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Editing: my own worst enemy

February 9, 2011

My output has always been varied. I can go for weeks at a time without writing a single word of verse, and then have three-day flashes of manic scrawling (most of which turns out garbage). Arguably the best piece I’ve written is a poem called ‘Bowerbirds’, due to appear in Magma 49 in mid-March. I think the reason this particular piece has been so successful is that I agonised over it. I had the original idea reading National Geographic on a plane, then did nothing with it for about a month. Then I tried to draft something, hated it, tried again. This happened at least three times before I reached an early draft that I didn’t absolutely loathe. As I do with most such drafts, I sent it to the wonderful and insightful Caroline Crew (check her out in the latest issue of > kill author) so she could tell me everything that was still wrong with it. She did, and the poem, at last, reached a satisfying final version.

Very few of my poems go through a process so rigorous as this. Usually, I dash out a draft or two, get frustrated with them and put them aside. Most of the time I’ll ask my friends and peers to cast an eye over them and point out any glaring flaws (in this respect, both Caroline and Harry Giles deserve a massive thank-you). Beyond the alterations that come out of that feedback, I struggle to really rip a poem to pieces and start over. It’s not that I’m precious about every image or line (often I think they’re all shit). I think the ‘editorial eye’ is just not something I can really connect with.

Last night, in a fit of desperation I printed off thirteen or so pieces written in the past six months. My intention was to take a red pen and cut any line that I was even slightly dubious about. That way, I told myself, I could begin a re-write from an utterly new perspective, one as merciless as a Flash Gordon villain.  The first poem placed on the pile by the arbitrary will of the print-queue was a sonnet.

That sonnet is still sitting there, free of red ink, smug as can be. I can almost hear it mocking me: ‘You can’t cut anything from me, boy. You need every syllable and every rhyme I’ve got, nyah nyah nyah.’ The sonnet, of course, is right. To attempt a real scrap-and-redo of a piece so reliant on its form is exhausting just to think about, and with that cocky little collection of quatrains and tercets smirking at me from the desk, I can’t get past it. I just don’t (pardon the expression) have the balls.

Is this a problem that everyone suffers from? In a lecture, Kathleen Jamie once told a class I was in that she goes through anything up to fifteen drafts before she considers a poem finished, a process that can take months. I’m still haunted by that, still driven to feel that I’m not working hard enough. And maybe I’m not, but until I can find the stamina to really hack into my own shoddy drafts, all I can do is recommence my staring contest with this bastard sonnet.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 9, 2011 10:27 am

    So I prefer to think that writing is something I do, rather than a writer being something I am. This helps me not get funny ideas about what it means to “be a writer”, and not beat myself up about my own inadequacies “as a writer”. Instead, I know that I am already writing, and don’t have to prove that writing is something I do (in the way that many writers I know feel they have to prove that they “are” writers). This helps me get a perspective on problems like yours: I don’t feel inadequate “as a writer” when I don’t edit enough; instead, I know that the writing I’m doing isn’t as good as it could be, and that the more I write the better I get.

    I think it’s really exciting that I’m still learning to write. Editing is part of writing, of course. You know that bit early on in your desire to write where you wanted to be a writer but knew you didn’t write enough? And you had to learn how to improve productivity, how to actually finish pieces? How satisfying it was when your productivity increased and you felt you were becoming a writer (or “doing more writing”)? Well, I figure it’s the same with editing. I know I don’t edit enough yet, but rather than feeling inadequate, conning myself into believing I’ll never “be” an editor, a writer, I assume that it’s something I’ll get better at doing more with practise. That, over time, I’ll get better at editing, better at writing.

    Not sure if that made any sense, but thanks for the prompt to think about this.

  2. Jason Maurer permalink
    February 9, 2011 7:54 pm

    I used to agonize over what Kathleen Jamie said as well (although it was Megan Delahunt who I agonized over, when she said a short story took her months to write, and I was able to at least finish one in a week or two, depending on how long it is) But I think it’s different, depending on what you’re doing. The inherent flaw in listening to another writer talk about their process it that it will be different for you. I think the one thing that’s a lot of fun about writing, is that as you write you begin to automatically develop your own way of doing things. Whether a story takes a weekend or two months, or a poem is finished in a feverish night-long session, what matters is how you feel about it. I used to think my writing is shit, and then after working for a few weeks, consistently, on it, I came out thinking that hey, I’d written something interesting for me to read.

    And Harry is right. I’ve learned over the years that attaching a piece of writing to your own feelings of self-worth truly does not help. But it’s something that develops over time, as you write and write and write. You get better at editing as you continue to read things over and know you can do it better. And to be honest, you’ve already gotten something published, which is nothing to sneeze at.

    And yes, this is something I’ve been agonizing over as well, for a long time. But it gets better, in my experience.

  3. Richard Chalmers permalink
    February 14, 2011 2:06 am

    It seems to me so far that creating a written work is 20% writing and 80% editing, before it is truly finished. If anything can ever be truly finished. If it cannot, then the percentage weighting just skews even further. To be fully satisfied with a piece you will return to it, and return to it, and return to it. To meet your own standards, or other people’s for whatever reason.

    Obviously there are great chasms of difference in the artistic method between poetry and prose, but there are also plenty of points where the dark and light sides meld into something that is shockingly not a tedious grey.

    When it comes to prose, no matter how pleased I am with a piece of writing, dare i go near it again, only months later, I will be stunned at how awful it is, and then realise that this means I can make it even better, again. This is why Gaia keeps going through edit and after edit. And when Draft 4 is over, I’ve got several other humungous projects all in need of second and third drafts. It will never, ever be over. And I will never be happy. But that just means that I’m getting better. If one day I set a piece aside, and then come back to it a year later and I still think it’s flawless, then I’m in trouble. Stagnation, urgh.

  4. Jason Maurer permalink
    February 14, 2011 5:24 pm

    A piece of advice I found handy? Apparently this is from ol’ Da Vinci himself, but I can’t be sure:

    “Art is never finished; merely abandoned.”

    For me, I have to abandon it after draft 4 or 5. If I don’t, it goes around in circles until I’m writing what I wrote for draft 3, or 2.

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