Camilla Gibb: Indulgence (or the lack thereof)
The award-winning author of Mouthing the Words and The Beauty of Humanity Movement recalls the toughest criticism an editor ever gave her—and how it transformed her writing.
Here's the harshest thing an editor ever said to me: "It's not the reader's job to indulge you, Camilla." She was specifically referring to a chapter of a manuscript that I had enjoyed writing more than any other chapter.
Yowza. Joy killer. And yet, it was probably also the wisest thing an editor ever said.
I tended to get carried away. I tended to find myself amusing, get on a roll, tumble down the hill into a pit of my own miasma. Apparently I wasn't as funny as I thought I was. This piece of not-so-gentle editorial advice was actually part of a bigger philosophy—less is more, show don't tell. No matter how experienced you are as a writer, you need to repeat these mantras to yourself every writing day. I do it with students; I do it with myself.
I see it in the works of others. The indulgent passages; the fat that needs to be trimmed. A perfect example? Anne Marie MacDonald's Fall on Your Knees. A third of that book could have been discarded. The most clever third. And Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. There was no need for that Lithuanian chapter. It was gratuitous, and gratuitous, fatty passages overstuff a manuscript. Better to isolate the tastiest bits than drown them all with gravy.
My own writing style has become cleaner over the years as a result of this advice. I no longer get carried away by the sound of my own voice, the manic or onomatopoeic, or relish the liberty of being able to write anything and everything I want to write. I've had to learn restraint. I've had to learn how to trim the fat and throw the vast majority of what I write away. Ninety percent of it goes in the bin. Ninety percent of the writing is simply the pot boiling. The real work is in letting it boil for hours and patiently distilling its essence.
I've internalized that editor's voice to the point that every time I am enjoying writing too much? Every time I make myself laugh? I say to myself: it's not the reader's job to indulge you, Camilla. Am I having as much fun? Certainly not. But that marks the passage of writing moving from the realm of hobby into that of occupation. Editors have forced me to grow up, get professional. I'm now in desperate need of a new hobby.