“There are two men in an artist, the poet and the worker. He is born a poet, and he becomes a worker.” — Emile Zola, to his boyhood friend, Paul Cezanne.
I am now on the final revision of my book, and at this point, it is all about being a worker, not a poet. Anybody who thinks there is anything romantic about writing a book has never done it. This is hard. And yet, it’s hard in the most satisfying sense. I take pride in my work, even as with each new pass over this by now overly familiar material, I am painfully aware of my own limitations as a writer.
I’m serious. This time, I’m working with an editor who is giving close care to the manuscript, and is pushing me to go beyond anything I’ve done before. I can’t tell you how good this feels. I mean, it’s hugely embarrassing to read the text he’s marked up, and to realize that the passage I thought was so lyrical is in fact a big steaming pile of purple. And then I revise, and think that for better or for worse, it’s as good as I can get it, only to see on the next pass, after he’s dealt with the text, that no, it could in fact be better. Much better. And so I revise again.
This book has pushed me hard against the limits of my talent as a writer, but I have faith that the result will be good. Actually, I don’t have that faith, because I never re-read what I write unless an editor makes me. All I can see are the flaws. But at least I have the self-awareness to know that I’m neurotic about this stuff; I have learned not to trust my own emotions when it comes to my writing.
As I’m making this final revision, I worry that I am losing my own voice. But am I? Or am I rather honing it, under direction? It’s impossible to say now; I’m far too close to the process to say for sure. What I can say is that it has been a privilege to have worked with an engaged, intelligent editor who has not let me settle for being good enough. The responsibility I have to tell my sister’s story truthfully and well weighs heavily on my conscience, and I know I couldn’t bear this burden by myself. It’s too distorting of my own vision. The editor, for example, has helped me see times when I become overly sentimental, which is to say, when I say something that’s not true (if you follow me).
The inspiration for any work of art, however great or small, comes from a poetic place. But ultimately, it requires craftsmanship and, unless you are a truly great artist — and very, very few people are — it also requires the assistance of other craftsmen.