Saturday, January 26, 2013

Editing and the Statue of Liberty

If you had asked me to write an inscription for the Statue of Liberty, my first instinct would have been something like: “Come to America, land of the free, home of the brave.”

Or, if I decided to spend more time on it, I would have written a nice bit about the U.S. being the land of opportunity, and how people coming here would have a chance at a better life. Focus on the positive, you know. On the future.

Not Emma Lazarus. She took the ordinary people coming through Ellis Island and transformed them into characters of an epic, not by making them seem great, but by welcoming them in their bedraggled and outcast state. Here is what she wrote:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

See that? See how it defies our expectations? The poem doesn’t make the lives of these people sound happy. It doesn’t make wild promises of fame and fortune in America. It doesn’t have to. It shows the state they were in before, and leaves the reader hoping things will get better for them, grateful that someone saw their inherent value and gave them a place to rest.

Why? Because people matter. And we instinctively know that, reading this. Whatever shape these people are in, they are significant.

That’s what I think about editing. (And you thought I would never get around to the connection. Ha.)

“Keep, ancient tomes, your storied pomp,” cry I. “Give me your plot flaws, your errors, your dangling modifiers yearning to be corrected with red ink, the wretched clichés teeming in your descriptions. Send these, the worn-out, slow-paced manuscripts to me. I lift my pen beside the golden door!”

Why? Why do I get this epic complex, this need to declare to the world my desire to make words do what the authors meant them to do, to create fiction that readers can’t put down?

It’s probably some kind of deep psychological trauma. The epic part, anyway.

But the editing part is because I see the potential in everything I read. I get excited about a compelling character, a fresh premise, a detailed world, a humorous narrator. There’s something there that’s worth improving the weak spots, that’s worth working for long hours cutting away what doesn’t belong and adding what would make the story stronger.

It’s because I know the inherent value of story, and I love it.

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