to old friends and reported to her parents on Sunday evenings that things were well. She could see movies where people died.

It still needs work, but it's a start!! I think I might even know who murdered the sister...

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