The value of having a good editor is something every writer knows. When one is self-published, isolated due to the coronavirus pandemic, and a novice at book-length writing, a meet up with an editor is inevitable.
My process this year began simply: produce 1,000 words daily, five days per calendar week, and edit on Saturday. It sounded simple and doable when I began. I hadn’t expected the writing process would be a flight into imagination with no net and a flimsy tether. Maybe the editor’s job is to rein that in, put a fence around it, and get it to grow the way sheep do. There is a case to be made to turn edited rushes (results of a daily writing session after my first edit) immediately over to an editor. What decent editor would take such work without compensation?
Just because I work without income doesn’t mean an editor should. I would argue that free editors must be viewed with skepticism. Why are they doing the work, and for free? By the nature of quarantine writing, meet up with a professional editor will be delayed.
Writing the daily 1,000 is like mining coal: the writer follows the seam where it goes. As a result, common themes are found in different daily rushes. There is bad writing that must be improved. Part of the editing process is to hang thematic segments together on a time line and create a consistent, readable narrative. It takes more time than I allowed as I spent parts of last Saturday and Sunday working on rushes. I’m far from done editing and feel an urge to write more rushes.
The autobiography writer’s imagination isn’t linear or sequential. One session leads to new things, not all of them related to each other. In some cases I spent the rest of the day considering events and people once forgotten. In others I discovered new information after writing the initial rushes. The first challenge is to remember what happened and get those things written down regardless of order.
Looking at photographs and reading historical accounts informs a steady yet irregular emergence of what happened. For example, I’m working on a section called Piety Hill, which is the last place Mother said she was born at home. I remember her different accounts over the years and am not sure whether Piety Hill was her final answer, or the original and only one. I settled when writing her obituary, “Born at home on July 28, 1929, near LaSalle, Ill.” An editor might accept that as my siblings did before publication. This evaluation of stories of a single event told by different people is something Clifford Geertz wrote about. While there are multiple stories about a single event, the writer has to decide whether to present them all or to keep them simple and singular as I did with Mother’s obituary.
While thematic issues like education, work, family and travel may hang well on a timeline, the timeline is not the narrative. Too, I can’t imaging writing a sequential work with each paragraph’s content isolated from others. That’s not how we live and to construct such a thing would be a monstrosity and eminently unreadable.
For example, one of the stories I tell repeatedly is about a gathering at Mother’s sister’s home on Gooding Street in LaSalle the night Marilyn Monroe committed suicide. We children were sleeping in the living room when Father came in the room and announced the news. It seemed unusual for him to do that at the time, giving the event increased importance to our family.
The date is fixed, Aug. 4, 1962, and that anchors my narrative in popular culture. Maybe the reason I retell the story is its relationship to popular culture as something more important than what we kids were doing. The role of the autobiography writer is to de-emphasize broader cultural images and focus on the single life. My habit, and it’s a bad one, is to get out the same well worn narrative sawhorses and retell them. An editor could point out those segments and ask, “Do you really want to say that?” I need to recognize it on my own.
Because this is pandemic writing I don’t see getting an editor until I get enough written to call it a first draft, hopefully a year from now. For the time being I need a better rush editing process because even two days a week will not be enough time. That may change as I evolve into the work and gain experience with long-form writing. This week I also must return to last week’s themes and fill out detail. As I continue to unbox the archives this process will be constantly present.
One positive note is the rush editing process has helped me consider the broader themes and narrative. The end result is likely to benefit. For now, suffice it that I recognize the need for an editor. Until I get more of the first draft written, that editor will be me.