I had a speaking engagement about a year ago that was a disaster the minute I walked into the room. I didn’t know it’d be a disaster until about five minutes in but I should have known because of the way the room was set up. I was behind a sizable barrier, which made it difficult to feel “in touch” with my audience and the attendees were wrung out from a long day and most of them sat in the back of the room adding more of a barrier. Because my presentation was more touchie-feelie than straight information, it made for a lousy dynamic. I heard nothing but crickets when I’d ask for audience participation and had to do more of a song and dance than usual to get people to talk. I remember midway through the presentation wanting to just STOP and give in.
“Forget it,” I imagined saying, unplugging my laptop. “I’m outta here.”
I’d escape. Run down the steps and to my car before anyone had time to stop me. I’d go home and climb into bed, pull my covers up over my head and tell my husband to hold my calls.
Of course you can’t run; you have to get through it. And so I waded through the morass that my talk had become, pumping as much cheer as I could into my delivery and by the end of the limping, tired workshop, I actually got some encouraging feedback from the audience.
I’ve had disastrous interviews. I’ve gotten rejected by editors. I’ve stood alone, petrified by nerves at networking events. I’ve put myself out there and then, defeated, reeled myself back in. I’ve stood in front of audiences, mind blank and wondering what I was going to say before my memory kicked in. I’ve cracked jokes that fell flat to a room full of expectant faces. I’ve watched people’s eyes glaze over and scrambled to bring them back.
Oh I’ve failed, yes I have. But the more you fail, the easier failure gets. It’s true.
That disastrous speaking engagement, it was an hour in purgatory. As soon as I realized that it was not going to go well I thought of all the stand-up comedians who bomb. And most of them do indeed bomb. Even the great ones have off nights. I knew that the price of speaking in public, which I like to do, means sometimes having it go really really poorly. My stomach dropped into my shoes and my sense of time stalled and drew the hour out like taffy and I felt slightly outside of myself the way you do when you realize you’re falling or the car is crashing or some other disaster is impending. It was a nightmare happening in real time and for a second or two I lost my nerve and fought back tears. But at the same time I had some presence of mind behind my eyes that very calmly said, “Well, there’s no way to get to the end of it but to get through it.” Which is when I gave up my fright to flight instinct and settled down to trudge through the rest of my talk.
When it was over I felt exhausted and relieved. It was over. I had bombed and I was on the other side.
The next time (and thank goodness there’s been only one more time and that was a tech disaster that wasn’t of my own doing) a talk went poorly, I felt that same sinking then lifting and again I knew that the other side was right there if I’d just swim to it.
It’s just like the first time an editor said no. And the first time I got a terrible, nasty email from someone who read one of my essays and hated it.
It’s like the first time getting dumped or having a friend blow you off. It happens and you survive. But meanwhile you have whatever happened before. You have that first kiss. You have that heart-to-heart with a friend who gets you. You have that hope when you hit “send” on a submission. And then, too, you have those great times when it goes well.
I’m telling you this to say that if you’re thinking about trying something (writing, submitting, networking, etc.) but are feeling too scared to take that leap, leap anyway. It’s all right to be terrified but make the leap anyway. You might fail. You might bomb. But you also might have a really great time and you will definitely learn something about yourself.
A version of this post originally appeared on my now defunct personal blog, this woman’s work.
One reason we have so many disagreements with each other is that there is Big Truth and little truth and we get mixed up over which is which.
There is the Truth (I walked towards you) and the truth (I lunged at you aggressively, I simpered as I tiptoed to you, I drunkenly veered your way). We both may agree on the Truth (I did indeed move from one end of the room to the other end of the room where you were standing) but we may violently disagree on the truth. You might say I deliberately tracked mud onto your just shampooed carpet. I might say that I was in a hurry because the phone was ringing. We might both be right. We might both be wrong.
Clearly, truth telling can create a lot of conflict.
So much of our struggling in our relationships has to do with telling our truths and denying your truths. We get hung up on specifics and never get to what’s really wrong. We are so busy defending our truth (You did call. You did not call. You never call. Well, you’re never home.) and so we argue argue argue but we never make any resolution.
A long time ago there was a woman at the shelter where I worked who was a liar. She had a very complex, very disturbing story about abuse and it was clearly not true (nor was she delusional). One of the case managers got a little obsessed with trying to get this woman to admit that the story wasn’t true but the rest of us felt (and told the case manager this at the weekly staff meeting) that what was True was that this woman felt victimized and harmed and wanted/needed attention around that. Now mind you, we were an emergency shelter so it was not our job (or our expertise) to counsel but we felt that what was more important than forcing this woman to shed her truth was to figure out how to help her within that truth so that she could get to the next place — secure housing, real therapy, etc. This haggling over details wasn’t getting anyone anywhere.
So the truth is not always True and the Truth doesn’t always matter.
Sometimes counseling is mucking around in truth and listening hard and honestly? To me it can feel a lot like writing an essay. If you’ve done any writing then likely you know how you write into what you know that you didn’t know you knew. (My favorite quote about this is: “How will I know what I think until I see what I say?” That’s E. M. Forster.) That’s how counseling can be, too. Just as we write to understand ourselves and the editor helps the writer (myself or others) in the process, so in counseling there is that storytelling structure.
So you can show up at a counseling office without any idea of what you’re thinking because part of finding out what you think is seeing what comes out of your mouth.
The counselor is a lot like an editor helping you make sense of your story. You don’t have to understand your story when you come to the counselor because she’s not listening for The Truth, she’s listening for your truth and seeing the big structure so she can ask the questions that will help you understand your experience.
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’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.
I want to understand the universal in my specifics and I want to understand when I’m mistakenly extending my experience to other people.
I was thinking on this after I read momartfully’s excellent single mom post:
Single Moms — Web Outcasts
And I think of it now and then specifically around an essay that was in (I think) the Guardian, which I can’t find anymore and it points out that all the books about motherhood are written by writers, which means that writing mothers dominate the cultural discussion about motherhood, kinda the way the blog world thinks every mommy blogger is writing blithely at home between loads of sparkling laundry. (Watch Punditmom — only partially successfully — try to make this point to the Wall Street Journal.)
I don’t really have a point except that I’m thinking about it and thinking, like I said, about how to express the universal from my specific and I think the only way to do that is to KNOW what’s specific, which isn’t always easy.
I’m filing this under writing because that’s how I’m thinking about it.