When sheep are wandering out in a meadow, passing by prickly bushes and rubbing up against trees, they leave bits of their wool caught on the branches and fence posts. Back when farmers had to keep track of every little thing someone would be sent out to catch those little lost tufts of wool and that was called woolgathering. It was a mindless task and on a nice day it must have been a pleasant one with room to let your mind wander. But the other thing about woolgathering is that you were, of course, gathering lots of little pieces to pull into something large enough to spin so mindless it may be but you were going to end up with something at the end of your walk. The task becomes a lot less pleasant if you’re stuck on the goal — the skein of yarn you’re hoping to spin or the sweater you’re planning to knit — and you’re out there in a meadow where it’s maybe raining and muddy or hot with the sun beating down looking for these hidden pieces of wool all so you can get back to the project you have your eye on. Put it that way and woolgathering sounds frustrating.
I was thinking on this because at the start of most projects you have to do some (or a lot of) woolgathering. Right now I’m working on a big piece of writing and all this wandering I’m doing is driving me a little crazy. I keep thinking I have all of the pieces I need then I sit down to write and partway through I realize I need more wool so back out to the metaphorical field I go. Fortunately I’ve done enough writing now that I know this feeling of frustration and I know it ends so I have faith in all of the preperation. I won’t say that I’m exactly enjoying the time I spend gathering wool but I do know that when I’m sick to death of thinking on this topic that it means I’m nearly at the point where the writing will get smoother.
But it wasn’t that long ago that I didn’t know my writing process very well and so I would think, “Oh it’s not supposed to be this hard! Maybe I’m supposed to give up!” And sometimes I would. I have a folder on my computer labeled Frozen and it’s all the articles and essays I tried to write but couldn’t.
It’s difficult to know when to keep going and when to stop but the best teacher is experience. We have to keep heading out into the field until we know the best places to look, the best places to gather those caught ideas, the best time for wandering and the best time for down-on-your-knees searching under things even when it’s cold or rainy or muddy or too hot to think. It takes practice not just to discover that some hard things get easier but to learn that some hard things really are hard and there’s just no way around it.
At the end, hopefully you’ll have something to show for all the frustration.
I will end with a quote from Dorothy Parker who, of course, says it better than I could: “I hate writing, I love having written.”
You gotta gather your wool to make your sweater. Right? Right. Back to the field I go.
Of course we need copyeditors, even with spellcheck and grammar check and all the fancy whizbang add-ons to our word processing software but if you are a writer, you need an editor — someone to help you with content and flow and direction. You will need them even if you’ve gotten this far without them. You won’t get better unless you have one.
I know this for myself and I know this for other writers, too, because when I was wearing my professional editor hat (for various publications) I wasn’t just the person writing unfinished essays that I thought were already perfect; I was also receiving unfinished essays the authors already thought were perfect. I’m here to tell you that I am always wrong when I think my piece is just dandy and so were most of the writers submitting to me and you probably are, too.
If you are doing a lot of writing — even publishing a lot of writing – and you are not getting good edits, you should find someone to step in. You can pay someone or join a writing group or find a friend with a keenly critical eye but you should get someone to help you be a better writer because I’ll tell you, I think it hurts a lot of great writers to write a long time without some objective help.
Ok, I know there are geniuses among us (I am most certainly NOT one) and I also know that there are regular people who can dash off something brilliant once in a great while (I have had this happen — but it is a rare thing and I cherish it!) but most of us need help. We need new eyes, we need to rewrite — we need editors.
A good editor is a blessed thing. Someone who can see the structure hiding in your prose and help you tease it out is no small miracle. A good editor makes you a better writer. A good editor makes you read your final draft and marvel at its form and movement. A good editor will push and prod you to say what you think you’ve said but actually kept tucked somewhere up behind your brain. They will ask questions that the reader will ask. They will force you to state what you think is obvious but is really obscure.
A good editor’s suggestions may frustrate you or even make you cry but if they’re good, you can trust them. How will you know that you can trust them? Because after you are done being frustrated and after you’ve wiped away your tears you will realize they are right. You will look at the piece and wonder how in the world you ever thought it could be written any other way. You will realize that what you dismissed as “dumb suggestions” are actually a chance for you to answer your readers’ questions before they’ve even asked them.
Because I really want to bring home what a good editor can do for you, I got permission from Brain Child Mag to share the pdf of an essay I pitched to them with their edits. I believe that Tracy Mayor and Stephanie Wilkinson did the edits on this one. You can download the original essay I submitted here, then the marked up copy here (both in pdf format), and finally go read the finished piece, Textured (you can print the final essay from their web site if you want to do a side by side).
You can see how the piece remained itself but was refined through their questions and suggestions. You can see how the structure was tightened and became more focused. I’ll tell you that I did cry after I got the edits because I thought I already nailed it but I took some time away from it and I called a wonderful writer friend and then I sat down and rewrote it. It’s ok to fuss and flutter and whine when you get feedback and you’re tired and grumpy and sick to death of the piece you thought was done already (as long as you don’t whine to the editor) and it’s fine to have some back and forth to clarify (I think between this first go-through and the final I did ask some questions about their questions) but if you trust your editor (and I implicitly trust the editors of Brain Child) then eventually you need to sit with what they’re asking and figure out how to answer it.
Now here I have to give a shout out for the best editor I’ve ever had, my friend Rebecca Steinitz. I’ve been fortunate to have her eyes for a number of different projects and she is always always always right when she gives me feedback. Always. She can slice through my meandering and find a point I didn’t even know I had. She can eyeball a piece and immediately see what’s superfluous. She does not sugarcoat her feedback but she is always kind. And being a writer herself she knows that writing is its own special kind of hell so she will appreciate the work you put into a piece even as she hands it back and tells you to do it over.
If you don’t have a Becca in your life or can’t afford to hire her but want to become a better writer, I highly encourage you to find a great crit group (and I know how hard that is to come by but keep trying!) or start submitting your work to places where you will have an editor. It’s all fine and dandy to cash those paychecks from, say, Demand Studios or Examiner.com but if you want to be a better writer you can’t stay there. (I’d even argue that sticking around too long someplace where you’re not edited will eventually hurt you by making you lazy and trite.) You may not get paid at Literary Mama but you will get a committed editor and a nice clip, which may help you more in the long run.
Because we all of us — every last one — need an editor.
Note: This post did not have an editor. It would be much better if it did.
I wanted to write a little bit about the process of writing that Brain Child disruption article. It’s the first time in a long while that I’ve written something this reported that wasn’t straight service and I loved writing it even though it was hard and I had a lot of adoption-related nightmares while I was writing it. This is very long so I’m putting it all below the cut (I also don’t have time to edit so forgive any stupidity on my part) but I thought other writers might be interested in this. This was my query letter, which I pitched in December:
By now you’ve surely heard about Anita Teldadi who wrote a Motherlode blog about giving up her adopted son away after failing to bond with him. The letters section, naturally, exploded. Was Anita a brave mother willing to face up to her limitations and give her son a better life? Or was she a selfish woman who threw away a baby for not fitting in to her family? Anita has since appeared on Today defending her decision while in the background her essays about adoption (including one critical of another disrupted family and another celebrating her son’s arrival) have been quietly scrubbed off the internet.
Disrupted adoptions are the dirty underbelly of adoption. According to a 2004 article published by the Child Welfare Information Gateway, disruptions may end up to 25% of adoptions but these numbers are hard to come by. International adoptions sometimes disrupt before the child ever leaves his or her home country and some disrupt before the adoption is finalized back at home. There are agencies that specialize in “re-placing” adopted children into new families and an underground network of desperate parents sometimes move children into new families on their own.
How does this happen? Whose fault is it?
I’m proposing an article digging deeper into adoption disruptions to get a better understanding of how they come about, how they can be prevented and what happens to those re-homed children. I will speak with Adam Pertman, author of Adoption Nation and head of Evan B. Donaldson adoption institute think tank as well as Sharon Roszia director of the kinship center in LA. I will also talk to adult adoptee activists like Jae Ran Kim, a social worker as well as a contributor to Outsiders Within: Writers on Transracial Adoption and an adult international adoptee. I will also speak with parents who have disrupted their children’s adoptions and those parents who have adopted “re-placed” children. While I will use Anita’s story to introduce the topic, I will look beyond one family’s story to get a better understanding disruption in general and what it has to say about our cultural experience of adoption.
I will write this from the point of view of an adoptive mother who is willing to confront the “as if born to” myth. Can we love adopted children “just the same” as our bio kids? Do these heavy expectations make it harder when the going gets tough? How can we better serve the kids we take into our collective homes?
Note that I did NOT end up talking to Adam Pertman or Sharon Roszia. Usually I put “experts like” to give me an out but I didn’t this time although I did with Jae Ran because I was less sure if I’d be able to interview her. I knew I could interview Sharon because I have before and I figured I’d be able to interview Adam because the Evan B. Donaldson people have actual paid PR workers to make sure that he gets interviewed. The reason I didn’t speak with them is that the more I thought about what I wanted to do, the more I wanted to talk to other people. I also ended up not writing as much about what happens to kids AFTER. But the gist of it — the “as if born to” myth and how it might contribute to disruption — stayed in the piece. I also ended up writing a piece that was less judgmental than I thought it would be because when I talked to families who disrupted, I understood their decision.
At first I wanted to talk to families locally because I hoped to visit them. I imagined sitting with them on their couches and maybe even looking at pictures of the children they had adopted and then surrendered. But the people I spoke with here were very very wary. They were in a lot of pain and understandably defensive. I clung to the idea of getting someone local for way too long and then I ended up kind of scrambling. Carol agreed to talk with me right away but then our emails crossed or I mislabeled one so I thought I wasn’t hearing from her and I put her aside as an interviewee. I found someone else willing to be interviewed, which was a relief but I was getting worried. I knew I needed a strong central story that would humanize the issues and I knew I needed it soon because I couldn’t really do my expert interviews without some of what would end up in print in mind. I also reached out to Anita Teldadi herself through several avenues because it’s clear she wasn’t telling the whole story and I thought what the heck, why not see if she’d talk to me. (She never responded to any of my pleas.) Then I connected with Tiruba and started interviewing experts so then I had a sort of weak disruption story (the mother willing to speak with me was very very very guarded and after our initial phone call, it was hard to get more info) and Tiruba’s story and some ideas but it wasn’t going to be that great. I tried to make it work as a post-disruption piece but my editor (rightly) said no, that would undermine the central thesis (the “as if born to” myth) so I reached out to Carol again hoping she wasn’t blowing me off. And she wasn’t. Oh my how she wasn’t.
You can see how much Carol’s sharing shaped the whole article and you can also see how brave her sharing was. Some of you will recognize her because you already follow her story (she’s ok with that — she just didn’t want to be all that google-able). Carol knows what people have said about her and she doesn’t care really (or if she cares, she doesn’t let that stop her). She sees herself as an advocate for parents and for kids who need more than their parents can give them. There is SO MUCH she shared that didn’t end up in the article but that is extremely important like how she went back to the agency to try to get them to see what they needed to do to better serve those children and their wannabe adoptive parents. Like reaching out to other families using the agency, like her willingness to criticize her own decisions so that she can help other parents learn from her mistakes.
Carol’s voice was a huge, huge benefit to the article and to me not just because she was willing to talk about her son’s adoption and dissolution. Her interview also highlighted so much of what Tiruba was saying to me and I felt incredibly lucky to have their complementary stories. Then Patty (who my editor found for me) gave me a wonderful interview that really showed someone in the thick of it and spoke compellingly of the difference post-adoption support could make for a threatened family. She was also the one who really helped me understand how flexible parents need to be in their definition of what it means to be a parent. When she talked about not being able to cuddle on the couch to read to her son, I GOT it. I got how much missing those small rewards could chip away at a parent’s ability to stay committed. And it fit my thesis, too, because it spoke to the need for preparation and it also, I felt, highlighted why some parents whose children aren’t struggling as much as Carol’s and Patty’s and Tiruba’s might want to re-home them.
I couldn’t find any parent who didn’t have truly compelling reasons for disruption. Every single parent I spoke to whether they ended up letting me interview them or not told me about extreme violence towards themselves or other children in the family that preceded the adoption. I asked every expert I spoke with about the idea of a parent who disrupted an adoption because they were simply tired of the kid and none of them had a story that matched this although some had stories (Arleta and Katie) that were less extreme. I tried to contact some of the “therapy” camps (the ones that purport to treat kids with horseback riding and camping trips) but I’d reach out and then not hear back. I also got some very few quotes from the woman who works for a law practice that disrupts adoptions and does re-adoptions. I was really really really annoyed that she wouldn’t let me use her name because it’s not like they operate anonymously and also because if I could have used her name, I could have added some backstory but without her name, the backstory would have potentially taken up too much time in the piece. (I can tell you this without threatening her anonymity: She used to be involved with an adoption agency. This agency did the kinds of things the article criticizes. So as happy as she is to condemn parents who disrupt, she does not seem willing to consider her own complicity in this. Argh.)
Anyway. I felt good. I turned in the piece for edits. Note: I also did something I never ever ever do. I gave the unedited but mostly finished piece to the families I interviewed. I never do this for obvious reasons — sources don’t get to dictate how the story goes. But I did it this time because the people I interviewed were putting so much trust in me to tell their very sensitive stories. I wanted to be sure I was doing right by them. I wanted them to understand how much I was sharing so they could revisit their decision. I also wanted them to fact check. A big magazine like Parenting does their own fact checking (usually with an intern) and it’s great because you know if you missed a word in an interview or misunderstood (“Oh you said your daughter was TURNING seven? But she’s actually six?”) or the person misspoke, they can fix it. But Brain Child doesn’t have interns or editorial assistants — they’re a small, diligent magazine operating on a pretty small budget — so I tried doing my own fact checking. And I got some minor details wrong so the families were able to fix them. So they all signed off except one who asked that I pull her story entirely, which left an ENORMOUS gaping hole in the piece. It was a nightmare. I tried pleading with her and she stopped returning my emails. I totally get her decision (her story was very recent and still raw and painful) but it created a mess for me and a little tiny party of me was wishing I hadn’t given her an out. Although I think it was the right thing to do.
At this point, too, the woman in Tennessee put her son on the plane. Argh. I knew this meant yet more rewrites and I also knew it meant there’d be scads of information coming out in the media and I’d have to figure out how much of what I wanted to say would be redundant to readers by the time the article came out. Truthfully I wanted to crawl under my bed and not come out for awhile. But then I read two posts from John Raible. This one and this one. And I went — doh! Like Homer. I slapped my head. Because where did my good intentions go about interviewing any adult adoptees? THAT was the voice so clearly missing! I knew I wanted to interview Astrid and Jae Ran and there were some other adult adopted people I reached out to, too, but it was around the time of a big conference so I knew it was pushing it.
Astrid and Jae Ran were INCREDIBLE. They both talked to me for a long, long time. They suffered my naive questions with grace. Astrid read the piece as it was and gave me feedback in several places including reminding me that RAD kids should be kids with RAD. Most importantly they spoke to the fact that these kids are survivors because they’ve HAD to be and that their dysfunction makes sense in the context of their circumstances prior to adoption. If I hadn’t read John’s piece and if I hadn’t reached out to Astrid and Jae Ran, the piece would have been much less than it turned out to be; an important reminder to me of how VITAL adoptee voices are in any adoption discussion.
HUGE thank yous to John and Astrid and Jae Ran!!!!!!
My back up plan if I didn’t get into school was to pitch a book about disruption because there is SO MUCH that still needs to be said. Like I would have loved to have been able to speak with adults whose adoptions as children were disrupted. I would have liked to visit a residential treatment center and talked to the therapists there. I would have tried to find a way to travel so I COULD sit on the couch of an adoptive parent who disrupted and see their pictures and see their faces when they talk about their kids. I mean, there is A LOT still to be said.
Anyway, that’s my anatomy of that article.
If you have questions from a writer-ly or an adoption point of view, let me know. I’m happy to answer them.
My article on adoption disruption and dissolution is up at Brain Child (and of course on newsstands now):
When we adopted our daughter, Madison, six years ago, the judge was clear. Legally, adoption bound our daughter to our family as if she had been born to us. She would have the same rights as our biological son. We owed her the same level of commitment. A few weeks later, Madison’s amended birth certificate would arrive, with my name as her birth mother and my husband’s name as her birth father. All of her original birth records would be locked up, sealed away, inaccessible. At the end of the brief ceremony, the judge banged his gavel and officially pronounced us—in the language of the mainstream adoption community—“a forever family.”
That ceremony lawfully inducted us into the myth that adoptive families are expected to live by. Our families are supposed to be “just like” biological families. That’s why we adoptive parents roll our eyes when celebrity magazines talk about Angelina Jolie’s “adopted children” instead of just calling them her kids and we swear up and down that we are the “real parents.” Some hopeful adoptive parents even wear T-shirts that announce that they are “Paper Pregnant,” as if they feel the need to validate their way of building a family by equating adoption with a fundamental physical experience.
In many ways these adoption myths serve us and our kids well. Children should not face discrimination for how they arrive to a family. They should have inheritance rights. Adoptive parents should never question their obligation to the children they commit to parenting.
But in other ways, adoption myths betray our children by giving lie to their origins. They are not born to us. We do not create them. They arrive to our families with histories that precede their lives with us. Embracing our children means embracing their stories even when they are difficult to hear.
The hard truth is that adoption is not just like giving birth. It is rarely as straightforward. And as much as we would like to think otherwise, not all forever families are forever.
via Brain, Child :: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers.
There was A LOT of great discussion that could not make it into the article, which I am very sorry about. I also talked to families who ended up not feeling comfortable being quoted for the piece but whose experiences informed my process. You can discuss the article here (at the Brain Child discussion blog) and I’ll be checking in there. I’ve also invited the people I interviewed to weigh in but they are busy people so we’ll just have to see.
This was a hard but rewarding piece to write and I just hope that I did justice to the topic.
One more thing — whenever I write about my daughter’s sealed-away birth certificate and the new fake one that she has, the editors stop me and ask me if I’m SURE about that. The editors at Salon even said, “Is that legal?” So many people outside of adoption get that it’s insane, which makes it more bizarre that it’s controversial to people inside adoption.
When Noah was two years old and I was just getting started as a writer, Katie Allison Granju gave me some of my first gigs and they were some really good gigs. She was generous with her advice, always encouraging and got me assignments when I was still so green that you might have mistaken me for a stalk of celery.
In an industry where scarcity of resources sometimes makes writers mean, Katie gave me a higher standard to live by.
Now her oldest boy is very very ill and I can’t stop thinking about her and about him and about how sometimes we just can’t keep our kids safe from the world or even from themselves.
This is hard. My poor, sweet baby boy. It’s all so surreal. Even 36 days into this, I can’t quite believe it’s happening. You read and hear about this happening to other people, but truly, you just never imagine that it could happen to your child, your family.
Oh Katie, your family remains in my thoughts.
I’m over at the Huffington Post today:
Over lunch the other day, I asked my 5-year old daughter what I should write in this essay.
“I’m going to write about your adoption,” I told her. “What do you want people to know?”
“I want them to know that adoption is hard,” she answered right away. “I want them to know it’s hard being away from your real, real mommy.”
via Rebecca Walker: This Is My Daughter’s Mother: Dawn Friedman’s Happy Family.