I have a confession to make: I write by committee.
I know that you believe that this style of mine, the dazzling prose, the sometimes lyrical, sometimes pugnacious stylistic panache, is mine and mine alone, and, reader, I hate to disillusion you. But, truth to tell, I have help.
I have at home, reading and reviewing and passing judgment on drafts of nearly everything I write, my very own Home Editorial Board: my son Harry; my twin sister Judy (“the smart, good-looking one”); and, most of all, our honorary third twin, my wife Michelle.
The three of them have apparently taken it upon themselves to regularly mortify me with “thats”:
“You’re going to say THAT?”
“You’re not going to say it THAT way, are you?”
“THAT can’t be what you’re really trying to say, is it?
I watch my wife as she’s reading a draft. If you watch carefully you can see a THAT coming a mile away. It’s all in the eyes. Not a muscle moves on her face—she tries to be careful not to telegraph the punch. But I see it coming. Her eyes stop moving across the page, and a small but definite horror of disbelief slowly rises up in her gaze as she focuses incredulously on one incredibly stupid locution or another.
She loves me and tries to be gentle: “Well, honey. . . .”
My sister, who also loves me, does not even try. She takes liberties based on our long association, liberties that are hers and hers alone (like calling me “Jimmy”). She thinks that our unbreakable bond licenses her to use ridicule and shame to browbeat my prose into submission. She claims that these tools are validated by experience.
And my son Harry—well, it’s a beautiful thing to see one’s children grow into their own authority. Most of the time.
“No. Don’t say it THAT way, dad. Change THAT to. . . .”
And as if the Home Editorial Board isn’t bad enough, I also have my official editor at the Capital City Weekly: Amy Fletcher. She likes me, I think, but our relationship has not yet blossomed into love. She knows that most writers are inveterate revisers. As my undergraduate mentor used to say, “you never finish writing something; you just decide at some point to give it up.”
My editor understands that. But she also claims that when I first started writing for her I once sent her six different versions of a piece in one day.
I think she’s being a little hyperbolic.
Okay, maybe hyperbolic is the wrong word.
In any event, she quickly determined that the only way to forestall the advance of madness in both our heads was to quash my revisionary spirit: “Okay, Jim,” she told me, “you have one deadline: you can’t send me anything AFTER noon on Friday. And you can’t send me anything BEFORE noon on Friday, either.”
She also corrects my French and makes me look smarter.
Like it or not, I know that I have to take my editors, all four of them, seriously, because they make my writing better. Not all editors do, but mine do, and more than that: they make me actually write better.
Not because I always listen to them: I don’t, and from time to time I risk going out on my own and not even showing them my drafts (or submitting multiple versions). But I can do that because they give me confidence in my own freedom, in my ability to not screw things up completely when out on my own. My editors, my best readers, teach me discretion, help me consider my choices more thoroughly and make those choices more wisely.
Which is all as it should be. As I have written in these pages before, writing is a social skill: it’s something we learn from others and pass on. In that sense, we all write by committee.
And we never stop learning. For the past year and a half or so, I have been working with my friend Paul McCarthy to teach a writing course at Lemon Creek Correctional Center, and we have a few guys who have been studying with us for several semesters now (Lowell, Victor, and Byron—I call them our repeat offenders). Last Friday I was telling them—and I’m not sure it was very encouraging—that it has taken me all of my 62 years to learn how to write.
But honestly, I never feel like I have learned how to do it once and for all. (My editors are nodding in agreement.)
We can develop better habits, recognize what questions to ask ourselves when we’re writing, and learn to put our readers first. But each new writing venture leads us into an immediacy we’ve never experienced before, a new subject, new context, new purpose, where we have to explore anew those three enduring questions: Who am I talking to? What am I trying to say? And why?