I might have been ten years old, maybe younger, and we were taking my visiting aunt and uncle to the airport. Why I brought my tangled mess of necklaces along in the car with me I’ll never know, but my aunt noticed my struggles with them and asked me to hand them over.
“I love untangling these,” she said, and in short order handed them back to me neat, tidy, and wearable again.
A tree grows through our lower deck. They built the deck around it years ago when, presumably, it was a much smaller tree.
But the tree was significantly enormous by the time we moved in, and over the eighteen years of our occupancy, Bill has several times cut away the boards where the tree emerges through them, making room for its widening girth.
A few years ago, he told me this was no longer an option. He had cut as far as he could; the tree had expanded and now was pressing against the supports beneath the floorboards.
Today we had that fixed. Experts came and cut away a portion of the deck, then rearranged the joists and laid new boards down.
I love that there are people in the world who know how to do these things.
For the last several weeks, I have been editing a friend’s book. This friend is my editor, in fact: she spent long hours laboring over the 300-some pages I sent her way, making corrections and suggestions, gently informing me of the flaws and–in some cases–disasters in my project.
And so this job of editing her work is a bit of a turnabout for both of us. She came to the conversation well-versed in what might be helpful: a list of concerns she had for the book, things I needed to look out for, problems she knew or feared were obstructing narrative or impeding clarity.
She was, of course, right. While the story is fascinating and her diction acute, the project itself is complex. She tells the true story of her grandparents’ lifelong work as missionaries in Haiti. Equipped with first-person anecdotes and explanations of her grandparents as well as her own memories ( Elizabeth grew up in Haiti as the daughter of second-generation missionaries there), her sentences are at times necessarily over-full: how to include these historical facts, that transition from the previous paragraphs, and this specific connection to a singular person, memory, moment?
It can be quite an entanglement of phrases and clauses, with all clarity fleeing the page.
This brings to mind my teaching days, when students would send essays and papers my way. The electronic documents made commentary simple: a highlighted passage opened a side-bar conversation where I would explain my concerns with a given sentence or idea. And there was opportunity for response: the document was shared between us, and any answer a student might give would be sent to me via email and would also appear beneath mine in that side-bar.
Of course, no student ever responded. No matter the warmth or humor with which I tried to encourage the writer. This was not, to their minds, apparently, a time for conversation. They took my edits and suggestions and did with them what they would–the object perhaps so often being to finish and off-load the essay, the paper, the whathaveyou.
But with Elizabeth, it’s different. She replies. She makes new approaches. She concedes that I’m right about the word-choice, or she begs me to let her keep a passage. It’s a dialogue about both history and writing–and it’s fun.
I find that I love, too, those tangled sentences, those overloaded series of clauses that are packed with vital detail. I highlight them. I consider them. And then I break them apart. Here a semi-colon, here a colon. Here a sentence unto itself because–Ah!–the emphasis is so much stronger that way. Here we cut this out because it derails the narrative; here we cut that because it is too dear. And here we rearrange: the end of this sentence must be the beginning–you see? It’s so much clearer that way.
It’s a puzzle, I find. A delightful perplexity. A challenge to the brain that my mind absolutely itches for. I love to get my proverbial hands on those words and phrases, to pry them apart and rearrange them, to ensure they are suitably girded and rightly selected in the first place–all the while keeping in mind this project’s third and most important party: the reader.
The reader. We mustn’t forget. How will he see it? Will this make sense to her? Will they find themselves caught up in the morning fog of Haiti’s rugged mountains, passionate for the needs of the Haitian people, and, so readily, loving Elizabeth’s grandparents?
This is why we write, yes? For the reader.
And so we must make time to be sure that our readers–who have trusted themselves to our hands–can forget themselves in our book.
And this is why we edit. And also for fun.