I’ve been writing, in the serious sense of the word, for the past four years of my life, and to this day I don’t think I’ve fully embraced the editing process. Writing is instinctual and the end product is always raw, but as long as a piece of work feels substantial to me, even in its infancy, I am satisfied. Editing is not nearly as easy. Editing is supposed to be a radical reshaping of structure, a thorough examination of the content of a story or poem, with a number of inputs, from advisors, peers, and from myself, about what shifts in the words must take place for the writing to hit as hard as possible. The theme of editing for my work is usually, “trim the fat, embrace the substance.” Basically, understand where the story is, and don’t mess around with anything else.
My fellow seniors and I are in the first trimester of the writing of our theses. The summer was a gestating period: we gained a sense of what we wanted to write, and how we wanted to write it, and we had the vacation months to try to formulate the first 20 pages. It was a necessary first step, with a tangible deadline, and I don’t think it was especially challenging for any of us to get to 20. The fact that I am slowly getting used to, however, is that very few of those pages are really going to make it into my thesis.
In the thesis writing process, I have been transitioning from an identification as a fiction writer to that of a nonfiction writer. In any story, though, editing is tricky. It has always been a bit of an awkward process for me. After a serious assessment of my work, and with lots of feedback from others, I sit down and try to slim down the piece. But there is always some difficulty, and it comes from a fundamental discomfort with what I fear is a destruction of what is original and unique.
The original writing, the rough first draft, is destroyed in the process of revising. This idea, even if its not true, is present in the way the editing feels; it does not feel necessarily right to destroy the order of words and sentences as they originally came. I know that this is a selfish instinct, but it exists in my mind in some form every time I contemplate the red ink. I still have to edit; it’s a writer’s business to edit towards some idea of completion. So I fix spelling errors and shoddy sentences. I haphazardly delete sections I know are lacking. And then after about a half-an-hour, I usually call it quits.
I only write this because I am going through the process of revising a few pieces I want to go in my thesis and it’s hard. I know I have to keep writing. I have to keep thinking about what each piece is going to say, and what the thesis will say as a whole, is going to say. But I know that, as the process of producing a book-length body of work that is presentable and interesting, I am going to have to embrace the editing process.
Editing feels like destruction, and as much as I am sold on the ideal of enhancement, it’s just how it feels. It also feels necessary: first drafts are messy and incomplete. What I think I must do, as hard as it may be, is see the destruction in a positive light. To write draft after draft, to experiment—overlay different versions over one another. The visual metaphor I’ve though of is this: it’s like looking at maps of San Francisco throughout history, seeing where buildings were before tumbling, where the land was filled in, where dry surface that became neighborhoods. Hopefully, in the final draft, the piece will be able to pick and choose which surfaces and textures it wants from all the maps before it.
Or at least that is what I tell myself. Even in writing this, I avoid the procedure of returning to the work. I have a sense, though, that I have ideas I can work with and ideals I want to reach in the interplay of destruction and preservation. Hopefully, I will have an update in a few weeks.
Colin Yap, Class of 2016