I’ll never be a poet


I didn’t always know how to use a dictionary.

You’d think I’d have learned earlier than I did. I always liked dictionaries. My mom’s tattered old American Heritage dictionary led me to a long flirtation with the brilliantly displayed Oxford American at the library. I can still picture that Oxford glowing under a spotlight on a wood pedestal almost too perfect to touch.

I had a few amazing English teachers in high school – one who loosed Randall Jarrell, Oddyseus, and Shakespeare on me in the same year; another who taught me how to frame an argument; and my favorite, who insisted on last names and demanded nothing less than my best work – but none of them made much of a deal about the dictionary. I left high school wanting to know more about words as much as I needed to.

At college, I studied English with a minor in writing. I felt passionate about words but I still didn’t own a dictionary. This was in the mid-90’s, before the Internet was a big thing and when books still came on paper. Like any 20-year old, I thought I knew myself.

Junior year I took a poetry-writing class that changed everything. My very favorite professor taught the class. She was older, maybe pushing 70 at the time, and a nun – if you recall, this was a Catholic women’s college. But my favorite professor was snappier than the usual nun, and she was smart, in the cool sense. For many years she taught English at a prison. She was bold yet down to earth.

When I began the poetry class, in late August, I was an expert on me. I had breezed through three years of college with almost straight A’s. Grades still mattered, a lot. The week before Thanksgiving, I missed a syllable in a metered piece that I read aloud in class. It was a careless mistake and a peek in my nonexistent dictionary would have prevented it. After class, my favorite professor told me I’d never be a poet. By the time I finished the class in mid-December, my voice abandoned me and I began to hate myself.

That mistake wreaked so much havoc on my life that I just have to laugh. I whole-heartedly blame the missing syllable for my first round of grad school rejections, since I foolishly asked my favorite professor to write a letter of recommendation. I sometimes hold onto relationships until long after they are dead. I hold the missing syllable accountable for my selective mutism when I finally did eke my way into a graduate program.

Still, it took another five years for me to land a job as an editor. It took five years of feeling like a fuck up until I stumbled into my new boss’s office and saw the dictionary sitting on her desk like the Bible. My boss led by example and was never the type to hold my hand. Instead she handed me a shiny new copy of Webster’s 11th and told me to go find myself in it. It wasn’t easy but I wanted to impress her, so I did it.

I’m still not a poet. But I am an editor.

Edit me, a revision

I haven’t always known how to edit. I have a master’s degree in English lit, but my education did not prepare me for my career as an editor. No, I learned to edit afterwards, on the job. My process is one of many, I’m sure, but I want to tell you about it. It sheds some light on what I’m seeking from this blog, I think.

Before I begin to edit something, I try to learn from the writer what they expect in the final product. I gather the appropriate style guide, dictionary, and any other reference materials. I find a quiet place to work uninterrupted. I take a moment to clear my mind and focus on my work. For me, editing is almost meditative. I need to completely focus on the writing, turning each word, each phrase, over in my mind to ascertain its meaning and clarity. I try to make my queries objective, to be minimally invasive in the writing.

When I edit, I pay complete attention to the writing in front of me. The words become the most important thing in the world to me, if only for the brief time that I am editing them. I seek to understand the words, in the smallest sense – of spelling, punctuation – to the largest – of theme and message. As an editor, I care more about being present for the writing than about changing it in any essential way.

So, edit me: Read my words. Give them your undivided attention. Offer me your constructive criticism or your compliments. Am I who I think I am? Or, as I suspect, is there more to me than that?

I Don't Like Mondays Blog Hop

Come on, edit me

Edit me.

I can’t exactly explain how this concept came to me. You’ll have to content yourself with the knowledge that it arose from deep within my subconscious.

I will admit that I’m drawn to the way “edit me” sounds vaguely dirty, sexual. It’s true, right?

Why the mixture of languages? Why edit moi? It opens the toolbox of language(s). It complicates, it captures a certain sense of everythingness. It includes. Mixing fights the limits of language.

Last week, a friend shared a post from this blog, coincidentally on the same subject. The blogger is quite religious, and on those grounds he rejects the necessity of editing himself. I’d describe him as radically self-acceptant and I’d lie if I told you that I wasn’t envious. But I just don’t have that much certainty in any single religion.

For me, editing is a process. For those of you who don’t know me or have never read my resume, I worked as an editor for a number of years. The company I worked for is old and venerated. I learned from the best. I know what I’m talking about when it comes to editing.

The editor takes the raw material and corrects it of course, but she does more than that. She shapes the narrative, ensuring that each concept flows logically to the next. She knows roughly what she wants to produce, and she teases the writing to create that reality. She is a gatekeeper to understanding, pushing the limits of language to guide the reader on the path that she has chosen for him.

So what do I mean by “edit me,” and how can a blog accomplish this? A few months ago, I confided in some friends about my recent inner turmoil. One commented, startlingly, “You always seem so perfect.”

I’m not perfect. But I’ve so carefully created a singular version of myself — in opposition to my father, my sister, my aunt, my grandmother (people I’ve written about and will write of). This version is incomplete. Yet if you glance at the facts of my life as I usually present them, that glimmer of perfection shows.

This presents me with many difficulties. It’s hard to hide so much about myself. It goes against my open nature. To preserve the singular version of perfection, I’ve denied myself a lot of fun. I’ve never allowed myself to mess up, to break the rules. And what of those hidden truths? I’ve realized that hiding parts of myself, or locking out people I love, only redoubles their power over me.

Everyone needs an editor. It’s a job that you cannot accomplish on your own, even on paper. An editor must bring an objective eye to the writing, to the material, and no one has that much self-awareness.

So, edit me. I’ve gotten it right, but believe me, I’ve also gotten it wrong. I want to put some of the parts back in. I want to mix up my narrative and see what that creates. I want to reconnect with what I’ve denied about myself and my history.

I need help. If you’re reading this, maybe you know a thing or two about what I’m saying. Maybe you see things differently. I’d like to hear your thoughts. Don’t worry that you’ll hurt me. This is a collaboration. I’ll fill you in on the cast of characters, the settings, the plot twists and turns. Then I hope that you’ll chime in. I’d like to hear similar stories and opposite stories. I want to find the cracks in my narrative and tear them open to see what’s inside. It will be productive for me.

So, come on, edit me.