Editing: The Beautiful Knife

Note: This is an old post from April, 2008 that I was adding back into the "published" category tonight. We writers need to be reminded from time to time (like every day) of the value of editing, so I thought I would post it right up top again for a few days, and then stick it back onto the proper time shelf of the archives. What are your thoughts on editing your own work or working with a professional editor (scary, but productive) on your own writing?

America's favorite French chef, the late Julia Child, exhorted us not to be timid in the kitchen, to learn overall principles of cooking and then use ingredients we have at hand or think we might like; to work with the dough of life until we uncover and discover what works for ourselves; to become inventive originals rather than derivative copiers.

The first time I plunked down what seemed like a fortune for a high quality chef's knife, The Voice (she who knows all and never hesitates to remind me of my shortcomings) laughed at me. "Fool!"

But when I held that perfectly balanced deadly weapon in my hand and sliced mushrooms thin as parchment, The Voice retreated to pout in a corner. One perfect knife in the armamentarium is infinitely better than a dozen dull knock-offs that only produce clutter and ragged cuts.

For most of us, when we first begin to write, whether as a twelve year old or at fifty, the thought of consciously throwing out portions of the grand soul buffet we have laid out is unacceptable.

When we're forced into it, we usually use the equivalent of dull knives, leaving a trail of blood and poorly healed scars. Ugly.

Life is a series of editing choices. Leave this in. Get rid of that. We do it with jobs, lifestyles, the soil where we decide to put down a tap root. I edited out a husband more than a quarter of a century ago. And edited in a fabulous new one. The reflection I see in his eyes is the me I want to always be — but that's another story.

The small, but incessant, damaging drip from the water leak in the wall between my study and the master bath was not going to go away until it was fixed. The study had to be deconstructed, all the books and mementos removed, the desk pushed around, the carpet pulled back and dried, and windows opened to exchange the mildew smell for fresh air.

On the other side of the wall, in the bathroom, the cabinet man — an artist, not a wood butcher — took careful measurements, then cut out the back of the cabinet, exposing molded sheetrock and wet insulation.

The plumber came in and found the leak. A piece of copper pipe from an incoming water line had been grazed by the electrician's drill more than two years ago when the house was first built. That tiny, slow leak had made a mess. Now, it has been fixed and the mold remediated. The cabinet will be repaired, the carpet pad replaced where necessary, and the carpet restretched over a new tack strip.


You might say I wasted a lot of time taking down that all those books from the study shelves, thinking it would have to be pulled away from the wall. Like so many of the circuitous paths we take, that little side trip led me to a more fruitful understanding of the value of editing.

I found old friends amongst the books, ones for whose companionship I am finally ready. I found a remarkable collection of art books that are meaningful to someone else, but not to me, and moved them upstairs. I realized that the intricately carved wood writing table in the corner made the room too crowded, but was perfect somewhere else.  I raised the wooden blinds to open windows, and discovered the amazing morning light.

And Buck, my trusted friend who can read my words and find that one word or phrase which needs to be added, taken away or removed, suggested moving the big desk more into the center of the study so the room can be used even while repairs are made to the carpet. Whoa. That shift, a few feet to the east, changed something. Major edit. A point of view shift. Suddenly, the room works.

It is morning. Sitting at my desk in the middle of the room, surrounded by air, light and my work, I am in that sweet spot where anything seems possible.

Angry-acting developers and puffed up county staffers at the table. Maps in the middle. Lonely bird dog me on the sidelines, taking notes.

Day 5 (from September 2008 Southeast Writer’s Regimen)

#1 Version of events from old photo where I don't know the people.

The sepia tones of the old photograph lend a somber tone to it. The house is wooden, in the shotgun design, militantly lacking decoration or charm. There are four people sitting in wood chairs on the porch. They are dressed somewhat formally. A yard dog is stretched out in the dirt near the porch. I think the setting was in South Alabama, near Montgomery. A photographer was on the scene for some occasion, possibly even a country wedding. The subjects look like they are in their early to mid-twenties. Good looking folks. Smiling eyes that belie their serious expressions. Clearly a wedding; not the aftermath of a funeral.

#2 Write at least a page of dialogue between two characters who share painful past memories that are difficult to talk about.

Marti and Paul stood side by side at the freshly covered grave. Edges of the funeral tent flapped in the humid central Florida air. Three or four sprays of flowers were propped up, their hideous carnations and lillies rotting on the wind.

"It seems like we stopped being brothers and sisters kind of all at once; like one day we were playing hide and seek and sandlot baseball, climbing those big oak trees and swinging on the Tarzan vines, and then it just stopped," Marti said, studying her ragged cuticles.

Her words hung uncomfortably between them.

Paul sighed, his big shoulders hunched downward, toward the ground. "I know," he said. "The night Daddy died. That's when." His voice sounded clotted, as though his vocal chords had marinated in sour milk for years.

Marti sighed heavily, too.  "Yes," she said. "I know you're right. I don't understand it, but I know you're right."

"It was like a bomb exploding in the house. We kids were shell-shocked for years by the conscussion. And when we woke up, we were all in different places, wounded, and bleeding, and we never found our way back to each other." Paul's shifted slowly from one foot to the other, his clasped hands rising and falling slightly. He sighed again. "Our childhood blew up that night."

"I know," Marti said, and moved around so she was in front of Paul. Marti pushed windblown strands of graying hair away from her face. "But you're still my big brother. And I always loved you. We just stopped knowing each other," she said, her voice beginning to quaver toward the end. 

Marti took a step toward Paul and tilted her chin up toward his face. "It wasn't our fault, Paul. It never was."

Paul's tightly clasped hands flew apart, his face seemed to come apart in an emotional torrent, and he wrapped his little sister up in his arms and they cried together over their loss.

#3  Riff word is Egg.

The self-contained beginning of all things. The snake eating its tail. The heart of the matter. All the DNA a being needs to become all things unto itself. Nurturing. Nurturer. Chicken and the egg. Egg and the chicken.

I am hungry when I think of an egg. Warm, soft scrambled, over easy doused with bacon grease (from a past life), complicated omelettes, simple peasant style fritattas, glorious souflees, dense quiches.

Grandmother Hattie Jones kept chickens. The cliche of the mean rooster came true in her chicken yard, and the big old hens were no day at the beach either. I was scared of them all, but would risk slipping into the barn with its smell of hay, to slip a new-laid egg, warm, still finding its shape, into my small pocket. 

The great thickener of life. Eggs bind us together.

Feasting or Fasting?

The last day of any year has a certain ceremonial feel to it for me. More fasting than feasting.

I have been turning this year over and over in my hands and kneading it like Play Dough; first into a big ball, all the colors together; then rolled into the thinnest batons possible and curled into pinwheels; and at the last smushed into one lumpy mass of possibility again. 

Heavily tarnished old silver behind dusty wood doors of a seldom-opened cabinet calls to me. It was never mine, and yet I am its curator for a time. I rub all the small curliques and intriguing dents, rinse with hot water, dry and polish until I see my own distorted reflection in the metal. When was this platter made? For whom did this highly chased vase hold old English roses? How did that creamer pass from hand to hand? Was it from grandmother to granddaughter, or was it sold by economic necessity to a second-hand shop?

Things I've been thinking about and doing today. . .

  • keeping metaphorical oil in the symbolic lamp
  • parable of the talents
  • maternal advice (wear clean underwear when you go out; don't do anything that would be a bad influence on others)
  • staying alert
  • reconnoitering
  • reflecting
  • reading Ecclesiastes
  • polishing silver
  • cleaning my desk
  • defragging the computer
  • planning regular visits to the local university library 
  • organizing my writing submissions
  • thinking about book and short story outlines
  • loving this life
  • missing my former connection with contemplative prayer
  • loving Buck
  • loving my brothers, sisters, stepkids and grandkids, and of course, Maggie
  • cherishing and appreciating my fellow bloggers (youse guys) and friends
  • what else is there
  • reconsidering the holy hope (unsure/less serene vs unsure/more serene)
  • more mystery than mastery

Aladdin's Lamp Dreams 

In 2009,

May we all live our dreams,

But slowly,

One moment at a time.

One Red Shoe

There. In the middle of the West Kingsfield Road today.  One red shoe.

It looked like one of those corduroy loafer-style men’s bedroom slippers.

Did someone not like his Christmas gift? Did a child throw it out the window? Did it slip off his foot as he stuck it outside the car window in some impulsive act remembered from childhood, and then, too embarrassed to retrieve it, drove on?

Over time, I have seen many lost, thrown or abandoned shoes in a road or highway. Maybe a jogging shoe, or a work boot, upended, wearing tire treads on its worn leather. Rarely, a woman’s high-heeled pump or sandal.

There’s a random quality, an out-of-placeness about those lone shoes that disturbs me. They reek with the scent of stories untold.

Scenes from A Home Christmas

IMG_1844 Wow. First chance I've had to even look at the laptop in three days! Back soon. Hope you all are having a safe, warm holiday. Happy is nice, too. As you can see from the wrecking crew below, we've been having full house fun.

IMG_1881  The Lady in Red is Buck's niece, Sue, who brought tales of the great New Hampshire ice storm of 2008, which she braved along with her two dogs and cat at her home in Middleton, NH. The kids are Krista, Ariel, Andie, April, Julia and Alex (our local crop of gkids).



Aladdin and The Genie

Aladdin Communications was the creative nexus of a business idea and a plan to be together. Buck and I sat on a bed with stacks of index cards between us, matching Florida and Alabama television stations up with cable television access, trying to find the minimum number of cable companies that had access to the maximum number of television stations.

We took out a loan and bought videocassette recorders, enough for each television station in Florida and Alabama. We pinpointed towns with the best cable reception, and then found folks willing to let us put our vcrs in their homes. We contracted with those folks to record all of the early and late evening local television news on the stations in their area, and provided shipping boxes for them to send the recorded tapes to us three times a week. We called those people "Field Monitors."

While Buck worked at his corporate office as a regional public affairs director, one, then two, three, four and more employees and I worked at our home office to search all of those tapes for items of interest to our clients. When we found a clip of interest, it was edited onto an industrial size videotape and sent to the client, along with a computer log which provided salient information about the clip.

We were drowning in information, and so used some of it to create a subscription newsletter called The Genie Report (acronym for Gathering and Evaluating News and Information Electronically — pretty cool, actually).  The work involved was staggering. Buck would work long hours at his day job, while I looked at tapes and made sales calls, and then we would eat our dinner at a work table reviewing more tapes and assembling information for and writing The Genie Report.

I pulled one of the dusty old file copies out yesterday and thought about all that hard work we went to for something that can be Googled now with a few flicks of a wrist that knows what it's looking for.

We sold Aladdin to some nice fellows from New York City in 1990.

Half In The Bag

Like most Labrador Retrievers, Maggie cannot be trusted around unattended food. She is a truly gifted forager.

A few years back, when we were adding onto the house, she developed quite a reputation amongst the subcontractors as a sneak thief, many of whom lost their lunches to Maggie. She could silently jump through an open pickup truck window and steal tupperware containers full of old pizza and sandwiches, take them around to the garage and stuff them through her swinging doggie door to save for later; or snacks (she became especially fond of little bags of roasted sunflower seeds), coffee loaded with sugar and creamer from the junior food store (she would knock it over with one paw and lap it up when I distracted the workers by saying "good morning"), cans of Pepsi when she couldn't find a Mountain Dew (which no kidding she learned to pick up with her paws and swill).

One time I saw her jump down from the cab of a pickup truck with a white plastic Walmart bag swinging from her jaw. Curious, I waited a few minutes and then went to look in the garage. Sure enough, there it was. She had left the bag near her food bowl and gone back outside again. In the bag were two unopened cans of dog food and a package of flashlight batteries. Somewhere in her doggie brain . . . . midnight snack?

The house was completed about 8 pounds later and I was left with an overweight dog with a serious caffeine habit.

It's been tough on the Magster to get her meager cup of dull rations once in the morning and once in the evening. No more scavenging in the ruins of carpenters' discarded Vienna Sausage cans or foraging for crumbs of Little Debbie cakes.

I guess it was only a matter of time until she went on a binge.

When I walked into the garage (Maggie's dining room) a couple of days ago to let her  in through the house and out into the back yard, she was nowhere in sight. Usually, she would be right at the step and ready to race in, turn around to sit for a hug and some talk, then on to the back door. Not this day.

I heard a loud rattling and snuffling sound way over in a dark corner of the room. "Uh oh," I thought. "Some critter has gotten into the garage and Maggie has it cornered."  I still didn't see her. The sound was coming over from behind the treadmill.

I called to her and what I saw, well, let's just say I was totally rude to my dog and burst out laughing. You would have, too.

Maggie had found an empty 20-pound dogfood bag rolled up on top of an empty box and decided to investigate it for remnants. When I saw her, the bag was fulled stretched out and her head and shoulders were all the way inside it. Only her hindquarters and legs were visible.  Those bags are coated on the inside and are slick even before getting a frenzied licking from a dog on a diet, and so Maggie was having trouble getting out of the bag.

Yeah, I know. I should have rushed right over and pulled the bag off her head. But I was laughing so hard, that by the time I came to my senses, she had gotten herself out of her own trap. She looked at me with wild eyes, breathing hard, and made for the water bowl.

Buck and I have a friend who blames her memory lapses on being "half in the bag." I always thought it had to do with overconsumption of hard liquor, but maybe I was wrong.

IMG_0013Classic Maggie, wearing a red clay eyepatch she picked up on one of her many adventures.

Pay Phones

There was a time when the door behind me slammed shut. Actually, that's not true. I closed it myself and stepped into my future. The year was 1977. He (that first he) told tender ears, "If you absolutely must have children, go do it with someone else."

I fell through space that day, past planets and heart-shaped moons. The star-cross phalus and fallopians missed one another entirely in my lifetime.

I see now, that was no matter. When I found you that September day and recognized in your serious voice the one who would father my dreams, with no further thought, I dehydrated myself temporarily like one of those sponges seen on late night tv and became the portable woman in your pocket.

We communed at the altar of pay telephones from separate cities: me outside a seven-eleven convenience store; you outside a beat-up gas station/beer joint. Those calls were our lifeline as we conjured our future, as we took the grand tour in destiny's Yellow Cab.

We hung on, tethered, through long months of intrigue and the crashing sounds of lives changing tracks, like trains in a Chicago rail yard.

I know only that I cinched my seat belt tightly and never looked back, in this rocketship, this dream come literally true, my love, this dream, this life, this you.


William Faulkner’s Paris Review Interview

William Faulkner’s simple eloquence in the Paris Review interview about why and how he writes has helped me as much as anything to fix in my mind how to think through a story.

Todd Pierce’s writing about structure has been very helpful.

For the first time, I know I need to think through story through BEFORE starting to write.

What story is it really that I want to tell?


Who (which voice) should be the teller?

For the first time, I realize it’s like a puzzle — not necessarily that it’s neat, with a clearly defined beginning, middle and end, but that there is a certain satisfying rythmn — almost like the way a truly fine meal fits together; a certain balance; a “yes” at the end.