One of the patterns of my life is moving (I do it a lot). This blog post is about patterns, and editing techniques I use in my writing. Maybe I enjoy editing because it involves a lot of moving around.
Writing our stories can help us see, and perhaps even understand, our life’s patterns.
It wasn’t until after I had been working on the editing of a 1000-word essay, off and on, for a month, that I began to see that one of the themes in my life is a preoccupation with what makes us beautiful.
The editing tools I use most often are–
- whittling (condensing and deleting);
- and flow (mixing sentence styles and structure).
- Then I try to include a word that indicates a theme in both the opening and closing paragraphs. In this case, the word is “beautiful.” That bit of editing often comes last, because I usually don’t know what a piece of writing is about until after I’ve tinkered with it for quite a while.
When I start with an abstract idea–love or beauty–I end up with an abstract and boring piece of writing. But when I begin with a specific memory (my Chrissy doll) and play with the words and structure, an organic theme emerges.
During the editing of this piece, I began to recognize that I’ve spent my life trying to see beyond the surface of appearances. Although, like most people, I’m attracted to–and sometimes duped by–external beauty.
So one of the motivations for writing, is to discover meaning in our lives by recognizing its patterns. And sometimes those patterns only unfold in the editing process. Here is an edited essay I wrote. It emerged from the January writing prompts I posted here on January 1 and here on January 12. First I’ll share my little essay with you, then I’ll discuss the mysterious process of editing, which got me from first draft to finished essay.
If free-writing is like a wheelbarrow full of bricks, editing is the labor and purpose that transform those bricks into a path that leads somewhere.
Here’s the essay:
“Everyone knows that beautiful hair makes a girl look beautiful,” the Chrissy doll commerical says.
It’s 1970. The room is white. The smiling girls in the commercial are dressed in white dresses, seated at a white table. They admire the auburn-haired Chrissy doll because when you press the button on her tummy, her hair grows and grows. Oooh!
I want to be beautiful. I want hair that grows and grows. But my hair is as fine and fly-away as baby-chick fluff. I covet Chrissy’s silky, glossy, swingy long hair.
For the whole month of December, I make absolutely sure my mom is constantly thinking about one thing and one thing only: I need a Chrissy doll.
I need that doll because my baby sister turned out to be a brother and we have a diaper pail in the bathroom and it smells like stinky babies in there. I need that doll because my friends’ moms stay home at night and tuck their kids into bed. My mom doesn’t. My friends’ moms hands are not chapped. My mom’s are. I need that doll because it will make me beautiful and popular and happy.
My mother is always up to her elbows in dishwater and she’s only 25 years old. After my dad comes home from work at 4:30 in the afternoon, my mom leaves for the restaurant. While she dresses in her black and white waitressing uniform and stands in front of the mirror applying her mascara and lipstick, I follow her around to remind her that I hope Santa will bring me a Chrissy doll. Then I surprise myself by asking something I am only just beginning to wonder.
“But there isn’t really a Santa Claus, is there?”
She takes a deep breath and I know she is going to say, “Oh, yes, there is a Santa Claus!”
Instead, she says, “No, there isn’t but don’t tell your brothers.”
So, what’s the point of being good all year long, and not crying when the bathroom smells like ammonia and why pretend that I don’t mind that the sister I waited forever to see is a boy who poops all the time?
My eyes fill with tears and I start blinking like a racoon caught in the porch light who doesn’t know which way to run. So my mother starts killing herself softly with a ridiculous guilt-song that says mothers are put on this earth to protect their children from every twinge of disappointment. She vows to herself she’s going to buy a Chrissy doll and she’s going to tell me it’s from Santa.
For the next whole year, I tote my Chrissy doll with me everywhere, as if I am Lucy’s brother Linus. Chrissy is my security blanket. Chrissy rides in the basket on the handlebars of my bike. I take her on picnics. She sleeps in my bed.
It’s rather exhausting, inventing ways to prove that I love Chrissy when the truth is, she’s a stupid bore.
But there is so much I just cannot say to my mother. She would never understand if I told her that it’s not fair that the room doesn’t turn all white like heaven and my dress doesn’t get white as an angel’s just because I am playing with my Chrissy doll.
And her hair doesn’t grow. I have to push her belly button, which is kind of gross, and while I push her belly button I have to yank on her mane to roll her hair out like thread from a spool. To shorten it, I wind (and wind and wind) it back into her head, by twisting a dumb dial on her back. And if you’ve ever tried to wind thread back onto a spool, you know that there are bound to be tangles.
After a few tugs on her hair, followed by long boring rewinds, Chrissy’s nylon hair gets ratty. It resembles my own frizzy chick-fluff. No matter how much I brush and brush her hair or mine, neither of us will ever have the kind of mermaid locks that make a girl beautiful.
I know Santa isn’t real. And I know it’s foolish to believe what they say on television. But I see how happy it has made my mother to give me what I wanted, and so the pretense–that I love this dumb doll–is not exactly make-believe. It springs from a special kind of emotional complication that goes along with growing up, when you have to think about the way your actions might affect someone else, when you decide to be thankful you got what you asked for, because that’s the right thing to do. Growing up starts to happen when you feel funny about being nice just because you hope you’ll get a present. It happens when you understand that being thankful is another way to be beautiful.
Of course I couldn’t articulate any of that stuff about love and beauty when I was eight years old, because I didn’t know what I was doing or why. I still, in the present moment, rarely know what I’m doing or why, especially when it comes to relationships and intimacy.
I don’t know why the writing of my memories helps me begin to comprehend something about the meaning of my life. But I do know that it works, and that’s why one of my life’s passions is to encourage others to write and tell their stories. I think every human life is meaningful, valuable and worth digging into.
When we write our memories, we explore them as if we are miners looking for minerals and gems. We seek to uncover what is hidden or buried.
I want to uncover the ways I, my family, friends and loves have tried–and sometimes succeeded but more often failed–to understand each other. I think the trying is more important than the succeeding. And I’m interested in the emotions and complications that might point toward the truth about what really and honestly makes people beautiful.
When I first wrote the Chrissy doll episode, it was a pile of incoherent images, confusing sentence fragments and misspelled words. It had twice as many words. The sequence of the story was all out of order–I began with the ending. I didn’t know what I was writing about. It took a number of revisions before I realized I was about learning to see my mother as a person, instead of as the provider of my desires.
After I write a new piece, I put it away for at least two weeks. Then I bring it out and fuss with it. I edit. I whittle and rearrange, replace boring words with spunkier ones.
For example, in my first draft of this blog post I wrote– “I cut away extraneous words and try to put the story in the right sequence.” In revision, those 15 words became these four words:“I whittle and rearrange.”
I rearranged words within sentences, sentences within paragraphs and paragraphs within the plot of the essay. I moved the sentence, “I need that doll because it will make me beautiful and popular and happy,” from the beginning of the paragraph to the end. This changed the thought-progression of the paragraph. Now it begins with the concrete and personal and moves to abstract and universal. Now that paragraph is an opening up and broadening of thought, instead of a narrowing down of thought.
When I’m revising, I try to mix in a variety of sentence structures and length. In the following paragraph, I consciously sandwiched a short simple sentence between two longer, more complex sentences.
After not very many tugs on her hair, followed by long boring rewinds, Chrissy’s nylon hair gets ratty. It resembles my own frizzy chick-fluff. No matter how much I brush and brush her hair or mine, neither of us will ever have the kind of mermaid locks that make a girl beautiful.
A whole paragraph of thirty words about how the television commercial made Chrissy’s hair flow, swing and swirl like a mermaid’s hair under water became simply “the kind of mermaid locks that make a girl beautiful.”
In revision, I listen to the flow (the rhythm of the words) and I look for the essence of the piece–what is this writing trying to say?
It’s about what’s beautiful. Hair? No. Caring about someone else’s feelings is beautiful.
I think the most useful advice about editing is to remember that editing, like all relationships, is best when it incorporates humility and patience (and that advice applies whether we’re editing our own work or someone else’s). Set aside pride and haste, and take a good honest look at what the words are doing. When editing your own work, work with the words, sentences and paragraphs until they’re as spiffy as you can make them. Respect them, value them, but don’t idolize them. And don’t hurry the process.
When a piece of writing clicks, when it captures something unique or interesting about an emotion or a place, when it surprises you that you are the author, you’ve probably got a good piece. Put it away and look at it again in a few days. Often there will be a few things that still don’t feel exactly right. Tweak them and set it aside again. Keep doing that until every word feels right.
Then move on to the next piece of writing.
So, have you uncovered the theme of the piece you’re currently working on? Do you have any idea how a theme emerges in your writing? And do you have any clue why hair is such a big deal?