Saturday, October 06, 2007

I’D RATHER BE EDITING

Something strange has happened to me in the past month. I found a new passion.

I’ve always been one of those people who loved to write but hated to edit. Writing represented creativity, free expression, individuality … What’s not to like? Editing, by contrast, represented anality. You can’t just let your mind roam freely when you edit. You concentrate painstakingly on every word and every comma. You observe all the “rules” of proper writing. You leave the mountain air of the artiste, and enter the dungeon of the drone.

For the writer, I thought, each page opens another door. For the editor, each page becomes a chore. It’s the difference between Cinderella after she meets the prince, and before.

That was my old attitude. Now I’ve seen the light. The change was prompted by the fact that earlier in the year, I turned my attention away from the novel I had been working on and toward other activities. Perhaps six months elapsed since I had read my manuscript, and during that time I had received some nice feedback on it from friends but nothing that caused me to re-read the document in its entirety. Then, when it was accepted for publication, I realized that I had better give it another read. And I’ve been an editing fiend ever since. In fact, just taking the time for this blogpost seems like an intrusion on my new obsession.

One month ago, my manuscript was 96,000 words (as a point of comparison, The Creed Room was 101,000). Today, the manuscript is 93,000 words, and I still have more slashing and burning to go. My attitude might best be illustrated by the way I felt after I removed one especially well-written paragraph upon recognizing that it was part of a scene that didn’t make the grade. When I later realized that I could probably find a place for the well-written paragraph, my feeling wasn’t joy but frustration. It meant that I’d have to add back a couple of hundred words, and I didn’t want to add. I wanted to slice, dice and extract. The Hindu God of Shiva, the destroyer, has obviously taken hold of my soul.

Well, perhaps it isn’t Shiva that has possessed me. Perhaps it’s that word that has become Hillary’s mantra and Obama’s doom: experience. What I’m describing, you see, is something that experienced writers mention over and over again when they discuss their craft. It’s not enough to be able to spill a stream of consciousness onto a page. We must also be our own toughest critics. Good writing is tight writing. And good writers are self critical to a fault. That’s what enables them to draft a manuscript, put it down for a little while, and then rip their own work to shreds, thereby separating the wheat from the chaff.

I’ll never see myself as a truly experienced writer. I’m a practicing attorney who writes on the side and who didn’t start writing full-length books until my 40s. Something tells me Tolstoy has nothing to worry about on my account. Still, this little adventure with editing my own work has made me reflect a bit on this concept of experience. And it has taught me a bit about how to apply this concept to the domain of politics.

My new-found passion for editing was born from multiple causes. First, I distanced myself a bit from my manuscript – it wasn’t so integrally tied to my sense of self as, say, my first novel. Second, I had enjoyed enough success as a writer (success is a relative term, Mr. Tolstoy) to feel secure enough about slashing and burning without fearing that I was somehow removing the Crown Jewel. Less experienced writers become so enamored with their initial efforts that they don’t dare give them up, lest the world lose out on some of their brilliance. Third, I appreciated the writing process a bit more from the standpoint of the reader. Most readers don’t have time for drawn-out narratives. They appreciate brevity, as it allows them to read more books or do other things. Why shouldn’t I accommodate them?

Experience is indeed a great teacher. And that seems to be the view of more Democrats every day. Hillary “Are You Experienced?” Clinton is starting to resemble Secretariat at the Belmont. Her lead widens with every poll. When voters are asked why they prefer her to Obama and Edwards, her greater “experience” is usually the answer they give. She’s been everywhere – the Governor’s mansion, the White House, the Senate … maybe even the Heavenly Court. The fact that she spent most of that time as “spouse” and not statesman is irrelevant to most voters; we all know that she was less a wife than a business partner. Who wouldn’t concede that point?

Obama isn’t tone deaf. He hears the drumbeat about experience. But he has a rejoinder: “You want experience? I’ll show you experience. How ‘bout Dick Cheney? How ‘bout Donald Rumsfield? Nobody has more experience than they had, and all that experience did is screw up the country! It shouldn’t be about experience; it should be about judgment. Hillary’s judgment told her to support the War; mine told me to oppose it. Vote for me, the Man of Judgment, not for her, the latest casualty of the Washington experience.”

Barack’s my candidate, but I don’t go for his logic here. As far as I’m concerned, experience is unquestionably a good thing. The more, the better. But you could say the same thing about intelligence, and that doesn’t mean it can’t become dangerous if it is misused. What makes experience truly valuable is when it is combined with humility and is not combined with insecurities. In this way, we can become self-critical, learn from history, admit our mistakes, and, if appropriate, change courses in midstream. In short, we can do just the opposite of what Rummy and Cheney and all the other “experienced” neo-cons did in carrying out their war in Iraq.

Hillary’s fans suggest that her great health care fiasco will make her a better President because it presents an “experience” that she can learn from. Certainly, they have a point. But perhaps a stronger point can be made that Hillary’s conduct in the 90s bodes ill for a (third) Clinton Presidency. By all accounts, her health care proposal went down in flames because she behaved arrogantly and inflexibly, thinking that her hubby (the Principal) had permitted her to act the role of schoolyard bully. Well folks, if those kinds of traits were part of her character in the 90s, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll be part of her character in this decade too.

When it comes to her political intelligence, fire, policy knowledge, energy level and, yes, experience, I hold Hillary in the highest regard. Yet those characteristics can turn very ugly when they are possessed by politicians whose egos are not under control. That is really what Obama would like to tell us but is too timid to do so.

When push comes to shove, what I am most proud of as an editor-enthusiast is not that I have learned something about the writing process, but that I have become sufficiently secure as a person to admit to myself that my writing needs tons of corrections. I’m at peace with the fact that I ain’t no Shakespeare or Mozart, and am not even a Salieri (or his prosaic analogue). I’m just a lawyer who likes to write, and Hillary is just a poll-driven politician who would like to govern.

We should all believe in forgiveness, and in redemption. I, for one, would be more than willing to forgive Hillary for her health care bullying if she demonstrated that she has truly changed in the past decade. But here we are, in 2007, four years after she voted to authorize the Iraq War and then demagogued in support of the War during its initial phases, and she still won’t apologize for her actions. She still continues to blame everything that went wrong on the Administration. It’s that failure to admit mistakes, that apparent self-righteous inability to be self-critical, which prevents me from saying that I intend to vote for my Party’s nominee next November. She might run like Secretariat, but my experience tells me she isn’t the woman for the job.

3 comments:

Betty C. said...

And what if you edited that post a little? (Snide LOL!)

Actually, I'm glad to see you're still blogging, writing and philosophizing. Sorry I haven't dropped by in a while...

Daniel Spiro said...

Touche, Betty.

Now, of course, you have to read the book and see if its editing is any better than that blog post's.

You were the first person to comment on this blog and now, for the moment, the last. Pretty cool.

Betty C. said...

And apparently still the only one.