What I Know About Writing

Don’t mistake editing for writing.  The domain of one is creation, the other efficacy.  One deals in foment, the other in grooming.  Writing is a great glacier thawing, and editing is building channels that, hundreds and hundreds of miles from the source, bring water to taps.

Editors write and writers edit, but the writer sees more than he or she can manage and struggles to enclose it in a single frame.  An editor who aspires to writing has to stretch a tiny canvas too small for a frame. The writer’s images bloom full and rich, and the editor’s are super attenuated, thin, stylized, and arch. Both might be beautiful, but one for its color and life and the other for its design. An editor knows words and syntax. A writer knows words and syntax count for little.

Thus, when an editor writes, the game is generation—how to make an observation into more than itself.  Wordplay, metaphor, and imagery take the stage, and plot stalls.  If the editor can’t find a subject, at least the writing will be clever and plain.  Occasionally it may even rise to something lyrical.  Effective editing can make a basic idea—an obvious idea—moving.  Still, the magic of editing is the cheapest sort, impressive from only the audience’s angle. It’s artifice they must agree to accept.

Meanwhile, a writer invades dreams, rendering tone and color without translation. A writer sucks the dream into his or her mind.  The editor can barely draw a breath.  Writing isn’t always messy, but when it is, the mess is a nest’s lumpy perfection.  It’s no-other-way-would-do, organic serendipity.  If the writing is neat, it’s crystal, a lattice nature makes by aligning charges.

A shrewd editor is a subtle Dr. Frankenstein who assembles parts so skillfully the borrowing can seem new.  Everything compiled has been used before, but the editor hides the stitches. And it’s all stitches. The parts may be no grander than a well-turned phrase or arresting image, but the editor draws them tight, nearly to impossibility.

Good writers don’t need editors, but sometimes one appears, bag of tools in hand, ready to play amanuensis. “Let me help,” the editor says and hopes blind and brutal effort will put him in the work.  But the editor’s labor nearly always detracts.  What’s made clearer also becomes thinner.  What remains is a less robust and complex version, no longer confusing perhaps, but also no longer art. The editor may take credit for changing cacophony into an aria, but the aria loses its opera.

The writer wants to sing, so does the editor.  But the editor never forgets the audience and awaits applause.  He extends his work only when timing demands and cuts words to avoid threatening patience.  He searches for a nifty place to finish—not true resolution.  He wants out.

And, above all else, an editor is doomed to know he isn’t a writer, doomed to see the difference between fastidious prose and brilliance.  He knows his place, and all too well.


Filed under Art, Doubt, Envy, Essays, Genius, Laments, life, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Writing

2 responses to “What I Know About Writing

  1. What does it mean to be a writer whose job it is to edit the writing of young people? Or someone who thinks he’s a writer and edits the writing of young people. Where does he fall in this system?

    Good questions. I suppose in some cases I’m helping them learn to corral all their own foment–to play the editor as well as writer. In some cases, I’m turning them into editors. They’re missing ideas but at least they learn how to choose and arrange words. It’s probably more the latter than the former, but we don’t usually get to find out which. Whatever they become seems well down the road.

    Sometimes, I think I’d love to just let them write without editing their work at all, but that’s not what’s expected of me or anything I feel accomplished doing. So I edit. Sigh.

  2. I love this: “Writing isn’t always messy, but when it is, the mess is a nest’s lumpy perfection. It’s no-other-way-would-do, organic serendipity. If the writing is neat, it’s crystal, a lattice nature makes…”

    Sometimes I think I would be better off if I could forget all the caveats I learned in school. When they do slip my mind, it’s like having rocks removed from the stream…the flow is straight and swift, no time to look back, just forward until the ride is over.

    I feel exactly as you do, that I do my best writing when I just write, but, as this piece may or may not make clear, I’m doomed to neat phrasing. I wish I experienced your stream more often. I’m better at manipulation than creation, placing those rocks so they won’t impede too much.

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