So healthcare legislation passed this weekend, and I have a cold. Cold or no, I hope this doesn’t mean I’ll be forced to actually go see a doctor. I have nothing against doctors personally. In fact, the discipline and compassion required to be a good doctor are admirable. I, for one, have managed to avoid having to make a single “life or death” decision far longer than I have avoided doctors. I would be very happy to socialize with doctors, but conversation is not really what doctors are billing you for when you visit. A trip to the doctor is always about what is wrong with me, not what is right with me. The doctor’s dilemma is a little like that of the editor-for-hire. If a book doctor reads your manuscript and declares: “Perfect! Don’t change a word,” then what was she hired for? Although, admittedly, I know a few writers who would pay good money to hear those five words even once.
But aren’t we all guilty of this to some degree? We go back to our work with a scalpel to cut out everything “wrong” with it. In fact, nothing in any draft is wrong, it’s just that some stuff doesn’t belong in the story we’re writing. In another story, another essay, the stuff that so bothers us would be perfect.
It’s not unlike the cold that kept me up last night. There is nothing wrong with my runny nose—it is doing exactly what it should be doing given what I have caught. It’s hard to remember when I’m hacking at 3:00 in the morning, but there it is. I can get just as grouchy rereading work that needs more editing. The implied threat of the unfinished manuscript is that there is actually something wrong with me, that a genetically better writer would have had this finished a long time ago.
Where’s the use in that? I am told that the body is a self-correcting organism, always seeking health as it scabs over wounds and expels viruses. This is useful to remember. There’s nothing wrong with us, we’re just always growing and changing and so things always need adjustment. The story you find so troublesome today you might have been proud of ten years ago. When you reread work, you aren’t correcting what is wrong, you are bringing new work into alignment with what is right with you today.