I have always fantasized that I was a Greta Garbo style writer, longing to be left alone in a room of my own. Writing is a solitary affair, in a garret, with a cough and a half bottle of whiskey, observing human foibles from afar. In daydreams I have cast myself in every stereotype, reveling in the pretend maverick brilliance of this lonely pursuit. Tonight, edging toward my deadline, as I have wadded up virtual draft after virtual draft, I have discarded every illusion. I keep staring at the telephone when I should be focusing on the keyboard. I miss my sister.
My sister just moved to Liverpool, England for three months. She is a doctor with an interest in global health care, especially in underserved countries. Apparently one of the legacies of England’s colonial past is their renowned authority on tropical diseases. Therefore Liverpool is the best place to study malaria and maggots and oozing sores. I support her desire to save the downtrodden world, but it is hard. For many reasons. But in the immediate and self-serving present it is hard because she is my unofficial Great Whatsit editor and I feel completely uninspired without her.
I did not fully understand the gift of editing until my sister offered to read something of mine for a class several years ago. People have given me feedback before, but my sister’s approach is more a partnership than a favor. She first asks questions about what I intended, where I got my ideas and how I feel about the piece. Then she shares her impressions of the work as a whole. In a structural way, do the ideas flow from one paragraph to the other? Does the beginning and ending work to the objective? What is the crux of the story and does it fall in the right place? If any of this is determined lacking, I go back, rewrite and resubmit. Once the general shape is in place, she will walk through line by line, tirelessly asking for more vivid images or cleaner words. She will catch a misplaced comma and slash a “word salad” sentences in the same stroke. She has a way of cajoling a better way without blurting out a solution.
I know some writers get defensive about changing their work. I knew a writer who lost interest in revising the minute her ideas touched the page; she assured me that all the action happened inside her head and then burst forth, fully formed like Athena from Zeus. For me, first drafts are painful, subsequent drafts are play. My sister and I both love to participate in language at a nuclear level, wringing every bit of energy out of each tiny component. Even if the raw material is mediocre, crafting a draft feels as if we dumped a million Legos between us and will eventually construct a city of bricks and widgets. We will crunch a particular word for ten minutes, auditioning different options to find the perfect fit.
This week I have realized that not only do our editing conversations provide me with a critique of the finished piece, my sister is the touchstone long before an experience or musing ever gets assembled into an outline. She is editing every time we talk, responding to my verbal stories in a way that sorts the interesting from the dull, layering the mundane with a fresh reference or the lofty with a grounding insight. Often my senses have Velcro-like acuity; stimulus sticks and collects until I am covered in possible schemes. I need that partner to help me pick through what is relevant and real to others and what is just a spinning top in my own imagination. This volley of daily discoveries becomes the chatty precursor to what I end up exploring at the computer.
My writing process has evolved with my sister’s editing presence. She has brought a sense of audience closer to the creative guts of each piece. She has demystified the assumed need to rework to perfection for at some point we have to put away the game. And in her absence I am reminded as to how interconnected the heart and head. In adjusting to life without the daily phone call, I have not been able to think of much else. Even if I were to find all the qualities of a great editor in another person, I would still just miss my sister.