Text in the Fire

Hi friends.

I just spent the last few days in the woods in Mississippi with my dog and a big pile of notes from my editor. During the day I made my way through pinecones and spider webs and sharp cuts of huge chunks of text. It was sunny and seventy and I ate a lot of potato chips. At night it got chilly, so I built a fire and got dreamy and let my mind wander. There was no internet in the cabin but if I walked up to the main road, I could get service on my phone. The news remained no good, but I wanted to post pictures of the woods on my Instagram so people would know I was still alive.

Sid didn’t have to edit anything the whole time

I thought long and hard about the notes my editor gave me. This is my fifth book with her. She’s one of the best in the business, and, beyond that, knows my strength and weaknesses intimately. Her thoughts are worth gold. This experience I’m having is different than with past books I’ve written because usually what I deliver to her is the most refined piece of art I have to give. But because this book is non-fiction, there have been times I wasn’t sure things would work because it can be difficult to determine what’s truly interesting about one’s self. Also, I knew I was being repetitive with information, but I wasn’t sure where it would ultimately work the best in the timeline of the story. We had made an agreement I would go long in the writing of it — I wrote 90,000 words, and I promise you, no one needs to read 90,000 words about my life — and we would carve out the story together.

As I read her notes, I had, at times, to put my ego by the wayside. We are constantly being asked as writers to put our egos by the wayside, even as we must channel them to give us the courage and energy to get us through the writing process in the first place. What a wild fucking emotional ride it is to be an artist sometimes.

But I called on the approach I’ve always used in the past — not just with her but with other people’s critiques of my work — that has worked best for me. Because her thoughts and my work deserved to be treated with a positive attitude.

1. Don’t freak out. I usually get a little zing in my heart no matter what when I read through someone else’s comments on my work. This could be an editor or a peer or my agent or whomever. Someone else is reacting to my writing, and thus I have a reaction to that in return. But I tell myself nothing is permanent, these are honest responses from someone you trust, and whatever is wrong can be fixed — if it really does need fixing. I am also not required to agree with everything they say. But I must, at the very least, listen calmly, because I am the one who has asked their opinion.

2. Read it straight through. I like to just sit down and do a steady read of all my editor’s notes and just consume it all at once, just set aside as much time as I will need to hear her voice in my head. I want to know all the issues at the same time, carry them all with me in my head, just as I’ve been carrying the book in me for so long. I want to understand the scale of it, the entire universe of the book, and where the holes are within it. It makes me feel like a hundred tiny flames are lighting at once within me. This helps me to respond in a holistic way. Everything has to connect in our books. It all has to hold together.

3. Contend with the cuts. In the end my editor cut five chapters out of twenty-two. Big meaty chunks of text tossed into the fireplace. In my mind I watched them burn. And then I said to myself: Can I view the cuts as an opportunity? Can I recognize that sometimes I write things only to arrive at other places in my work? Can I see that the words are being cleared to make way for better words? So much of my writing is about pacing and creating a speedy, rhythmic reading experience; I don’t want anything getting in the way of that. A few of the chapters, I didn’t blink at their removal, and won’t miss them. With a few of the others, I’m resurrecting some of the material and placing it in other chapters. One brand new chapter is being spawned from the wreckage. Sometimes things just don’t work and never will, and sometimes things don’t work yet, and you can improve on them until they do. The point is not to be resentful of this experience but to acknowledge that this is simply a chance to make the work better.

While I was in the woods, I didn’t change too much of the document. I brainstormed instead. I sat quietly by a creek as the fall leaves scattered around me and I closed my eyes and listened. I thought of the big overarching issues of the book, and how I might solve them. My book leans less toward essay collection and more toward memoir. It covers a swath of time, and there is a beginning, middle and end to it, although some of the story arcs within it were perhaps were initially less obvious in the earlier draft and are now being defined more thoroughly in retrospect. If I can make those arcs clear to the reader, they will have something to hold onto throughout the book.

Next week I’m going to get started with implementing some of those changes. The only thing I can do is take it step by step. There is no rushing through this process. Some days I’ll only make it through a few pages, and other days I’ll skip through a few chapters at once. I have to wrestle with it, refine it, bend it into shape. I can set goals, make timelines, but ultimately these edits will take as long as they’re going to take. All I can do is listen to the words.


You are reading Craft Talk, a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans. Last week I donated to Cave Canem and 826 New Orleans.