It’s like finding that the sky and the sun are always there and that it’s the storms and the clouds that come and go. ~Pema Chödrön
Lately I’ve been reading my old work journals. I keep my writing about work and what I call my writing separate in two notebooks though there are times when the two overlap. Part of what I love about reading these old journals is I can reflect on where I am with where I want to be. These words also allow me to see the long game. As I read I have a conversation with the ideas in my head. “Yes, this will work again. I can use this. No, this is still a bad idea. No. Yes. Maybe. Not this. Never again.” Each sentence feels like painting over the same painting over again. A canvas I can’t seem to finish and say, “Yes. This is done.”
This time three years ago, I was really struggling with the feelings of finally getting what I wanted and learning that it wasn’t what I wanted at all. The palpable disappointment of thinking that I wanted to travel for work for a living. That this would be the thing that would finally make me happy. Being on the road. Traveling for a living. Seeing new places. I got to try on that hat for three years, and I can say that at the end of it, I didn’t thrive the way I thought I would. Sure, if I was asked to do it again, I will. I would. Never say never. Again. This is the first month of February in ten years where I haven’t traveled at all for work. My commute is walking upstairs. It’s magic.
In one of my work journals, I reread my thoughts from when I spent one weekend on the road in between work gigs where I got to spend some time in a town as a tourist. In hindsight, I should have spent more time writing. I should have sat my arse down in the coolest coffee shop and wrote. Instead I walked for miles around a town I had never been to. I wandered for hours during the town’s peak off-season. I decided to stay at a hotel where they were renovating the pool (warned their website), and the hotel clerk asked me if I wanted an ocean view. She said could put me on the top floor. Her manager overheard her offer, and walked over to let me that they were renovating the pool, so maybe I would prefer a suite that looked in the other direction. I’m sure he saw that I was fancy work traveler with gold status. He looked worried.
It’s not a great look for us. We can only do this work, you must understand, when there are no tourists, he said.
No, I said, that’s fine. I’d love an ocean view. I won’t look down.
When I settled into the suite, I sent my husband a text that this place was bigger than most apartments that I had lived in, including the studio that I shared with him when we first moved in together. I opened the sliding glass door and the sound of the ocean filled the room. It was warm. Humid. Balmy. Not my usual climate. I left the screen door open the entire time I was there just to hear the ocean nonstop. I live four miles from the ocean, technically speaking, but my home is near a calm bay. From a distance it looks like a lake. The sound of the open ocean, the waves, always feel special.
Now when I look back at those journal entries, I see so many struggles that I still have. Wishes yet to be fulfilled. Some ideas, thankfully, are becoming reality. Some dreams are coming true.
This past weekend, I sat down with the 40,072 words I have for my book and I scaled it back to 25,000. That’s almost 70 pages my husband reminded me when I shared with him what I had worked on in between cleaning our condo. He gets the hell out of my way when I get into one of these states, and it’s really quite lovely. I think in his mind he enjoys the fruits of my frenetic busyness. A very clean bathtub. A more extravagant dinner than what we might have during the week (though he usually does most of the cooking).
In between letting the cleaner attack the shower grout and waiting for my dough to rise, I cut words and moved them into a document that will serve as holding pen for The Next Thing. Usually this act would have floored me. This act of admitting that these words aren’t working. For some reason, this time, putting words away feels like I’m keeping a secret. A story for another time. A revision that is true in the sense of seeing again. It’s okay.
I decided to scale down a few scenes, and really focus on having an arc for each story. This isn’t going to be a linear memoir (this happened because of this and that happened because of this), and I’m in love with this organization. This framework. This idea. I want to write a collection of essays, and it’s going to be focused on the early years of my love for backpacking. There is a gap between the time that I discovered this thing that I love and the years where I finally went back to college and figured things out a bit. The gap between the years I thought I was one thing but I was really another. This gap of time is another story. Maybe not as interesting.
This week also marks an experience with two editors that has me celebrating how I am handling All The Things these days. This perspective is hard to describe. I can’t take the word “adulting” seriously–it’s a word that the-younger-than-the-millenials use–a word that I just can’t adopt. One of those nouns that I just can’t make a verb. Maybe it’s the latchkey kid in me who does not remember a time when I didn’t think like an adult.
I can’t really describe the feeling but I suppose it’s something like acceptance. Grace. For example, one reader pointed out how many times I used the words “just” and “that,” and how it annoyed the shit out of her. Just like that (hee hee), I used Control+F, and I realized I had used those words a lot. Sometimes, as my New Englander husband likes to point out, I’ve never really lost the way that Southerners speak and write. Being born a Yinzer who then moved to the South created a baseline of confusing vocabulary that I’ve never been able to lose. Slang, poor English (or is it the English of the poor?) and repetition plague my writing. I know this. This reader’s feedback was really good, and rather than feeling like I’m sort of a loser for using those extraneous words so much, I promised myself to find them later and just edit them out. That’s that.
I’m seeing this process a bit like painting. One brush stroke at a time. The same canvas. Just painted over and over again.
Another reader edited something I wrote for the jobby job so much, it’s barely mine anymore. It’s amazing to see the transformation of my ideas, really. Ten years ago seeing an edit like this would have paralyzed me for months. Given that I had already turned in a much edited version from my first draft, it was astonishing to see the final cut. That’s a funny phrase–the final cut–a description of an era gone by when a film editor would actually cut the film. In our digital era, there is a point where, in a Google document, say, there can be many red and green letters of edits. In the end, when you click “accept” there are very few original black letters left. What remains is still my idea and my work, but the story sounds so different. Much better really!
These two experiences made me think a lot about the relationship of the writer and the editor. I once took a class where we read all of Toni Morrison’s and Isabel Allende’s novels, and I read an interview with Morrison, who shared that her books are what they are because of her editor.
What becomes good enough is because of the edit. The final cut. The last stroke of paint on the canvas. Yes. I get this. The words become yours and not yours. In the truest sense, when they are in the hands of the reader, they become ours.
A collection of words over time that become like a pentimento. Of memory. Of time. Of an era.