I am fascinated with the editing process. That should not come as a surprise as I am an editor and a copy editor as well as a writer. I look at the first draft of a story or an essay as a mass of raw material, a block of marble to be carved. Oftentimes, I feel as if I’m just throwing words on the screen so that I can carve away at them, edit them into something powerful. Of course, there’s a few pieces that come out just right, but most of my stories need a few edits to find their way to freedom.
Freedom is how I like to look at it. Like the real story is being freed from this mess of words I’ve trapped it in. Often the writer both enables the story to come to life and hinders it from reaching its ultimate level of expression. The challenge is freeing yourself to let the story out, then having enough discipline/awareness/acumen to remove all the clunky stuff that may have been fun to write, but doesn’t belong in the piece. Sometimes a brilliant turn of phrase, a scene thrumming with emotional intensity just doesn’t fit the story. Being a good writer is having the strength to let excess writing/phrasing—no matter how brilliant—go. Or at least cut it out and save it in a file for future use.
When it’s flowing, editing can feel as magical as writing. The instinctive knowing of when to cut a line or a paragraph excites me. Knowing what words to insert to pull a certain emotion to the surface makes me feel tapped in to the mystical force of creation. Knowing how to decide whether shorter or longer sentences will pull the piece towards its strongest tone makes me feel like a powerful writer.
I am absolutely thrilled when I see drafts of my stories covered in marks and inserted phrases. I feel like I am progressing, bettering my work when the typewritten lines are obscured by my handwritten changes. I am fascinated with the volume of alterations I saw fit to make. Look how much work I did, I might exclaim to a friend, showing off my sheets. Perhaps I love the look of an edited page so much because it makes real the intangible work of a writer. It shows the thoughts that sparked through my brain, carried me through hours of sitting curled up with paper and pen.
And because I so love my edited pages, I have held on to a few drafts of stories with my random pen markings on the pages. I can take this with me when I speak to a group, I delude myself. I can show students, this is proof that writing doesn’t necessarily come out whole and perfect. If I show them these pages, they will understand the WORK of writing. I can frame them in succession and hang them on my wall. Then every time I go to the bathroom I can savor the marks of my heavy toil. I can just hold onto them, and one day, after I’m dead, someone will find them and say, “Wow, isn’t this interesting, we’ve never had such a complete file of edits before. This is a treasure! Now we can peer into the mind of a writer.”
Of course there has not been one speaking engagement yet, where showing off my crumpled pages was appropriate. No one wants to talk process, everyone wants to talk results. Since I am in the midst of a major purging, and I can’t bear to throw out my beloved pages without someone witnessing the magic of editing, I will distill some of my edits here in this installment of the KIS.list.
I wrote this story called “The Sexiest Seconds” for the Black Silk anthology, published earlier this year by Warner Books. Sometimes it’s so hard as a writer to honor a piece for what it is rather than try to make it similar to some other work you admire. “The Sexiest Seconds” is the story of a woman returned to Brazil in search of an old lover. It is as much a return to a beloved as a return to a beloved city. So moments in the city of Salvador play a huge part in the story. So the version of the story I submitted to the editor featured this paragraph:
“Bare foot and bare chested, the coffee boy speeds down the slender footpath. One bony hand rests on a mini steering wheel. With expert flicks of the finger, he directs a narrow handmade cart. The wheels creak against the concrete. He dodges potholes and pedestrians. His thermoses clink and clank. His cry of ‘cafezinho’ announces his approach. A hand lifts from an open window. He halts. Resting his foot on his cart, he pours coffee into a tiny plastic cup. Coins fall into his palm He jingles the coins, drops them in his pockets, and with a quick upturned thumb is gone.”
I don’t know what other fiction I was reading at the time, but after I had submitted “Sexiest Seconds,” I went back to read over it. I cringed at the words. I thought it was too choppy, too simplistic. I wanted to make it more lyrical, more beautiful. I asked the editor to let me submit another draft. She agreed.
So I rewrote:
“My eyes fall on the blur of flip-flop shod feet barreling down the slender footpath. My gaze travels up the skinny scarred legs to the spread of bare brown chest. One bony hand rests on a mini steering wheel. I am fascinated with the expert flicks of the finger, the quick navigation of a narrow cart around potholes and pedestrians. Even from the balcony, I can hear his coffee-filled thermoses clink and clank. He cries ‘cafezinho’ over the creaking of wheels against concrete. A hand lifts from an open window. The coffee boy halts. Resting his foot on his homemade cart, he tosses coffee into a tiny plastic cup. Coins fall into his palm. He drops them into his pocket and, with an upturned thumb, is gone.”
My editor was NOT amused. She said she thought the short choppy phrases carried a tension essential to the piece. Because of the narrator’s emotional state, the previous version of the story, she thought, was stronger. She basically told me there was no way she was going to use the second draft. “O.k., o.k., I told her, let me try again.” Part of me was certain that there was something too elementary about the first draft, but I got her point. I killed it with all those words. The version she accepted went like this:
“The coffee boy comes speeding down the slender footpath. His flip-flop-shod feet are a blur. My gaze travels up skinny scarred legs to the spread of bare brown chest. One bony hand rests on a mini steering wheel. He navigates pedestrians and potholes with expert flicks of the finger. His thermoses clink and clank. His wheels creak. ‘Cafezinho’, he cries. ‘Caaaffffeeeezzziiinnnhhhooooo.’ A hand lifts from an open window. He halts. Resting his foot on his homemade cart, he tosses coffee into a tiny plastic cup. Coins fall into his palm. He drops them into his pocket and, with a quick upturned thumb, is gone.”
This, she accepted. She felt it was a good marriage of the tension of the first and the lyricism I was trying to inject with the second. The first draft, I feel, was bare bones. It was a basic terse narration of the story. The second draft tried too hard to be special. What I hope the third draft did was keep the integrity of the first draft while retaining the gems from the second. There was a paragraph, I think that benefited mightily from my attempt at being lyrical. The first version read:
“I pick up a box and bring it to the living room table. My host rips it open, her eyes wide in anticipation. Gifts from home: cheese and chocolate, maple syrup and batteries. She opens the cheese at once. We eat it with crackers. Jesse went back to the States, she tells me. We breathlessly tell tales of life. What we’ve written, who we’ve spoken to, who broke up. My eyes jump to the door every time she looks away. Under the table my legs jiggle nervously. The one person missing from her report is you. My heart feels as if it would burst. Are you safe? Are you here? Are you seeing someone? I don’t ask. She doesn’t tell.”
For me, that paragraph just didn’t have enough visual resonance. It was all telling, no showing, so this is what I did in my second attempt:
“Buried at the bottom of my suitcase is a box heavy with gifts. My host rips it open, her eyes wide in anticipation. She hugs the cheese and chocolate to her chest, squeezes the batteries in her fist. She skips to the kitchen for a knife. My eyes leap to the door. Jesse went back to the States, she yells from the kitchen. She returns with a tray of crackers. In the middle of the tray is the new block of cheese, glowing like a golden treasure. We sip mango juice and breathlessly tell tales of life. What we’ve written, who we’ve spoken to, who we never want to see again. Under the table my legs jiggle nervously. The one person missing from her report is you. My heart feels as if it would burst. Are you seeing someone? Are you safe? Are you here? Can she see the questions beating under my skin? I don’t dare say your name. She leans back, belly full, and lapses into silence.”
The third draft did not waver much from the second one. For me, what a good edit does is go within. Buried in flat prose, nondescriptive phrases, boring explication, are magnificent moments—gifts of fresh experience the writer can give to the reader. Hmmm, I try to say… what is more expressive of a fear: “I look out the window and pretend not to notice them,” as it says in my first draft… or a more specific action such as “I clasp my pouch tightly in my fist and pretend not to notice them.” How can I carry the tension of the moment, what description is more specific to the action/scene at hand. And when I find it (or think I’ve found it), I feel as happy and proud as a child.
Really what I seek in a good edit is a move from phrasing that gives a reader a distanced description to phrasing that offers an immediate expression. I want the image to go straight to the veins. So in the first draft the street boys on the bus might be “screaming and passing around three brown paper bags.” In the last draft they might be “talking in husky voices” and the last boy might “plunge his face into” a brown paper bag.
I leave you with a moment from those street kids and wish you happy, effective editing:
“On a whim, I decide to go to the beach. I get to the bus stop just in time to wave down a speedily approaching bus. The bus screeches to a stop. I hold onto the door and climb into the too-high stairwell. I fish a bill out of my pouch and push through the turnstile. As the ticket taker is counting out my change, a skinny street kid jumps on. He lowers himself to the ground and slides under the turnstile. Ten more little men burst on behind him. Be careful, you told me once, when you saw street kids harassing me for my crackers. I refuse to show fear. Their rough voices and hungry eyes bounce all over the bus. I clasp my pouch in my fist and pretend not to notice them. They can’t steal what they can’t see. I have no pockets full of jingling change. No food for them to beg from my fingers. Besides they aren’t looking for prey today. They tumble into their seats talking in husky voices too adult for their frail frames. The last boy clutches a brown bag, waving it in the air before plunging his face into it. Glue sniffers, I think and a tiny feather of sadness flutters in my throat.
The bus driver presses the gas pedal and sound explodes from the back of the bus. The plastic seats are drums; the kids beat and beat and beat. A charged rhythm emerges, a crazy samba fills the air. I drape my arms across the seat back in front of me and rest my head in the crook of my elbow. The pounding vibrates through the metal seat frames, into my bones, into my blood, into me. They chant lyrics of love and longing with breathless exuberance. Each voice strains to be louder than the other. Passion is this moment and every moment I have spent in this crooked seaside city. The ocean bursts into view. The kids break into laughter before the song ends.”
Be well. Be love(d).
: : : August 2001 – present : : :
No acceptances or rejections this month.
I have received news that Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism will be out in August. My essay “How Sexual Harassment Slaughtered, Then Saved Me” is included. The book party will be in late August, I will announce it here on this list.
Last month’s reading to celebrate African Voices magazine did the usual magic of pushing me to be more active as a writer. First, I read two stories I never read aloud before. It was a small audience, so they indulged me sitting there with my pen and making marks. It is amazing how much you miss when you read in your head. It’s an old writing trick to read stories aloud to yourself before proclaiming them done. I wish I did it more often. Every time I read something aloud, I find some typo or inconsistency or awkward phrasing. But also, I really enjoyed reading “Rosamojo.” I felt like I was telling this little girl’s story (even though I’m the one who made it up). I have more women’s stories on my hard drive, so reading “Rosamojo” pushed me to go ahead and send more work out. The following week I sent out three submissions, so there will be more acceptances and/or rejections to come in the future.