December 3, 2012
As the family archivist, I suck. I throw away my kids’ masterpieces, the artwork they’ve toiled over, the stories they’ve perfected. I don’t keep their schoolbooks and I don’t take enough photos of those important occasions like school concerts or birthdays. I’m a watcher, I sneak up on them when they’re not looking. I keep the offbeat stuff—misspelt declarations of love on scraps of paper, letters of apology to the Tooth Fairy for swallowing teeth, even sibling death-threats. And this little gem posted under the door last night by an incarcerated Mister 7:
You are a meanie Daddy. Loser.
I’ve realised that for the past couple of years I’ve started keeping the stuff that makes me feel something and recording the moments that strike me as ironic or poignant or messy. I haven’t always been this way—the graphic designer in me looks for perfection, complimentary colours, harmony and balance, but the writer in me is taking over. Now I look at modern wedding photos and wonder how long the couple had to stand there to get the perfect image, because that’s how we record our lives now—we just keep posing and taking another shot until we’re happy. Many of my older digital photographs are at odds with my memory.
Not much went to plan on my own wedding day. For starters, we had a surprise wedding, and the whole thing was arranged in just a few weeks. I remember everything that went wrong in excruciating detail—the heat, the blowflies, blistering sunburn, the various wardrobe malfunctions. I dragged the train of my dress through muddy creek-water and trod in cow shit wearing my sequinned shoes. But I also remember smiling so hard my face hurt. Many of my perfectly posed wedding photos were ‘ruined’ by our crazy dog, Eccy, wandering into shot at the last second. I could have cropped and cloned and airbrushed to erase him, but I just never got around to doing it. When Eccy died a few years later, I had a series of those photos printed and framed; now we have a set of vignettes on the wall, with his ghostly presence marring each otherwise perfect picture.
I took my son to a birthday party last weekend. In lieu of a thank-you card or a lolly bag, his friend’s mum took photos of each guest with the birthday boy, using an old Polaroid Instamatic camera. The kids held their mementos under their armpits until the pictures emerged and, when they did, there was a lot of blinking, reflector-eyes, side-eyes, eye-rolling, open mouths, snotty noses, and peace signs. They were imperfect and hilarious.
I’ve also realised that my paintings, the few that I like and hang on our walls, are the ones where I’ve painted over something else. You can still see the ghost of another image, a glimpse of colour that clearly doesn’t belong, and ridges of old paint that make the final painting more interesting and layered. All those mistakes underneath make these paintings beautiful, when others I’ve made using a pristine canvas and confident strokes are somehow… less.
So what the hell does all of this have to do with writing? I don’t know if there’s a punchline in this piece (and I do love a good punchline), or even a useful scrap of advice for any other writer.
I only know that when I edit, I look for ways to make my words just so. I hone, I shape, I shift and delete; I switch and cut and carve and polish until I’ve said what I needed to say and nothing more. This is how you should edit, so how is it possible to end up with less? How do I end up with a picture that leaves me cold? I suppose a few years ago I could have written like that and still made it work somehow, but I’m starting to think that knowing more about editing and growing into a more technically proficient writer isn’t necessarily a good thing for me.
This all seems at odds with my confession about perfectionism and my tendency to edit as I go, but I’ve never edited line by line as much as I have lately. This next book had a shaky start. Every line was perfect, and I hated it. I hated opening that file. There was no way I could hold that pose for a whole book, so we stared each other down for a few weeks until I broke, hit delete, and cried.
I like rambling, messy sentences. I like watching the outtakes at the end of a film. I grieved for a while and I started over; what’s taking shape now is an unrehearsed, convoluted, untidy manuscript. I can still see the ghost of my perfect draft underneath, but I’ve put the ‘mistakes’ back in. And I’m happy because finally I feel something.