Editing the Self

I've been trying to puzzle out why editing a novel is often such an exhausting, lengthy experience, which is an important question to answer when you spend two-thirds of your writing life, if not more, editing and not actually writing fresh new prose. Why is it so hard to edit a manuscript, and why does it take me (and most writers) so many drafts to come up with a clean, workable story?

One angle to this I've come up with involves the concept of the Self. Wikipedia says that: "The philosophy of self is the defining of the essential qualities that make a person distinct from all others...The self is the idea of a unified being which is the source of consciousness. Moreover, this self is the agent responsible for the thoughts and actions of an individual to which they are ascribed. It is a substance, which therefore endures through time; thus, the thoughts and actions at different moments of time may pertain to the same self."

Another way to look at self is to call it Ego. Now, Ego is a necessary quality to view yourself as an individual, much less as a writer who has something worth saying. With that said, writing, and writing fiction especially, seems to be something of a high wire act of using Ego to create a fresh a new world, worth holding up to others to entertain, enlighten, or whatever, and creating something morbidly puffed up and dull, a story that really didn't need to be told, or at least told in so many words. When I read a story, by about two pages in I'm already asking myself, "Why do I care?" and if I can find no reason to care, I usually put that book down. Sometimes a writer seems to be answering "Why do I care?" with "Well, because I cared, dummy, so you should, too, because I'm so fucking brilliant" and that's when I can't put down a book fast enough. These books often go on to (if they aren't already) become the darlings of critics, who maintain a certain kind of god-like, judgmental Ego of their own, a necessity of their own craft.

But I meant to talk about editing. When I write a sentence, any sentence, I've taken a small risk of my own. You put your Ego on the line whenever you create anything, and each page of a rough draft acts like amber, solidifying both the good and the bad. There, your brilliance and clumsiness is writ down for all to see (at least in your own mind-it doesn't matter if you actually can't even get your significant other to read it for all the tea in China) and when you come back to those initial words-days, months, or years later-you're forced to sit in judgment of each line and word of it. You have to whittle away the crappy from the less crappy, and then the less crappy to the least crappy, all the while dealing with the fact that your original Self, the one who got this whole ball rolling, would not have knowingly written anything that was crappy in the first place.

Writers can talk about slogging through a rough draft, and just getting words down on paper, but deep down we're just as addicted to the Self as anyone else, and tend to like most of what we've written. Thus, when you're editing your manuscript, you're not only editing your past words and ideas, your editing your past Self, and it's hard to chop away at your Self, isn't it?

If I may lazily reference Wikipedia again:

"The spiritual goal of many traditions involves the dissolving of the ego, allowing self-knowledge of one's own true nature to become experienced and enacted in the world. This is variously known as enlightenment, nirvana, presence, and the 'here and now'."

And so, if you're still with me Dear Reader, not only is editing a grueling physical experience of combing through draft after draft of major and minor mistakes, it also can be seen as a slow progression toward a state of perfection that is nearly unattainable, aka the ultimate realization of your words in a living, breathing story that matters to your audience and contains just enough Ego, whittled down, to make your authorial company enjoyable to the reader yet not overpowering.

No wonder I feel sleepy so much!


Anonymous said...

U feel sleepy cause ur a bum! But all encouragement aside.
1. Do godlike critics grant nirvana through their own ego?
2. Is admitting u missed a reason to continue reading a denial of ego and therefor a form of enlightenment dictated by the judgement of the critic. (overlap from 2->3)
3. How do I become a critic?

+being an artist us harder than so many have ever considered. (for YOUR ego)
And what does id have to say about all this reading?

-Wombat Arnold.

David Oppegaard said...

1. No. Nirvana must be attained in a grueling process, not granted by some desk jockey.

2. I don't know.

3. Criticize something forceful and beautiful, and when it finally dies, prop it up as a false god.

4. Don't believe the good reviews, because then you have to believe the bad.

5. Id who? But I know what Iggy Pop would say: "I ride and ride!"

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