The Grind

100_0738I’ve been editing my short story collection Exceptions & Deceptions since November and, I gotta say, the grind is starting to get to me.

Writers who put great stock in their editing know exactly what I’m talking about. You can obsessively work on a piece to near irrationality, trying to get the sound, the tone exactly right. Note perfect.

The art, after all, is not in the initial act of creation, it’s how you shape and hone the material afterward.  Can’t tell you how many books or short stories I’ve read where I had to give credit for the originality of a concept or approach, only to see that uniqueness surrounded, besieged and eventually defeated by drab, unremarkable prose; featureless, uncolored sentences, bereft of rhythm, dumb as stone.

Right from the beginning, I wanted to tell my stories as simply as I could, in as few words as possible. I loathe long reams of description or exposition, what some of my colleagues call “info dumping”. Conversely, I love snappy dialogue and believe that a brief conversation between two people reveals far more about them than five pages of backstory.

I take the editing process to ridiculous extremes. Exceptions & Deceptions includes (at least at this point) around twenty stories culled from the past fifteen years. Most have been previously published but that doesn’t mean I can’t go in and “touch them up”. I’m a different writer than I was back then, a better writer. I’ve raised the bar a number of times since I began the oldest story more than a decade and a half ago.

I’m also a tougher, more demanding editor.

So I’ve really been putting these nineteen tales through their paces, demanding that every word, every syllable be accounted for.

It’s a tiring process. Make that exhausting (more descriptive and accurate). Three months of poring over three hundred manuscript pages, running through them again and again, watching and listening for anything the slightest bit off-key . Going at it day and night, seven days a week. Falling into bed utterly spent, knowing the collection will be the first thing to pop into my head when I open my eyes in seven or eight hours.

But, honestly, I don’t think it’s as bad as it used to be. I pace myself a bit better these days. Take frequent short breaks, stretch, go for walks. Shut down my brain earlier, try to unwind with a movie or good book in the evening. I go for a massage occasionally and sometimes Sherron will set up our big, clunky table, give my shoulders and lower back a solid working over. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: the woman has healing hands.

Over the past few years, I’ve been making a concerted effort to break this cycle of artistic self-abuse. Thanks to tools like Garageband and iMovie, I’ve been able to expand my horizons to other disciplines and, with Sherron’s encouragement, I’ve been applying myself to more visual art: painting, collage, photography. I’ve periodically posted samples of my film and music experiments, the ones that don’t blow up and end up wrecking my secret lab. I no longer rely on the printed word solely to express myself…and I think that’s a healthy development. Might even literally be a life-saver.

However, I sense that no matter what steps I take, writing will always take a toll on me. I want to be an author of stature, respected by my peers, acknowledged and sought after by intelligent, discerning readers. Placing those kinds of expectations on yourself as you commence each new poem, play, novel, short story is bound to create enormous creative tensions, which might translate into fine work, but are also accompanied by certain rather distressing emotional and physical side effects. Trust me.

That said, I have to stop equating the creative process with torture. There has to be a happy medium. I have to approach my work more playfully and allow myself the very human possibility of failure. I don’t want my fiction to become so perfect, polished and tight it’s almost robotic.

Ease up.

Recognize my writing for the blessing it is, rather than a curse that exacts nothing but pain and toil.

Yes, a blessing. A gift. A calling.

So, if that’s the case, what’s with all the angst?



  1. pam

    Hmm… I hit the “like” button and then I go…”Well, no…it isn’t that I LIKE to see you in the throes of the deep edit. It’s that I know whereof you speak…” Sending bright blessings and wishes for EASE winging your way, brother. May Sharon’s magic hands bring you rest.

  2. Cliff Burns

    Perhaps this ol’ dog is capable of learning a new trick…like discovering how to create out of joy and gratitude.

    Gimme twenty years, see how I’m doing then.

    Meanwhile, thanks for your kind words.

  3. zoetewey

    I’m beginning the process of editing my second novel. It’s pretty clear already that it will be more work than the first. That’s not a terrible thing, but it does intimidate me a bit.

    Basically I’m turning what originally one overly long novels into two decent sized novels. Right now it looks like I’ll have to rewrite the beginning and end for sure–plus expand a subplot.

    In some ways, I look forward to it. In others, I feel like I’m looking at the foothills of a mountain range.

  4. Cliff Burns

    I equate writing novels (especially) with the pain of child birth–if we actually remembered the agony of bringing the little brutes into the world, this planet would have a much smaller and more manageable population and a helluva lot less books.

    Thanks for stopping in again.

    Write on…

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