Sunday, December 2, 2012

Editing Manuscripts and Sock Drawers

Revising something you’ve written reminds you of times when you’ve sought to find a pair of socks of the same color in the sock drawer.  Your own sock drawer has compartments, which you think wisely to use as guidelines to separate one group of spectrum colors from the others.

On the surface, this seems a shrewd enough plan, reflecting your evolution from a person who wore few shades of color.  You wore the Oxford and Cambridge grays, and dark blues.  From time to time, as a streak of rebellion took hold of you, your sock drawer held brown and a crimson that ran toward a muted red.  At this stage of your development, there was no need for drawers with dividers; you merely paired the socks, rolled them into neat balls, then let them fend for themselves.

Now, in your mature acceptance of color and the ability to store your socks according to divisions of the spectrum, your sock drawers (for specificity begets more divisions) you’ve come to see how revision in your sock drawer is as much a necessity as it is with your written prose.

Do things belong?  Should a given pair go with the oranges or the yellows?  Is there a need to separate the green shades from the blue shades? And how are you ever to account for all the single socks spanning the sections of the color wheel.

This may sound as though you had compulsive drives to color code your socks, which might then lead to thoughts about the arrangements in closets and drawers of shirts and sports jackets, but such drives for that kind of specificity are rare.  No more than once or twice a year, when you are in the throes of trying to figure your way through a paragraph that will not do as you think it ought, or a line of activity that does not satisfy you.  The rest of the time, although you are fond of such stray items as socks, shirts, trousers, and jackets, they can pretty well take care of themselves and hang where you set them, without giving their placement so much as a thought.

General order becomes important only when a particular bit of work has revealed large chunks of its essence to you and you think you have begun to establish a sense of where a thing out to be, if indeed, it ought to be included at all.

There was one terrible project, a nonfiction demon that got you thinking about the order and shelving of your books.  You had a great deal more books then.  You’d also come by some Avery gummed labels, on which you printed the Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress catalog numbers for each book, then affixed one label to the spine, effectively turning your books into a semblance of a library.  One or two of those books has survived your move to 409 E. Sola Street.  When you see their spines, you wince.
You have no problems with more moderate approaches to managing things.  Even in these relatively small confines, things have not appeared to have got the upper hand, either through your compulsive arrangement of them or your equally possible lack of any systematized care for them.

You try to maintain this balance with your words, paragraphs, essays, chapters, and stories—even your notes.  One of Artie Shaw’s ex-wives told you that the thing that began sending their marriage toward the divorce courts was his insistence that the pillows on their bed be arranged in pairs, with the entry ends of the pillow cases facing as opposed to all of them pointing outward.  She was also bitter about the paper towels and toilet tissue rolls being required to hang from the bottom of the roll as opposed to the top.  You can see the logic in such behavior.  Excellence does not come as a casual guest.

You can see logic in such approaches.  The act of getting a thing to sound “right,” and stand forth with clarity means a great deal to you. The closer the thing comes to achieving that sense of correctness, the more pleased you feel with it, with yourself, and with the universe about you.  Possibly, the work will have no need for any serious edits; then you will have been even more rewarded in the coin of satisfaction.  But you are human.  You in fact keep unmated socks, thinking somehow, in some phantom wash cycle, the missing one will appear.  You may be at first outraged when an editor you respect suggests you remove a sentence on the grounds that it has the same tentative effect on your paragraph that the unmatched sock has on your sock drawer,  Yet you are more for the overall wonder and joy of the process than your right to kick and scream and hold out for pillow cases with facing ends.

You even afford an occasional nod of sympathy toward more compulsive behavior than yours.  Excellence is often achieved from much compulsive behavior, but you do not find such extremes digging the metaphor of their spurs into your relatively lazy carcass.  You find solace in the potential for getting things right—whatever that might mean—in your revision process, and the socks in the drawer, particularly the unmatched ones, can look out for themselves.

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