Another Lesson

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Another lesson I’ve learned along the way is that there are no truly original ideas. There are no truly original plots. As the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes said three thousand or so years ago: “There is no new thing under the sun.” Except you. Except me. Every individual is new and unique, so we may be stuck with the same old plots, but because a new person is telling the story, bringing his or her singular life to bear on the story, it is fresh and new. So the only excuse I have for daring to write is that no one else in the world would be able to tell the stories that only I can tell. And an aside to those of you wishing to write — that is your excuse as well. The raw material for our unique stories is our unique lives and perspective on life.

 

Katherine Paterson

So Reckless and Opulent a Thing

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What we seek we do not find—that would be too trim and tidy for so reckless and opulent a thing as life.  It is something else we find.

Susan Glaspell

“So reckless and opulent thing as life”!

That phrase when I read it caught my heart . . . and held it.

Reckless and opulent, both.

How many hundreds of my mother’s eggs were cast away to make one me?  How many millions of my father’s sperm?

And yet here I am, alive, breathing.  I’ve been alive and breathing for eighty years.  A true miracle.  A reckless and opulent miracle.

But that’s the way life is.  Both reckless and opulent.

It works both ways, of course.  My son died at the tender age forty-two because nature’s opulent recklessness imbued him with a hidden flaw that played out in a neurological disease.

How often have I said it to myself?

“Nature is careful of the species, careless of the individual.”  “In any pod of peas, there will be an imperfect pea.”

Peter was my imperfect pea.

My oldest grandson, Peter’s oldest son, carries the same dark gift.

And yet my son’s three sons exist, each in his own way making a difference in the world.

Life, reckless and opulent.

Some mornings I am so filled with life’s opulence, its magnificent excess, that I rise into wonder.  Some evenings I crawl into bed weighed down with that same excess, overwhelmed by the day’s recklessness in all its light and dark manifestations.

But even when the weight is heaviest, looking out my study window at the superfluous abundance of the maple in my neighbor’s yard lightens me.   Sharing a home with someone I love beyond any telling of it comforts me.  Living, day after day, into the reckless gift of a brain programmed to do so much more than just keep me alive delights me.

What possible use does nature have, after all, for words shaped into meaning, into music?  And yet here I am!  How can I be anything but grateful?

Then there is the rest of the quote.

“What we seek we do not find . . . it is something else we find.”

What have I sought?  Safety, I suppose.  Above all else, safety.  I learned at my father’s knee that life is unfair, unreliable, even cruel, and my first instinct is always to move toward safety.

What have I found?

A world that makes no promises yet bestows the most profound gifts.

The gift of a son who dies.  The gift of a daughter who lives into the most graceful womanhood.

The gift of a career incapable of guaranteeing even food on my table.  And yet that career delivers . . . everything.  Purpose.  Belonging.  Satisfaction.  Joy.  Especially joy!

And food on my table, too.

I did not know enough even to search for what I have found . . . but here it is.

A world filled with reckless opulence!

Every now and then…

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Every now and then go away, have a little relaxation, for when you come back to your work your judgment will be surer. Go some distance away because then the work appears smaller and more of it can be taken in at a glance and a lack of harmony and proportion is more readily seen.

                                                                          Leonardo Da Vinci

Writing is …

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Writing is incarnational.

Flannery O’Connor

Your Book’s Best Friend

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The best friend your book will ever have is your editor.  From the moment you have a contract in hand, that’s the most important thing to remember.

Your editor is on your side.  You and she want the same thing: for your book to be the best it can possibly be when it hits the market.  For it to read the best, look the best, sell the best.   And in the process of achieving that goal, your editor brings to the table something you need profoundly . . . perspective.  Remember, you have been in near solitary confinement with that manuscript since its conception.  At this point both your manuscript and you need the light of air only a good editor can bring.

But let me step back for a moment.  Sometimes an editor can be your book’s—and your—best friend even before she has offered that contract.  I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve had a developing writer come up to me with an editor’s letter in hand asking, “Does she really mean it?”  It’s always a letter that praises a manuscript and makes thoughtful suggestions for revision without yet making a commitment.

Does she really mean it?  Yes . . . and yes . . . and yes!  Editors don’t have time to encourage writers whose work they don’t want to see again.  Moreover, while we have no legal obligation to return to an editor just because she has invested time and energy in our work, why wouldn’t we?  If the recommendations feel right, run with them.  Thank her for her insights and return to her with the new draft her comments draw forth.  You have nothing to lose and a possible contract to gain.

And once you do have a contract in hand, once an editor is truly yours, I have just one piece of advice, but I’ll say it many times.  Listen!  Listen . . . listen . . . listen!  Yes, it’s your manuscript, and it will remain your manuscript, but it’s better to hear what you don’t want to hear from your editor—while the work is still fluid, still can be shaped and improved—than from a reviewer.  When you hear it from a reviewer your book has been set in stone.  Revisions are no longer possible.

I have a rule of thumb that has served me well in working with editors.  I listen.  I don’t defend.  If I don’t understand, I ask questions.  Then I listen some more.  Even if I’m certain an editor is wrong, that if I do this thing she is suggesting the entire piece will come tumbling about our ears, I never say so.  I just keep listening, keep asking.  Once the dust has settled—and the more dust there is the more time it takes to settle—I find that critical comments fall into three different categories.

Most of them are simply, Of course!  I should have thought of that myself.  Gratefully, I make those changes.

Some are I see what you meanAnd certainly it could be the way you’ve suggested, though I think it could be the way I’ve done it, too.  In those cases, too, I simply, without comment, make the changes. I figure the editor is probably more right than I can see, because perspective gives her a great advantage. Besides, if it truly could be either way, why should the change matter?

Then there is the third category, the occasional suggestion that simply doesn’t fit, no matter how often I turn it over or how carefully I examine it.  That’s where I hold my ground . . . quietly, respectfully, firmly.  I don’t make it a last stand.  I’m always aware that I could still be wrong. But usually, because I don’t take such a stand often, the editor accepts my view.  When she doesn’t, after a careful discussion, we’ve always been able to find a compromise.

Singers need vocal coaches.  Athletes need trainers.  Writers need editors.

If you begin your relationship with that knowledge deep in your bones, all will go well.