I’ve started getting into book revisions this week, and it’s an interesting process. Given that I worked as a freelance writer before rabbinical school, I’ve had the chance to be edited a lot. It can be challenging when the editor and I have different visions for a piece (thank God, not the case with my wonderful editor now) but I’m generally not one of those people who puts up a big fight about edits–I can think of two times in my career where I declined to edit something a particular way, and serious time constraints was a factor in one of them.
Sure, the editing process can be hard. You’re naturally protective about something into which you’ve put a lot of time and effort, and if your name is going next to the words when they get published, you wants to be sure that the words printed match your beliefs.* No question. But I have to say, writing professionally is a great way to learn about non-attachment. That is to say, something you may have written down one day is not the same thing as your blessed, immortal soul. Not even a little.
A friend working on her dissertation once asked me why I didn’t write out everything in longhand first–because with longhand, it seems, if you cross something out, you can still see it and “get it back” if you decide you want it.
Sure, I save versions of things if it seems that I’m going to be making a lot of major changes–cutting entire scenes, for example. (As it turns out, there’s at least one scene in the final mss that I had cut along the way–glad to have been able to save rewriting five already-polished pages.) But to save every precious word? Come on. You write, you change your mind, you delete, you let it go. If you decide to cut a paragraph and then later want those ideas in there, you can probably find some new words to express them. The word bank is pretty full, generally. You let something go, you make room for something else.
Greedily clutching on to words only makes you attached and makes it harder to see when your self-congratulatory pride is getting in the way of knowing what best serves the book. The book is a separate entity from you and has needs and demands of its own. (Another reason why we all need editors–authors are wayyy too close to their work and can never totally tell what’s working and what’s not.) Kill your babies, they say a lot in the writing world–the thing about your own work i with which you are most enthralled s probably the thing most likely to need to go. Learning that these words are just words and that you can just as well come up with some other words makes that whole cycle of drama a whole lot easier to avoid.
Knowing that your words are just words also has the benefit of making you feel a bunch less invested in other people’s reactions to the work, which I think is probably healthy. It’s hard when other people confuse some stuff that you wrote down that one time with your immortal and pure soul, but I’m not sure that there’s much to be done about that.
I have a friend who had shopped around a memoir-type book, and she finally found a publisher who was interested in the idea–as a nonfiction journalistic-type book, though, not as a memoir. All of the work she had done on her own story was scrapped, and she had to start from scratch. She wrote me something like, “I just think of all of those words I had already written as angels, released to the world beyond to help whoever needed them.”
I love words. Thank God I can always find some more to use.
*And I’m not talking here about non-consensual editing, in which you turn in copy and find something totally different–either less articulate or saying things you didn’t mean to say at all–published under your name. That happens, and it is eeevil. I’m talking about regular, consensual editing in which an editor sends you edits, and you revise your own piece, and they print the revised version.