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The Art of the Self Edit

12 Apr

M says that each time you retell a story, you refine it, you learn what works and doesn’t, it all becomes more dynamic. That’s what it means to edit as a writer; it’s the same as anyone does, everyday, with a juicy bit of office gossip. You start off with a long drawn out story, heavy with details you think cannot be left out of the telling, but by the 16th time you’ve told it, your words are sharper, the details cut down to the bare minimum, and your language emphasizing just the most important bits with ease. Your story takes half the time to tell and you’ve memorized your lines and your inflections like a Shakespearian trained actor. Now it’s not so much an amusing antecedent as it is a polished monologue, ready to be whipped out at a moments notice at parties or with a conspiratorial whisper by the water cooler.

Bad writers, like bad gossips, never learn the art of the self edit. They drag you along through superfluous words and run on sentences and punchlines in the wrong spot and they end up with a convoluted plot that no one seems much interested in paying attention to. Their tone is wrong, their voices trail off at the wrong bits, and at the end you are dissatisfied with the way it all went and feel a bit like you wasted quite a large chunk of your time.

I’ve got the best story to tell just now, but it hasn’t been lived-in enough to get the re-telling just right. All the facts and quirky details seem dead important, but it’s still taking too long  to tell the story. It’s still winding around the point, it’s still meandering for too long, and even I am wondering how it’s going to end. Because I’ve got the beginning (girl moves to a house of strangers in a foreign land) and a middle (girl begins to suspect said strangers of doing terrible, weird, and perverted things), and a climax (strangers are weird and perverted in ways she could never have fathomed– a Hitchcockian twist, not a David Lynch surprise), but how is it all going to be resolved?

As M says, my last few weeks, culminating yesterday with a home movie that would make David Lynch shiver with cinematic appreciation, would make the most awesome horror story. I wonder: if we write the script, could we get Roman Polanksi to direct it?

But what should I edit out? If I work on the story, on  myself, long enough, can I edit out the anger? Can I edit out the sick feeling in my stomach or the pain in my neck and back from not sleeping well? Can I edit out the shock that ran through my body as I looked at pictures of my room, my private space being violated by half-dressed middle-aged people? Can I edit out my distrust? Can I be impartial to my own pain and fear and create something universal that other people will want to hear? Because to write well, you have to write without cruelty in your own heart, you have to try to be as clinical as possible and just let the “facts” of the characters dig their own grave. So very Chaucer of me! ha. This mess is already a story that seems to fascinate my friends, but they know all the gory details. They have witnessed this drama unfold for months, like an excruciatingly slow British mini-series. Every new incident is gobbled up and dissected, and yes, dramatized. Swear words are added in, pauses for dramatic effect where there were none fit into spaces, and hysterical laughter at the ridiculousness of each new action helps lighten the dark drama with a much-needed comedic break, transforming the frightening reality into a delightful black comedy. I guess I’d rather my life be Shallow Grave than Saw because at least then I’d be better written, and with Ewan McGregor as my leading man.

Currently, my life, as literature, reminds me a lot more of Down and Out in Paris and London, but I do think that someday, when I finally am able to write this bit of my life out, objectively, as thinly veiled fiction and not as a blog entry, the disgusting and truly ridiculous bits of the last week will be edited down to a few mere paragraphs and the rest of the piece will focus on all the beauty that swelled up and surrounded me during and after. While I should be sitting in a dark room, crying and eating fried food, I am instead sitting at a desk in a sunny room, writing away, while I can hear D and M laughing and chatting happily in one room over. The scent of Earl Grey tea is rising up from a teacup covered in hand painted bunnies and pink flowers and the quilt my mother made me is wrapped around my lap and I am eagerly anticipating the delicious coconut-vegan soup M is going to make for tea and the big screen screening of Psycho with all of my friends.

Sometimes people will try and edit you down, make your life fit into their own stories. Create a character of who they think you should be in order to bounce off the ideas of what they expect their lives to be like. Disappointment in themselves and a failure to achieve their goals makes them want to address your goals and your life. It happens more than sometimes, let’s admit that. But I do firmly believe we are all storytellers, so I’m not going to let anyone write out my dramatic monologues or pick out my dramatic conclusion. I am absolutely, positively the main character in my own little world and I am writing out anyone who is not adding something beautiful to my story. I don’t mind that for the moment I am George Orwell, because in a few more chapters I plan on being Stella Gibbons– I just have to write my way there.

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