Surviving the editing process
No one else can write your story
An interview with writer and participant in The Banff Centre's Literary Journalism student program, Shelley Youngblut.
Photo credit: Heather Saitz
Prior to coming to Banff, how much experience did you have sharing your work in such an intimate setting?
I’m a long-time magazine editor, so I’m usually the person who gives the feedback, and the person responsible for coaching, coddling and pushing a writer. I’ve never been on the other side. So this is my first experience.
For whatever crazy reason I choose a deeply personal story that in the end will not be a personal story—it will be universal story. The challenge is how to go from [one to the other]. How do I take something and make it resonate and make it real and get rid of all my “writerly” ticks?
Can you give a specific example of how reader feedback shaped your work?
The piece is now even more personal than when I brought it in. But now it’s personal filtered through the reader’s needs as opposed to the writer’s needs.
Personal journalism is really tough because you are telling a story about yourself. The big challenge is to find a narrator, a voice that tells the story but is still you. My first week here, that was the main focus— a light bulb went off in my head and I realized I have to totally commit myself but get out of the way at the same time. A lot of it for me was getting rid of exposition and just writing scenes. I spent the first week writing scenes and the second week I spent it looking at those scenes as if they were mosaic tiles. Each of them is specific tile, but when you step back they become a larger picture.
And then I got workedshopped. Two days ago. It was my first workshop.
What you need to know to survive the editing process
- Your editor wants you to succeed.
- A good editor will find things that you know, in your heart of hearts, aren’t working. That’s a good thing.
- The more you work with a good editor, the better a writer you’ll be.
- A good editor listens. So tell them stuff.
- Writing can be lonely, hard, and horrible and it’s great to know there is a person who believes in you.
How do you know what to listen to and what to let go of?
You’re in a room, in a circle and everyone gets five minutes. And Ian is right on you—if you’re over your five minutes then you’re done.
Week one is just raw first drafts, so feedback is more general and more positive. By week two, people start saying: this doesn’t work and this doesn’t work and this doesn’t work . I don’t know if it’s better to go first or last.
More than anything else, it’s a matter of taking the feedback and letting it rest in you, because, at the end of the day, it has to be your story. No one else can write your story.
You have to get your bearings again afterwards. I’m in day two post-workshop and I’m finally feeling like I can see the path forward, a path that, in some ways, is directed by other people but I’m certainly not being pushed or dragged there. It has to be where I want to go. To be selfish as a writer is very difficult, but you have to be.
Is it important to listen to your gut? Or is that just resistance?
The best writers are extremely happy to be edited and extremely happy to listen to a reader. You have to be. If you know it all already then what are you doing here for four weeks? You’re here to learn, you’re here to open yourself up. You’re here to try things that fail.
That’s the other thing that the month-long residency does for you. You get to fail. And the only way you’ll be a better writer is if you fail. You’ve got to try stuff that doesn’t work. You’ve got to go too far. Within a month you have a chance to figure out how to get it right. Nobody gets it right in the first draft.
Do you prefer a gentle touch? Or ripping off the band-aid?
A lot of us cried after our workshop. And a lot of us drank after our workshop. Some of us cried, and then drank and then cried.
I’m here for the honesty. I want to get better.