Recently, I have been scouring the internet for photocopies of famous writer’s handwritten and edited manuscripts and notebooks. I am fascinated by the look of them – the humanity of crooked handwriting, misspellings, ink blotches and smears. More, though, I love seeing the layers of thought they reveal as writers edit, scratch out, write over the top of their original words. As they perfect their sentences and their articulation of an inner vision. (Click here to see a few images.)
Some writers grouse about revising and editing their work. Not me.
Not only do I enjoy editing my work, I love the feeling that, as I do, I come closer and closer to touching what I meant to say. In this way, the written word allows for something that my direct, spoken communication rarely does: removing the awkwardness from my expression. On the one hand, the carefully crafted written word is the ultimate in self-conscious communication – after all, it is finished on the far side of time and space to think and feel and reconsider and restate. On the other hand, the stuttering self-consciousness of face-to-face speech is utterly missing.
While I love having the opportunity to revise and edit my writing, I am also aware there are dangers inherent in this activity of revising. First, there is the danger of overcomplicating what should be simple (or at least simply stated). Any one of the few individuals who has ever received a card or letter from me in which I’ve tried to express my romantic feelings for them can attest to this – I don’t know how to write simply about my feelings. Of course, I can’t express them at all in person; complicated statements may be preferable to silence.
Another danger of editing and revision is the temptation to raise every thought or concept to the level of High Art or Philosophy (capital letters intended!). It’s easy to begin with a true, small story and end with an epic of mythic proportions. Just keep elevating the language. I have written a number of versions of a story about “Crazy Hats Day” at my Girl Scouts day camp when I was a child. They all start out as a little story about how thoughtless children can be…and all end up as missives on the great themes of Motherly Love, Shame/Guilt and Forgiveness.
A third, and probably the most insidious danger in revision is the temptation to blur the truth: to gloss over the parts where we behave badly, to obscure our own warts. In short, to fudge a little. C’mon, admit it, we all like to do some of this with the stories we tell. I know people in my line of work who, charged with addressing student behaviors through college judicial processes, will tell you everyone lies in their disciplinary hearings. I prefer to think of it as a natural human tendency to construct our stories in such a manner that we show in the best possible light. Few of us wish to be the villains of our own stories.We want to be the heroes.
For our own self-esteem, we may need to revise some of our stories to place ourselves in the hero role. As Tony Robbins has famously said, “We are defined by the stories we tell ourselves… Is your story empowering you… or is your story causing you to fall short?” However, this commentary is about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, rather than those we are sharing with others.
When the point of telling our stories is to connect with others, this form of revision can hurt, rather than help, us. What if, as I believe, our connection with others depends on our ability to reveal both our breathtaking brilliance AND our deepest darknesses? What if the world wants and needs our flawed humanness to shine through, instead of the wart-free perfection of an airbrushed picture? Perhaps human connection requires our rough or broken pieces to find compatibly rough and broken spots in another before we can not only touch, but also hold on.
When using certain adhesives, we are directed to take sandpaper to the surface to rough it up a bit before applying the epoxy. This helps form a tighter bond. I’m not, we’re not, required to share anything – not required to expose our unedited selves or stories. But if we want better, tighter bonds with other people, we need to be willing to expose the rough patches. In the process of revising and editing our life stories, we would do well to remember this and leave a few of the honest imperfections and mistakes in clear view.