The Unscripted Voice: Embrace the “Editor” in your writing life
My 7-year-old self wrote freely without censoring feelings or checking to see if “others” would approve. Words flowed from my soul through my child fingers to the notebook paper in front of me — phonetic spelling, butchered punctuation, mixed up grammar and all. I just wrote what my imagination demanded, and I wouldn’t stop until the images and dialogue faded before my eyes. I’ve always seen what I would write before I wrote it. What an exhilarating experience.
Back then, I hadn’t met “Editor.” I only knew my companions “Imagination, Storyteller and Truth-Sayer.” They joined me on my creative adventures and encouraged me to pencil the moments. I’ve always been a writer. In fact, my first books were diaries. LOL. Unpublished yet powerful scribblings of an imagination daring to form beyond the confines of societal politeness, I wrote what I saw in my mind’s eye. Sometimes they were good monsters joining me on the crusade to save the people from evil beings. Other times, my musings discussed the loneliness of realizing that friends were frenemies, who had no use for me or my Charlie Brown olive branch. My feelings gushed like newly released water from a fire hydrant. Words sprinted across the pages faster than Jackie Joyner-Kersee ever did on the track. The creative in me strengthened with every story boldly told. Seeing my words on paper intensified the need to tell more stories.
Eventually, I shared my “stories” with Mom. She always asked me: “What made you write about that?” or “What would happen if...?” Her smile and questions fueled my push to continue. Little did I know that her encouragement kept Editor hidden from view.
The first time I met “Editor” was in the sixth grade. I loved drawing owls and trees. For the record, my talent includes words only not sketches; however as a middle schooler, art class and I were good friends.
There was a contest for a no-smoking ad campaign. I drew my owl sitting in an oak tree with a bubble over his head saying something like: “Hoot! Hoot! Save the trees. Don’t smoke.” I took my time recreating the picture I had seen in my head. I drew the leaves, grass and the great oak tree. When I was finished, I turned in my picture and thought no more about it, because I was satisfied that I had tried my best. To my surprise, my picture won the contest. When they presented my picture and the award to me, my head spun. My art teacher “enhanced” the picture. She added atmosphere where my picture had been naked. She added depth where the picture had been flat. In my mind, this wasn’t my picture. I knew my voice from others and clearly someone thought my artistic voice wasn’t enough. I looked up at the teacher with questions in my eyes of “Why?” She looked down at me smiling, but it wasn’t the encouraging smile of my mother. It was a smile hiding a lie. So, I faked a smile, too. I thanked them for the award and took back my picture. I never looked at my owls the same again.
That one unwelcomed edit created a new voice in my head. When I would finish a poem or article, Editor would say: “Um...not enough detail. Um...not written with enough feeling. Um...do you really want to say it like that?” Balled up paper overflowed my wastebasket. Scribbled lines of fleeting thoughts entertained the garbage dump and not my mother’s ears. Editor had taken root in my mind.
Editor and I had a love/hate relationship. We loved hating one another. In the early years, my work saw more action from my desk drawer than in the pages of magazines and newspapers. What pieces that did see the light had been mulled over, edited for days and made into perfection. Along the way, Editor made me believe that I wouldn’t have an opportunity to be asked to the creative table again if my work was NOT up to par. Offering work that showed its verbal slip was a move akin to professional suicide. No. Editor would keep me from committing such an act. Editor also prevented me from trying at all. Frustrated beyond measure, I battled Editor. I danced in the stream of consciousness; Editor dragged me to structure. I played with passion; Editor preferred nonchalance. I sought immediacy; Editor dragged her feet in the name of perfection. Sometimes, I won; often, Editor won. We played this tug of words and wills for years. Over time, I learned to block out Editor’s voice using music or my audible “shut the hell up,” so I could hear my budding thoughts above Editor’s din of doubt and self-censorship in the name of “getting everything right”.
My first job out of college was as a copy editor. Yeah. I had become one. I had learned the tools of the trade — a scalpel and a butcher knife. Somehow over the years of looking at words, I began to see the story hiding among the trees. While editing, I snipped away unnecessary words, reconfigured paragraphs and found the hidden verbal gems. My first copy desk chief taught me everything he knew. Damn, he was good. Kevin E. McGrath* taught me how to edit quickly and with precision. We worked the night shift — 4 to midnight. Stories rushed in, and we had to make them pretty for press. He taught me to ask questions in order to guide my editing eye to the places in the stories that muddied the news or fogged the facts.
Under his tutelage, Editor and I buried the hatchet and learned to work together as a team. We had guidelines: No editing the first birth of any work. Editor must remain silent. That meant I had free reign to create unencumbered by expectations or grammar rules. No second guessing the story kernel. For me, the real story was my reason for writing the piece in the first place. Make the scalpel my friend. That meant Editor had the right to reshape sentences, story flow and story content. I learned to respect the edit, because it was then that the story shined. No dragging feet. Write the story. Edit quickly. Get it out into the world. Perfection is fear made pretty. You can always make the work tighter in your next piece.
Today, I write using these guidelines. Editor now remains quiet as I craft the first push of any work. We create harmoniously during the rewrite process. Every once in a while, we may go toe to toe on a draft. At those moments, I push the work away from me to garner a fresh perspective. Hours or days later when I come back to the work, I close my eyes and hear the voice of my 7-year-old self as she relishes in the joy of writing a story. I hear the childish giggles of the girl I used to be. My soul opens allowing words to tumble from my fingers onto the page. The story comes fast and furious. I let it happen copying what I visualize in front of me until I am lost in the creative unraveling. Editor waits patiently knowing her turn will come when together we craft an unforgettable piece.
*Since writing this blog, I have learned that Kevin E. McGrath passed away in 2013. We may not have begun work together in the newsroom as friends, but we ended as respected colleagues. I once told him to see me as his legacy. He was that excellent an editor; I wanted to be just like him. I do hope I made him proud.