I Locked My Editor in the Closet, But He’ll Be Okay — How I Tricked Myself into Writing Really Badly.
My Crappy Writer Hat
This UPS ball cap is one of my “Crappy Writer” hats; another one is the one you’ve seen me wearing in previous blog post headers as I gaze into my crystal ball of literary brilliance. I found the UPS one, discarded and grubby, in my yard last year — and yes, I have washed it :). The hat is inspired by author Jessica Brody (Sky Without Stars; Save the Cat! Writes a Novel) who taught a LinkedIn Learning course I recently completed, titled, Conquering Writer’s Block. Wearing the hat reminds me that drafting and editing are separate activities. This strategy has worked really well for me, so I highly recommend that you try it out, either literally or figuratively.
When I’m wearing my “crappy writer hat” I give myself permission to write absolutely terrible content: Grammar a little questionable? Dead-end plot? Flat characters? Fuzzy logic? Cliché-ridden tripe? Wrong point of view? Inadequate setting and characterization? Lame jokes? — Not my problem.
Editing is “that other guy’s job” — the formal guy with the “Editor Hat”, who comes along later on, with his red pen and heartless disregard for all my “darlings”. With my grubby UPS hat on, my only job is to “deliver” words to the page or screen. See what I did there? (Some lame jokes still get past the Editor, I guess.)
Me, Versus Myself and I — The Battle for Progress, Perfection, and Publication
I try not to have my “Writer” and “Editor” personas (personae?) in the same room together very often, because they sometimes have trouble taking turns or talking civilly to each other, and with all of their arguing I don’t make much progress. Sound familiar? Let me illustrate:
Imagine: Writer and I are hard at work, but Editor keeps trying to sneak in and peek over our shoulder.
Sooo…, he says with a nonchalant tone, how’s it going? Need any help yet?
Not yet, we reply cheerfully.
How about now? he whispers a few seconds later. Writer scowls at him and he pipes down.
However, as Writer continues to type on the keyboard or scratch with his pen, we inevitably hear a muffled, Mmph… Oh, dear… Ummmm… Don’t you mean…, and we look back to see Editor, wide-eyed with a hand over his mouth, trying not to interrupt.
Writer tries to stop me, but I can’t help it. “What?” I ask with a sigh.
Oh, it’s nothing, Editor assures us — a pause — It’s just… And then the floodgates open.
It’s at this point that Writer either goes on the defensive, or (more often) just throws up his hands and lets Editor sit down and eviscerate his last twenty minutes of work. He usually casts a withering glare at me when he takes the latter option, because he and I have had this argument many, many times before:
Why do you always listen to him more than me, he says with high drama. I have to beg you to sit down and let me work sometimes, but all Editor has to do is clear his throat and you let him take over!
I have to confess he has a point. I do spend a lot of time coddling Editor’s tendency to micromanage. But in my defense, he isn’t always like that. Editor may jump the gun at times, offering correction at inopportune moments, but he actually stays out of Writer’s way for the most part — just noting quick misspellings or missed commas and then retreating to let Writer carry on.
But when Writer is struggling to deliver (which I admit can be pretty frequently) it’s really easy for us to just let Editor do his thing without having to continue being creative. And that’s the rub — giving in to Editor’s desire to be “fixing” things all the time is super easy; we don’t have to generate new content or advance the plot, just correct and manage what we have. (Sometimes over, and over, and over again.)
The Real Culprit in My Case
Despite all the intrusive comments I get from Editor sometimes, it’s actually Writer who is the more temperamental one. He can be moody, impatient, and easily offended. He may claim that he has to beg me for time to write, but more often it’s him that has to be dragged to the page or computer. Honestly, all his blather about not having enough time, and needing to be “in the zone” before he can create gets wearisome after a while. (Don’t let on that I told you, but I think his excuses are just a cover for self-doubt and insecurity.)
He usually blames his lack of work on other things, like distractions, unfavorable circumstances, or “writer’s block”; but, like I said, when the writing gets hard, he surrenders his seat to Editor far too easily. In fact, despite all his bIuster and complaining about Editor’s “interference”, I think he uses Editor as a crutch; he wants to have him looking over his shoulder. In fact, I have noticed that he gets distinctly nervous not having Editor nearby as a safety net. I even catch him pausing sometimes as he writes, and cocking an ear to listen for Editor’s input. In more self-reflective moments, we’ve talked about this issue — yes, I talk to myself sometimes, don’t judge — and come to the conclusion that, in addition to crippling self-doubt, Writer has a perfection problem.
Welcome to The Mutual Admiration/Frustration Society
Though he’d probably deny it to keep up appearances, Writer obviously has a lot of respect for Editor. He sees him as a kind of literary/academic Rumpelstiltskin that can somehow take his moldy old straw and turn it into gold (or at least cleaner and better smelling straw). I think that’s why Writer craves his approval at every step of the process. He often writes so slowly because he wants to write so well that he needs Editor’s help as little as possible; yet he keeps checking in with Editor to show off how well he thinks he’s doing!
That being said, Writer is also frequently frustrated by Editor’s penchant for straying from his lane. Writer might spend hours carefully crafting a scene or a poem or an article, but then Editor barges in and proceeds to “suggest” (read: make) changes that obliterate Writer’s meaning or derail the plot. A lot of what Editor proposes in making revisions is dynamite, so I realize that he doesn’t mean to be an insufferable know-it-all and a wet blanket on the creative process, it’s just an occupational hazard. I just think he sometimes fancies himself as more creative than he truly is and therefore prone to hijacking stories and poems, making them laboriously dense to get through.
Knowing Editor as well as I do, I understand that he means well with all of his corrections and suggestions. He admires and respects Writer; so much so, in fact, that he wants his partner’s work to be the best it can be. I can appreciate that because it’s that partnership that has earned me the label of being a “Wordsmith”. Editor’s admiration for Writer’s creativity also sparks his envy, I suppose, and tempts him to try and lead out in creation, leading me to sometimes have to rein him in “before he hurts himself”. It’s this tension between creating and revising, which they both engage in, that provokes many of the back-and-forth battles between them. If Writer resents Editor for revising and “killing his darlings”, then Editor’s frustration comes from the many times that Writer persists in holding on to such longtime retained, but objectively lousy or irrelevant, content.
CWH To the Rescue!
Thus, the need for my hats. If I can (even figuratively) put on my “Crappy Writer Hat”, then I can head Writer off at the pass when he gets too hung up on “perfection”, or stops to seek Editor’s approval, or his content is coming slower than 5 P.M. on a Friday. If he starts being a recalcitrant rebel, the hat authorizes me to give Writer “The Look” (you know the one I mean), and inform him that he has not been excused from the page just yet, that Editor is off duty right now, and that he needs to get back to work delivering content (even if he thinks it’s rubbish), because fixing it is “the other guy’s problem.” And if Editor tries to “help” too much or take over for Writer, I can point at the hat and remind him that it’s not his turn and it’s not his job.
I recently posted about my “Crappy Writer” hat on another writing page that I follow on Facebook and discovered I was not alone. Many other authors and poets, like you and me, came forward with pictures of their own outrageous creative headgear. There was everything from horned Viking helmets to raspberry berets and ball caps. I was promptly asked by several of our creative confrères about my “editor hat”. I usually have no problem being hard on myself and overly critical, so getting into “Heartless Editor” mode isn’t often a problem. I don’t actually have a literal “Darling-killing Editor” hat for that stage of the process, but maybe I should. With such a hat, I could authorize Editor to crack his knuckles and get to work, wielding his scalpels without fear that Writer will suddenly appear to whine about the procedure involved in saving a story that is on life-support. I could also stifle Writer’s protests in advance, pointing out that he’s had his chance to deliver as much grist for the mill as possible, but now it’s Editor’s turn to turn straw into gold.
On the whole, the two sides of my writing process are a pretty good team, (even if I do sometimes suspect they are conspiring behind my back to create the illusion of progress without actually getting anywhere.) Writer typically accepts Editor’s ongoing suggestions and keeps writing. Editor listens closely to what Writer is trying to say (without telling him how silly it sounds) and tries not to take over. But when they start bickering, and repeatedly making and undoing each other’s work, it’s time to wear a hat.
In reality, I keep both hats handy. But if that’s going to work, both sides of the process need to agree to the terms. It isn’t easy sometimes, but I know that between the two of them, Editor is the one I can actually be more severe with. He understands that sometimes I have to lock him out of the room for the good of the story, because, if Writer doesn’t get words on the page then Editor has nothing to work with. Writing creates content that can eventually be improved, but Editing a blank page is literally impossible. Writer may be the heart and soul of the operation, but Editor knows that he is the brains.
As a conceptual framework for my writing process, distinguishing clearly between the acts of producing and polishing has proven useful; even if I find myself feverishly switching between hats sometimes. So, if you ever find yourself stuck in your process; trying to write through your edits as you edit your writing — “caught between a wrought and hard space”, if you will — I highly recommend you hit up your own local thrift stores or haberdasher to find a hat or two to inspire you to lock your inner Editor in the closet for a while, and set your Writer free. (Or vice versa.)