I recently wrote a piece about Christmas as a part of food culture, amongst other things. When my editor sent me his latest tracked-changes copy, he asked why I hadn’t mentioned alcohol. How could I miss such an obvious part of Christmas and eating? It’s not that I wasn’t paying attention – I’d thought about my Yia Yia’s Christmas ornaments and my aunt’s rocky road with cut up lolly snakes inside. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I was blocking out memories of a family member’s alcohol dependence. I’d excluded alcohol because the part of my brain that opens and connects these memories didn’t want it there. I didn’t want to remember the broken promises about sobriety, the terse conversations around filling up a glass. But through my editor’s comments, I was able to revisit and explore these memories in a new light.
I’d always thought memoir writing would be the hard part – the excavating of memories long forgotten, trying to touch the truth with your words. But the hard part lives between the first and second edit; smoothing out the structural changes and filling in the gaps.
The act of being edited has helped me explore things in my life I’ve tried to suppress. Editor’s notes in the margins have dug up memories I’ve struggled with and placed them firmly on the page, for the betterment of my work and myself. This sort of editorial relationship doesn’t necessarily always come from an ‘editor’. I have a fairly loose interpretation of who can be an editor – often it is simply someone removed enough from me, who doesn’t know my life circumstances, who can make observations like these.
The act of being edited has helped me explore things in my life I’ve tried to suppress.
On another occasion, I had written an essay for a writing class about the connection between love, family and bodily functions. But in this essay, I left out a key detail. I had written about my partner, Mat, and a night at a party where he had been sick, red wine and vomit splattered across his jacket. I received my essay back, eleven copies, with different feedback and notes. All had one key question in common – who is this?
I’d written about Mat, I’d put his name on the page; but I’d failed to articulate our relationship. Instead, I skirted around his place in my life with ambiguity. While I spoke about my parents’ role in my life in great detail and had devoted whole paragraphs to my friends, I overlooked this key part of who he was to me. As I read over the scrawls of ‘brother??’ on the edits, I came to understand that I was intrinsically uncomfortable writing about him. By putting him on the page, an intimate moment between us felt open and out of my control. Perhaps by naming him and his place in my life, I risked greater exposure and therefore a greater loss if I lose him. Once again, without thought, I skirted around the uncomfortable in my writing.
As well as being a memoir writer, I have also worked as a nonfiction editor; I’ve lived on both sides of the email chain. But it’s hard to know if I’ve brought this feeling to other writers. I’ve asked questions, and received keen detail in response, but it’s always felt as if I’m discovering parts of the writer that were already there, rather than raising old, darker memories for them.
Yet because of my own experiences, I have changed my editing practice. I try to probe gently if the piece needs more detail, uncertain if I’m bringing up something uncomfortable. I make it clear that if a writer doesn’t want a thread in the piece, we won’t go there – not all essays need to be uncomfortable to be powerful. I’m not sure if this new and quieter approach is the best, but I’ve realised that not everyone is like me, not everyone wants to uncover and write through painful memories – that is a perfectly valid choice.
Acknowledging the uncomfortable in the editing process has definitely helped my writing.
I’ve tried to use my experience as an editor to cut through my own writing, to sharpen my words and find truth in uncovered memories. But for the most part, I’m unsuccessful. I can’t remove myself from my work. I can’t be the editor I need. But when I’m working with an editor, I want them to push. Opening these doorways, pushing past my own reluctance, is the most rewarding part of my practice.
Acknowledging the uncomfortable in the editing process has definitely helped my writing. I write about myself and my life, because this helps me understand things that happen around me. Some days I’d rather clean the oven than write a single paragraph – but overall the act of writing is soothing, comfortable and joyful. Perhaps this is why my brain blocks the painful memories – it doesn’t want to tarnish an act that I have come to love.
James Wood in How Fiction Works writes that ‘the true writer, that free servant of life, is one who must always be acting as if life were a category beyond anything the novel had yet grasped; as if life itself were always on the verge of becoming conventional’. Wood argues that for realism to develop, the writer must approach life as something new. This idea can be applied to memoir – we must write as if life and its complications haven’t been written before, as if our own lives and memories are concepts that we must work to truly grasp.
I think there can be a fear of being editing in the writing community.
I may not want to get bogged down in writing about alcohol dependence, but acknowledging and deliberately choosing not to include it is always better than subconsciously ignoring its existence. But in other cases, writing through the discomfort is intrinsic to good work. Naming relationships as you see them in detail or bringing up the painful memories with a new perspective will make a work better. I know I’ve hit something interesting when my jaw aches from clenching while I’m typing away.
I think there can be a fear of being editing in the writing community. I’ve been met time and time again with writers who are unreasonably grateful that I’ve been careful with their work and valued their input into the editing process. There’s a sense of vulnerability, whether you write fiction, non-fiction or poetry, and most fear bad experiences. That was certainly the case for me early on – I was scared an editor would read my memories and show disbelief, or make a cutting observation that I could not handle. Not once has this been so – being edited has been the most rewarding experience. It not only has sharpened my words but brought memories, albeit painful ones, to the forefront of my mind, making me a better and more considered writer.