For me, a new experience of the printed page. I’ve spent the last two weeks editing. The first volume of Elizabeth’s three-part memoir will appear after the first of the year. It’ll cover the time from her first howl in 1940 to our forming The Independent Eye in 1974—maybe the two most challenging years of her life, so far at least. Birth into new worlds, both.
In 2010 we collaborated on a joint memoir, Co-creation: Fifty Years in the Making. This is a bit different. All our work since we met has been in collaboration, but here I’m more the midwife, not the dad, helping the baby get born with all its fingers and toes in good order.
In some ways it’s a familiar process. Rewrites are a natural process of writing, like digestion: the food hasn’t done its job by just being chewed. Our most recent novel has been through ten drafts, and some of our plays have had major changes after years of production. As a director, more than a few times, I’ve interrupted rehearsal to move a chair three inches.
In any story, you look first to see that the needed parts are there: the background, the incidents, and the motivations. Is the order right, and the “voice”—the style and mind of the narrator: Does it mumble? Does it shout? Does it have a wry grin or a somber hangdog air? Then you get down to the rhythms and choices of words.
I’m grateful for a lifetime of writing comedy, among many other styles. The discipline of the set-up, the development, and the punch is applicable whether you want to produce a laugh or a stab. It involves word order, sentence length, tempo, and word choice. But you face the challenge of the radical difference between speech and page. In the spoken line, you control—by inflection and tempo—what the spectator takes in; on the page, you try to get the reader attuned to an inner voice that does the same, but you can’t control it completely. Readers have their own speed, acuity of perception, and distractions. In the theatre, they’re aided by the presence of others, impulses to perceive through a laugh or a breath what they might otherwise miss; but the sole reader has no such tribe, and the writer gropes in the dark.
So it does help to have an editor to grope along with. Now it’s chapter by chapter, mostly line edits, though sometimes I bring forth a larger issue: does this have enough weight? should we suggest more of the outcome? will younger readers understand the rules of female dorms in 1958? Otherwise, it’s all about readability. Does it flow? Does this phrase get in the way? What if the paragraph starts this way and ends with more of a punch?
Computers are Satan’s work, but sometimes Satan’s a friend. Being able to switch the Markup function on and off, seeing every proposed change or deletion in a document, is a huge assist. Once I finish a chapter, Elizabeth reviews the changes, and we sit down to talk about those she questions. It’s her decision, but I’ll explain my reason for the change if I think it’s significant, and we may agree on a new way to handle it. More than one way to skin a cat—though we don’t say that in the presence of our cats.
There are many in the realm of prose who advise against “family” as editors. The argument goes that readers don’t have the same perspective as friends or spouse, and often that’s true, except…
If the two of you have very different temperaments; if you’ve clocked sixty years of sometimes gnarly collaboration (and survived it); if you’ve had thousands of audiences telling you, by their reactions, what’s boring, redundant, utterly incomprehensible, and what works; if together you’ve found the eighth or tenth way of doing it more effectively—then you’re probably better off than with an editor who sees their job as making you sound like everyone else. This, to be sure, coming from a writer who’s never sold more than 400 copies of prose.
Meantime, I’m enjoying the work. And reveling in the multiple beings of the woman I love.