Editing, Writing

Editing the Rough Draft or “Washing the Dishes to Wash the Dishes”

Guys, I am in it. So knee deep in a quagmire, I can barely move. Don’t get me wrong. I love this novel. I think it’s truly one of the best things I’ve ever written, and most days I open it up and feel an overwhelming sense of pride about the lovely character arcs, the way the threads of the plot all seem to come together so perfectly. Most days, I’m on cloud nine about this story.

Most days.

But then there are those other days. And as I arrive closer and closer to the end of this rough, rough draft, I feel like every click of the keyboard is an eternity, every page of edits stretching out before me like the fiery plains of Mordor. I’m Frodo and Sam crawling through jagged rocks toward a flaming pit with my manuscript wrapped beneath my arm. My husband makes small, tentative comments about my hygiene habits and the state of our feral children, and I clutch at my screen, shouting “PRECIOUS!” while stuffing handfuls of M & Ms in my mouth. The ring chose me, fuckers. Those dishes in the sink can wait. All of you can wait.

But they can’t wait. It’s different now, working under a deadline. Not that I’m new to the phenomenon after getting my doctorate. My advisor wasn’t cruel about deadlines, but she led the rigorous life of a busy and successful academic. A pushback of a deadline for her could throw her whole system off-kilter, and I always tried to respect her time as much as I possibly could. In many ways, I embrace deadlines as they allow me to set goals and manage my time better. I set a goal to have this draft of the novel completed by November 1st, and I know I’m going to make it. I’ve been working on it for a long time, and it’s not a problem. I can do this.

The problem lies in the fact that I love to rush. I see the shiny top of the mountain, and I want to be there now. But if you’ve ever climbed a mountain, you know it’s not something you can speed through. You set a reasonable pace based on your physical abilities and that’s it. Your body simply cannot go beyond what you’re humanly capable of. Maybe it can for a little while, but in the end, the extra exertion pays out with exhaustion, dehydration, even death. Much like editing the rough draft of this novel (stay thirsty, my friends).

A part of the editing doldrums for me is that I’m doing a lot of things that don’t feel very exciting. I wrote this draft of a novel a year and a half ago, and ho boy, have I learned a lot since then. Much of my day is spent deleting filler words and getting rid of all the telling. I have very little energy left for the “fun” part of editing such as deepening characters, developing setting, increasing the tension, and raising the stakes. For my process, all this *magic* happens after I get the silliness out of the way and start to focus on particular scenes as if they were their own little novel. It’s what works for me, but may not work for everyone.

But this part of cleaning up a novel is the worst because you’re on your own. No feedback from betas to keep you motivated. Just your own little demons and your endless filter words forever and ever amen. In The Miracle of Mindfulness Thich Nhat Hanh talks about how most of us do our chores as quickly as possible to get to some other, better place. By doing so, we are not being mindful of our present moment. Now, I hate doing the dishes as much as I hate editing “to be” verbs from this manuscript, but the man makes a good point. He talks about how sometimes we need to change our attitude. Rather than seeing our chores as a source of misery, we need to “do the dishes in order to wash the dishes.”

He writes,

“If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as they were a nuisance, then we are not ‘washing the dishes to wash the dishes.’ What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus, we are sucked away into the future — and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.”

In other words, if I can’t realize the wonder and joy of writing while I’m doing this drudge work, how will I will I be fully present when I finish the novel? When I send it to my editor? When I walk across the stage to get that big super awesome writer award? The answer is I won’t be fully present because I’ll always be looking for the next thing, the next shiny top of the mountain. And if I am not fully present with the page I am looking at, what opportunities might I be missing because I was too focused on reaching “THE END” to care?

We like to romanticize writing. I know I did before I actually started writing seriously. I thought writing was all staring pensively out of windows and wearing cool hats, but any honest writer will tell you that 75% of the time, it’s doing the dishes. It’s doing thousands of little tiny chores that make up for one tidy house. It’s grueling and hard and desperate much of the time, but if you’re willing to stare into it, sit with it, treat that one sentence as if it were the most important sentence you will ever write…then sometimes, maybe, it doesn’t feel so bad after all.

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