Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Kate Maloy's Guest Post: Cleaning Up the Copy

When I showed one of my brothers what I wrote for Monday’s blog post, he said “Gee, I guess girls can have messy lives, too. Who'd a thought!” He also said he liked the ending, about the revising and editing stages. “Time to clean up the copy.” His own copy looks pretty clean to me. I see his editorial work in his dry humor, in the wise kind of father he is, and in the durability of his one and only marriage.

I very much like the notion of cleaning up life’s copy, and the more I think about it, the more I think most of us, writers and nonwriters alike, treat the text of our lives the way novelists treat their fiction—making things up, changing our stories, creating subtexts we’re not even aware of.

To live is to create fictions. In nearly everything we do—meet crises, sustain relationships, take on new challenges—we are forced to rely heavily on memory to inform and instruct us, even though memory is a proven liar, a notorious manipulator of reality for the sake of convenience and self-image. We try to see ourselves in others, too, and they may send back no truer images than a funhouse mirror. Add to that our preferred angles of view on important people and events—views that we frame like camera shots, leaving out the ugly parts. And then there’s everything that never makes it from our subconscious mind to our functioning awareness. No matter how deliberately we search for truth and try to act on it, our subconscious is always there, greedily or needily keeping things from us.

Nevertheless, we can approach truth, by degrees. Some kind of intuitive calculus lets us do this the way a mathematical calculus lets us find the area under a curve. Little by little, by tiny calculations and accumulated experience, we learn to recognize authenticity and develop it in ourselves and our writing.

This could be why I sometimes find myself marking STET where once I’d have written DELE. Though my text will always need work, I begin to reject my assumption that because I didn’t plan well, I didn’t execute anything of importance.

Editing is such a left brain activity, so neatly separated from the writing itself. Right? The left side plans, analyzes, and comprehends; the right creates, intuits, and apprehends. But what about the corpus callosum, the bridge between the two? I think I was stuck on that bridge for a long time, held fast in crossfire from both sides—in a manner of speaking. I don’t really know how the corpus callosum works. If it neither thinks nor creates, then perhaps its role is to generate lightning strikes, brilliant, wordless flashes that illuminate otherwise dark territory. Only connect. Isn’t this how we do it, in flashes?

What I once thought of as mindlessness has actually been full of flashes—connections and insights that come without language or thought. They suddenly just are, where an instant before, they were not. What I’ve tended to see as a lack of discipline and productivity just might have been a necessarily long gestation required by my particular nature, psyche, and circumstances. It’s possible I’ve needed all these decades to be able to write at all—to cross the corpus callosum freely instead of just standing there, tangled in my own ganglia.

All this imagery is important. I use it because the truth is too elusive, and metaphor lets me approach this sly creature a little from the side before it startles and runs off. The thing is, I am falling in love with its skittishness and am very happy in the dappled light that camouflages it. I become a patient stalker and am rewarded now and then with a glimpse of something real and true. If truth were just there, tame and for the taking, there would be no need to search, no thrill of discovery, no flashes.

So there really is no dividing line between life and art—or between left and right. Even in our own brains, there is only the illusion of a boundary separating one function from another. Everything is plastic, fluid, connected. Which is exactly what writing demands from us—or maybe I should just say, from me. We all have our unique approach to writing and truth and our own ideas as to their mysterious source.


  1. I often wish i could clean up my own life as easily as I clean up copy. No, neither is easy, but I love being able to say, "This is wordy and unnecessary" and - voila! - it can be gone.

    That said, I'm a chicken when it comes to editing. I save every version and usually have at least two files of clipped-out bits, just in case I find later that I've made a horrible mistake.

    Thanks for writing this!

  2. Thanks, everyone--I so appreciate that you took the time to comment. I have loved writing the posts for this week, and this makes it even better. Meg, I'm glad that line resonated with you. It's a never-ending source of amazement, how many layers of my work show themselves after I think I've finished. I can only believe this is true for all of us who write fiction, because the process does draw on our subconscious, and so much of that is a big secret to our conscious mind.

  3. I am new to this blogging business, and meant to post that comment to Monday's blog, but now I have this excuse to thank Clea (thanks, Clea!) and Kepler's (especially Aggie!). I'm having a wonderful time here this week and am so pleased to be a contributor.

    Clea, I used to be a chicken about editing, and I do save some versions, but it gets easier and easier for me to let go of my prose, even after I've agonized over it. I can't explain that, though.

  4. Kate, what a great post. One thing I've learned as I've grown older is to trust my instincts, those feelings that I know something is either right or wrong that I believe originate in my unconscious but which I can't always explain or even put into words. But as someone said to me recently you don't have to explain. Thanks - lots of food for thought here.

  5. Kate, I just love the idea that "to live is to create fictions." Life is, truly, what you make it and each day an opportunity to write it again. It's freeing in the best possible way to know that one is never stuck with this can make a new now if you choose.

  6. It is such a delight to read your words Kate. I love the way you've put things - so optimistic. Life is fodder. AND I just needed that spin on the connection between the left and the right.

  7. I love the STET/DELE line here (which I can't seem to make copy and paste this morning, else I'd repeat it). I do this so often that I keep all my old drafts until I'm done with a piece, just in case I long to restore something I've deleted.

  8. Life is fodder, indeed. As a compulsive editor, it's really important for me to remember that I can edit all I want in my head, but my actions in the world generally don't get do-overs. Fortunately I get at least a modicum of satisfaction from the mental part.

  9. Thanks, everyone, for your great comments. Lisa, you're right that we don't get do-overs in real life, which is why it pleases me so much to look back and realize there's really not that much I want to DELE, after all. The rest of it I just need to let go of, unless there's a chance for clearing the air.

    Life as fodder--I love it, Lysne! And also Kate's comment that we don't have to explain, and Debi's that we get to write each day anew. We have about as much control over that as over our writing, given how blind we fly most of the time, but the process is rewarding nevertheless. The unconcscious can be a great friend.