I try to shake loose my mind, so something fresh can fall out… This process acts like a sifter—sand falls through and bright nuggets come to light.
–Natalie Goldberg, Thunder and Lightning
In my last post I wrote about the struggle I was having with a particular essay. Every tweak made it seem even more hopeless—it was still crap. This Facebook post sums up how I was feeling at that time:
If I didn’t know I’d regret it highly, I’d figuratively rip this essay into a million pieces and forget submitting anything, anywhere, ever.
Well, I am happy and extremely relieved to say, after finally letting it sit percolating for almost two weeks, the essay is finished and submitted to the magazine. And I am also beyond happy to say: It was good.
Yes, eventually, it got good. I could claim to be a writer again. Phew.
How did this happen? Well, Anne LaMott was right (of course), you really do need to let it sit. But, as Anne also says, it is essential to write that “shitty first draft” and, believe me, my first (and second and third…) draft was incredibly shitty. (And reeeeaaaally long.)
Why? If I’m a good writer shouldn’t I just know what constitutes should be in a piece and what needs to be left out? How things best flow and what theme should run throughout? No, not at first. That’s what revising and editing are for. First drafts are for just getting it out. Getting out of your head and heart what you need to express. Some of these things may never see light of day beyond your journal or computer screen but out they must come. As Shrek says, “Better out than in…”
Here’s how one of my friend-editors put it:
By writing this piece over and over again, you finally got out of your system how you wanted it to go, and let it tell you why you were writing it and what it was really about.
Which brings me to the subject of editors.
I knew someone a long time ago, an artist who struggled with self-confidence issues. This person was a good artist but, as is the case for anyone practicing a craft (even if it’s practicing the “craft” of living) having a mentor could have been helpful. My friend wanted nothing to do with it, I believe because he felt it implied he wasn’t good enough to do it alone.
There are writers like this, those who think their natural talent is enough. But let me tell you, having a mentor/editor or a group of such, is essential to your growth as a writer.
My main editor-friend is a gift to me. She is honest in her critique but generous in her praise. She willingly plowed through version after version I sent her, gently coaching and coaxing me. With her guidance I dug through the dirt to find the gems.
At times I didn’t take particular suggestions because they didn’t sit right with me intuitively–when I felt it was straying too far from what I knew was my truth. Together with an editor, you get to sift through all the unneeded “stuff.” And ultimately, after letting the essay rest for a while, my full truth flowed far easier and authentically because I’d already played with the muck around the edges and the gems were more obvious.
I also sent my work-in-progress to two other writerly friends to have it seen by other eyes and new perspectives. Their feedback was invaluable too. They too were honest in their comments when something didn’t quite work for them and supportive with their positive feedback. Their joyful (almost proud-motherish) reactions to the final draft was validating and humbling.
Writing this particular essay was difficult. It was a personal narrative about a painful part of my past. Bringing it to fruition was akin to a hard labor and birth. But my main midwife-editor and assistant doula-readers guided me through it, not undermining my ability with their presence and advice, but supporting and fostering it.
Once again, I thank you, Jen, Gabriella, and Jennifer!