Every time you re-tell a story it becomes more refined, more polished, more focused. Instead of it being a mass of details, often contradictory, themes start to emerge and through lines develop, all in the quest for narrative integrity, reader engagement and more satisfying resolutions.
Retelling stories takes the complexity out of them, reducing the noise and sharpening the central conflicts until they become almost fables, morality plays that carry the conventional wisdom in comforting, affirming and reinforcing ways.
This blog has always been a first draft of telling my story. It is laced through with details, some telling and some tormenting, full of the rawness of emotion and the struggle to make sense of my experience. It has been where I write to discover what I think and feel, where I scrape for mirroring, and has not been a tool to polish and extend my image and beliefs. If art keeps a sliver of time forever, then these texts store the days of my experience.
As a first draft, it doesn’t simplify anything for readers, giving them an easy handle and regular expectations. It doesn’t invite them back to lounge in a place where they know they will find reinforcement of what they already like, inviting them to return to an aspirational and protected world.
The power of editors has always been to offer reflections to writers on how to make their writing cleaner and more compelling, more of a product that will engage an audience. This is what I do when I edit the work of others, offering structures and phrases that more elegantly convey the meaning I find in their drafts.
Last week I had to rework my sister’s website so it showed her portfolio better in anticipation of her being proposed to join a local artist group. In the end, that effort was sabotaged when her sponsor decided not to comment but instead share the draft with the group. Good intentions, yes, but disrespect and ignorance also.
For the site, I wrote a draft of a artists statement, suggesting my sister use it as a starting point, but instead she just left it, my evocation of her voice so good that she didn’t feel she had the need or energy to touch it. In that case, I took what had been retold and retold and said it again in a polished way.
In these blog posts I have gone over the same ground again and again, the patch where I live, but never to simplify and reduce. Instead, I have tried to become clearer, making the nuance visible, making my whole experience more detailed and honest.
For me, the picture becomes sharper and more vivid, really getting to the bones of my story, but for readers, it has just made the picture more jumbled, themes lost in the vibrant realities of everyday pain.
If my stories ever survive they will continue to exist in an abstracted form, condensed and simplified so that others can use them to make their own points, to prove their own worldview. Maybe some people exposed to them will have interest in going back to sources, finding the meaning behind reduction, but few, if any will do that work in a world where information flow only speeds up and speeds up.
I might love to dream that people will find standing with me through the experience of my life compelling, that they will find something of themselves when they see through my eyes, but by then, I will have moved on. We do what we do and we leave what we leave and that residue lives only in the way it touches the stories of others, if it does at all.
Ragged, raw and unpolished, I have shared my life, with some hope of engaging other people, yes, but primarily and unabashedly to make it visible to myself. I wrote for me, desperately needing to hear the voice of my heart in the world.
I not only had no interest in creating legend, I actively resisted getting stuck in legend making, preferring the peeling back to discover connection through layer after layer of death and rebirth. Fitting into a storyline that was easy to convey, that showed me as easy and compelling, well, that I never trusted.
Turning a first draft into a polished, publishable work means letting go of your art, turning it over to others who will gain from their investment in it. Your art becomes communal commerce, a group effort that can help everyone. To get this to happen, your work has to be winning, convincing them it is worth their time and effort, and they have to feel that they have a piece of themselves in your work.
This means you need to be responsive to the whole, playing your part in grabbing the attention and acclaim needed to make your product break into the wider consciousness, getting readers who see a part of themselves in your work too.
Publishing is an honourable and tested system, honing drafts to become product that then becomes part of a wider culture. It is the process that allows our voice to become part of the conversation, informing and transforming views, doing a tiny part to shape the direction of our shared future.
I admire authors who can be successful in this system, who shape their message and their public performance to break through into popular culture. I know that they work hard to find the balance between their truth, commercial requirements and their own inner drive to be seen and heard. They put their own mess aside to become polished, on message, exposed and part of a machine that can benefit a wide range of people.
Those writers have skills that I have never achieved, have the ability to balance their own voice with the needs of the market, to find the balance between art and commerce that creates an audience who can come along with them to new places. They make a connection with other people on a level of popularity that escapes me, a popularity that isn’t anywhere in my experience of life.
I know how to make my statements, to figure out what I want to say, to scratch it out into text. I know how to make a fine first draft, rippling and rambunctious, using all the language I have scraped up from listening to other people throughout my life to make a collage that tries to represent truth as I understand it. I know how to listen, pulling meaning from the narratives of other people, finding different ways to convey that meaning.
I don’t know how to take that work and make it product, either written or personal, in text or performance. I have tried to find help doing this, but the standard plan requires skills and understandings that just escape me.
So these were the first drafts of my life. They are as far as I figured out how to go.