A valentine to my editor across the pond

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.

    28 responses to “A valentine to my editor across the pond”

    1. bryan says:

      I watched this collaborative process firsthand back in December (while she was helping your kid with his college essays) and found myself wishing I had one of those editors! I vote we give T. her own spot on the contributor’s page!

    2. Dave says:

      Thanks for a peek inside your process, Pandora. Have you checked out Skype?

    3. where did everyone go?

    4. wood nymph says:

      (que sound of lone cricket chirping)
      chirp chirp

    5. PB says:

      OK, so when your own children say that your post is self-indulgent, you know you are having a bad day. We had a huge discussion this morning as to whether or not it is better to post a lame effort but know that you at least tried or just blow it off and post anything to save yourself the embarrassment of a lame post. We did not come to any concensus. In my defense, I had a draft for a Ben Hur post, a post about watching MB act in the Laramie Project and a post about romantic trashy movies – all of which stunk as well. It has not been a creatively vibrant two weeks. So I am going to try and save this by offering what my boys say I should have done to start with:

      do not read above – go straight to this link and do not pass go:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQrcNujVTPA

    6. PB says:

      I don’t think the link worked – I am telling you, black cloud of doom. Do not stand next to me.

      go to “Celine Dionne is Amazing” on youtube.

    7. PB says:

      Bryan or Dave, can you fix up the link?

    8. PB says:

      Look, I just gave myself 8 coments, no chirping here!!!!

    9. LP says:

      Pandora!!

      a. I love you. And I love your writing.
      b. If we banneed “self-indulgent” posts from TGW, Lisa Parrish would never have a post allowed in print.
      c. It isn’t self-indulgent in the least; it’s quite insightful and a great view of your process — certainly very interesting to this writer.
      d. see a. above.

    10. LP says:

      PS: Lack of comments doesn’t mean anything on a post. Sometimes people are thinking, or working, or sleeping. Or simply taking it in. That is often the case with me.

    11. aw says:

      Ditto what LP said.

    12. aw says:

      And that I’ve yet to grow tired of any “self-indulgent” thing you or LP have said. L

    13. nicole says:

      A good editor is priceless — I’m lucky enough to have two good ones who help me push through even when I donwanna! My stuff always needs to be edited (sometimes more than once); and for me I’m always grateful to have had the revisions — and/or discussions — before it gets into print. Maybe it’s also feeling like there’s a little team who helped it get there that’s the comfort.

    14. trixie says:

      pandora!
      this post was not self-indulgent.
      it was thoughful and insightful.
      crickets chirping doesn’t mean anything about the quality of a post as others have said.
      that is all.
      love,
      trixie

    15. Tim says:

      Pandora,

      I’m with LP, without self-indulgence we wouldn’t have any posts from her on TGW.

      I, too, enjoyed your breaking down your writing process. I’m right in the middle of writing the most self-centered thing possible–copy for my website–and it hurts. Writing hurts. Editing is more fun, and it sounds like editing with your sister is a true joy, one that you miss right now, and the lack of which has you (and your kids) doubting your abilities.

      In your defense I’d like to quote myself from comments on your previous posts.

      This is simply a lovely and wonderful prose poem. It brought tears to my eyes.
      Congratulations!

      Lovely to have you back, PB! As your posts always are, this is beautifully written and truly substantive.

      Yet another very enjoyable post!

      This is a beautiful meditation. My favorite line is, “I am not really a point in the middle, but a marbled mix of both.” What a wonderfully precise and evocative image!

      Great fun, this post!

      Rock on!

    16. This has the fuzzy “awwwww” feeling we always need, even after Valentine’s Day. Especially after Valentine’s day.

    17. PB says:

      You guys are so nice to me.
      I really wasn’t trying to fish for love (although I am snapping it all up like a pig fish, do not get me wrong) but thank you all for your valentines. You know you need a little “great post” action when you misspell Celine Dion’s name.

      One last piece of editing insight – I would not recommend teenage boys, even relatively enlightened ones.

      BTW – seriously check out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQrcNujVTPA

    18. PB says:

      #10 & #14 – just for the record, I totally agree about the comments thing – honestly, sometimes posts are meant to be just musings and do not necessarily invite discussion. I was really just teasing myself because I almost never comment on my own posts – and look at me, a post whore and a post blabber at the SAME TIME.

      talk about self-indugent.

    19. WW says:

      re #17: “pig fish”?

    20. Natasha says:

      PB,
      Your post is about how much you miss your sister. How can it possibly be self-indulgent? I am in as much love with your writing as you are in love with your physical therapist, aside from your posts, I love your comments too. Your posts are so complete and intelligent that it is hard to add anything else. Look, even Tim is quoting himself. I know that the appreciation of your writing which comes from an ESL person, who does not know anyone on TGW and could not put two English words together at 17, does not sound like much, yet there it is.

    21. NP says:

      I forgot to add — rock’n’roll, merry meet, and peace out.

    22. Look, even Tim is quoting himself.

      Perhaps my favorite line of the year.

      Also, P, the Celine thing was f*ing amazing. I wonder if you’ve seen this, written by one of my favorite music critics. A digest/review here.

    23. PB says:

      #19 I agree, “fish” as a verb and “pig” as an adjective and “pig fish” as a compound noun and “snapping” as in turtles is a whole lot of metaphors to be going on with.

      #23 I so have to read that book.

    24. taryn says:

      Pandora, love this post! I wish I could provide that kind of thoughtful coaching for my students. Though I suppose it’s helpful that you’re actually open to such thoughtful coaching!

    25. mb says:

      What are all of you going on about? Pandora misses her sister and this is love prose, not self-indulgence. People that we love and who love us do make us feel like our best selves and without them we are sometimes a little lost. As a huge advocate of Pandora’s sister and one who is also missing her, I relate to the love story here and the beautiful play that the two sisters have with one another. Pandora’s sister is brilliant, thoughtful, sensitive, and has the most wonderful and gentle way of understanding others. She extends these qualities to many people, most of all her sister and I was glad to see that relationship crafted in words, which they both do have so much fun with.

    26. bw says:

      aww. mb — i wish you put your righteous indignation out there more often. but note that lots of other people refused to call this post self-indulgent, too.

      i first saw this co-production in action when p was staying at our place sometime last year and had to post while she was here. i was amazed at how much time she spent on the phone talking about it. my own posts tend to be written so late at night or so early in the morning that i couldn’t think of running them by someone first. if i’m lucky, i can get ssw to read through them before they go public on monday morning. otherwise, i’m all on my own, and it takes about half a day on monday before people are even awake enough to comment. so i’ve been more than a little jealous of p’s ability to collaborate with a sister in a different timezone.

    27. bw says:

      aw, shoot. i just learned that mb isn’t the mb i thought it was. but welcome, nonetheless, other mb. anyone who likes pandora’s sister is a friend.