My first creative non-fiction article tortured me during the middle drafts, as though I was in a river too frothy to comprehend from the seat low in my canoe. I was always scraping into one rock or another. I like a bit of whitewater as much as the next paddler, but my desire in taking up serious writing, the desire to bring readers something rewarding, was in danger of being swamped by struggle and overwork. If I didn’t change something, I might quit.
A few years ago, I didn’t think of myself as a creative writer, nor a storyteller, for that matter. I was an amateur essayist, which I thought was a whole different animal. Yet I knew the power of story and wanted to harness that power in my writing. I thought it would be easy enough to write out two stories of real events, stories that friends had said were good ones.
When I wrote them out, yes, they were good stories, but I was tripping over myself in various ways. And, to me, they had to have a point, which always seemed clearer in my head than when it arrived on the page. And my really big bugaboo was finding an order, a structure, that would engage the reader fully. While my friends may be sincerely fascinated by an animated account over a pitcher of beer, a different thing altogether was telling my story to strangers, clearly not a captive audience. Especially because with the words committed to the page, and my readers at some remove, I can’t see reactions on their faces and adjust what I say accordingly. Doesn’t the chief problem always come down to how to show readers that our stories are going somewhere that they’ll enjoy following us to?
I was going to need help. Help beyond taking a creative writing class here and there. Those were good, and encouraging, as I began to see the science—the methods—in the writing arts. Though I was also skeptical—I didn’t want to tart up a true story, or let filigree weigh it down. And the big question, which structure to use when, baffled me. I needed a river guide to avoid the brushy “sweeper” trees lying across my stream, not to mention the dreaded drop holes.
Then one day, my mother offered to pay me to sell the cemetery plots she’d inherited and didn’t want. My writing fund was born.
So, starting with the first piece that I wanted to see published, and after struggling awhile, I sought out a developmental review from an experienced editor. To me, an editor is a professional reader who has a bead on other readers’ needs, wants, reactions. And knows what to do about these things. With help, the obstacles could be navigated, the chosen eddies could be playful asides, or crucial explication, and I could smoothly return to the main channel with my readers still with me. With each draft I could get much closer to an intimate conversation with my readers that I hoped for.
I found very fine and insightful editors right here in our local writing community. I needn’t have worried about decorative flourishes, because my editors haven’t pushed me in that direction. They have pushed me to work hard, but have guided that work insightfully. I suspect I will always have some blindness about structure. Now I don’t let that bother me. It’s great to get comments back and feel, Yes! That’s right, that’s what I’m trying to say. Editors, thank you!
Jean Waight is an essayist and memoirist who formerly worked in communications for Group Health Cooperative. Her first person account of the twists and turns in a snow rescue, “Through the Floor,” appeared in Cirque: A Literary Journal for the North Pacific Rim, winter 2015. The Bellingham Herald published her beach clean-up essay. Her blog of life among the trees in Bellingham, full of shady opinions, is at greenteasympathy.blogspot.com.