So I was killing time in the Boston Mag editorial office, stealing office supplies, waiting to talk to my editor so I can start paying off the massive debt I’ve accumulated purchasing Nesting Dolls in Prague, when I got to talking with one of my friends at the magazine. I’ll take you into the scene just after I complimented him on his latest piece.
“–was pretty frickin’ good, man. Nice work.” (That was me)
He nodded thanks and then looked around conspiratorially and beckoned me to come closer. I leaned in.
“Dude, to be honest, I had like six hilarious jokes in there in the original draft, but they all got cut during editing.”
“Oh man,” i said, shaking my head for emphasis and trying to whistle. “I’ve been there.”
“Yeah,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “I just wish one of these times they’d cut me loose and keep the good shit I’m throwin’ in there. Because it would kill. Absolutely kill!”
“What’re ya gonna do, man?” I said rhetorically, because that’s what you say at that point. “Freakin’ editors.”
The scene I just replayed for you is not a new scene or something out of the ordinary. What it is is pretty much the only conversation that I ever have with other mag writers following the publication of one of their pieces. First, you say you liked the piece. Then they, affecting a gruff manner, nod curtly and mumble some thanks before saying…pretty much exactly what I showed you above.
This is the world of a magazine writer. Your first draft is (inevitably) always the most “fresh” and “pure” and “original” vision you have, and with each passing draft, you believe the energy and juju is sucked out of your work so then by the time it passes on to press it looks just like any other piece in the magazine and your “voice” has been stifled and you are going to “quit” and find a place where they value “the creative process” and “unbridled talent” and will pay for the “root canal” that you know you “need”.
It’s become such a common thing to bitch about your creativity being girded by the editors that even when you don’t think it happened, it’s almost less awkward if you just complain, anyway.
But what’s most interesting about this phenomenon is not that editors are always party poopers and the sort of people whose only source of humor is making obscure literary puns at dinner parties (“I hope the meat was cooked (pause for effect) Thoreau-ly!!!!”) but that almost 90% of the time, we’re totally wrong.
My first drafts are almost always bad. I say almost because some of them are damn near Nobel Prize worthy, but usually they have no large cohesive, big picture point, embarrassing grammatical issues and they sometimes can go for the joke in places where no joke should ever, ever go. (Which is why i have a sign on the wall above my desk that reads “Don’t try to be funny, just tell the story. Forced humor= kill yourself!!!”)
Yes, a lot of the times in that process of editing, jokes I’ve made or clever turns of phrase are forced out for the greater good of making something publishable, but we as writers can sometimes not only not see the forest for the trees, but we can’t even see any of the other trees. Which is to say: I will be so focused on losing one of my jokes that I can’t even focus on anything else, and I spend upwards of an hour thinking exclusively about how I can save that joke because it desperately needs to be saved, and I’ll never be able to think of anything that funny again, and I will complain to everyone in a thirty foot radius and only other writers will even acknowledge me, strictly because they know that at some point they will do the same thing.
Now I know this isn’t productive and that editors have the mostly thankless job of keeping us writers looking like we actually know how to write, in a way that conforms to the standards and practices of the magazine in question, and I know that 95% of the time, the final draft is actually the best possible version of the piece, with all things considered. But if we couldn’t bitch, if we weren’t allowed to whine, and give the impression that we could always create something much, much better if just given the proper opportunity and the right amount of words, then what would we strive for?
We always have to believe that we could do better and that next time will be the time when we really show everyone, when we blow everyone away and start taking home the National Magazine Awards and turning down invitations to go to karaoke night with Ken Follett and the chick who wrote The Lovely Bones because we need motivation, we need to believe that we’re always just about to peak, but never really get there.
And, trust me, I will get there. If not next time, then, you know,definitely the one after that…probably.
In the next episode, Kevin finds out that toll booths in America don’t take Czech crowns and makes the prescient prediction that newcomer E. Annie Proulx is about to blow up.
100% Pure Love,