Travails of Biography: The Brutal, Problematic and Necessary Job of Editing

Greetings, all. I am back from a much-needed vacation! Blue Hill was wonderful. I always feel close to Emilie Loring there.

Nova Scotia inspired.

Cape Cod made connections.

And Boston reassured. This was where Emilie began and her biography took root. Every time I am here, I feel the necessity of telling her story.

Now that I’m home, I have undertaken the brutal, problematic, but necessary process of editing. Every writer has to do it, and I honestly don’t mind. Perversely, I like proofreading for grammar, style, word choice, and flow.

There’s another part of editing, however, that is harder. Emilie described it after writing her second novel, Here Comes the Sun!

As a reminder that every sentence should move a story on, I have thumb-tacked above my type-writer that admonition of Stevenson’s:

“From all its chapters, from all its sentences, the well-written novel echoes and re-echoes its one creative and controlling thought: to this must every incident and character contribute; the style must have been pitched in unison with this; and if there is anywhere a word that looks another way, the book would be  stronger, clearer, and (I had almost said) fuller without it.”

~ Emilie Loring in The Editor, March 1924

I read, recognize a “rhetorical bypath,” as Emilie called it, and freeze. Do I really have to take it out? It would be fun to bring up in conversation–“Have you read any of these 19th Century children’s books that Emilie read?”–but it diverts the reader into the stacks of a bookstore, and we have to go find Emilie again when we get out. Shall I remove it?

Catching a biography
How do you capture a person in words?

It sounds backward, but first, I am adding. I double-check every section with the set of notes from which it was extracted to be sure I haven’t left anything out. It’s hard to imagine anything being left out of a manuscript that’s already long, but remember, the full set of notes is huge, and some were acquired after I’d written their section of the book.

So I’m adding–but also ignoring, for the umpteenth time, interesting tidbits that I worked hard to find but which don’t “move the story on.”

Bay of Fundy rocks
Real lives have still moments.

Augh! Is this right? This is biography, not fiction. Is it real to present Emilie Loring’s life as a jam-packed sequence of always-interesting moments that lead, inexorably, to a worthy destination? Do you know any real life like that?

The article that immediately followed Emilie’s in The Editor said that a history is judged first by “its truth to facts and its justice of opinion.” After that, “we call historical writing brilliant or powerful when the men and events portrayed touch our sympathy as they would if we saw them here and now.”  (~ C. T. Winchester)

Judicious editing selects the moments that build the picture that let us know the subject as a real, living person–true to facts, fair in judgment, and vividly human. I’m fond of the image of a stone sculptor, carefully removing unneeded bits to leave behind a sculpture that connects with its viewer.

Then, in Blue Hill this summer, I met Jud Hartmann, a sculptor with the uncanny ability to create life-size bronzes that almost speak, they are so real. Before reading the histories beside them, you can look into their faces and know their personalities, guess at their histories, feel their essence. They definitely connect.

So I asked about the process of winnowing, and Jud said it was just the opposite. He makes a simple, wire form and then starts adding clay. He adds and adds, and, like Emilie and her writing friend Sara Ware Bassett, he lets the character take over and make itself, guiding him to create it, just so. (See more at his website, here.)

Emilie agreed. She’d read up to where she’d been the day before, and then her characters would “pick up the thread of the story and carry on.”

Sara Ware described it:

I try to get the upper hand by making an outline of the book, in which I set down just how the people are to act, even to the different chapters. But then I discover that I am not entirely the mistress of the situation, that my people may take a notion to do as they please and leave me on the sidelines wondering… It’s just like life. We all astonish ourselves with traits that we didn’t know we possessed.

And that’s where this blog post began. Their reflections caused me to reflect on the character, the person, I have written in Happy Landings. Taking their advice has gotten me this far. I’ll add these little bits more and then stand back. If she lives, that’s it. If she falters, it’s my job to remove the barriers.

Happy Landings, everyone!

13 thoughts on “Travails of Biography: The Brutal, Problematic and Necessary Job of Editing

  1. Oh, my! What an arduous task! I feel for you. I have wondered if you had shipped out the draft yet and would have to respond to comments and questions from the editor. I guess that is yet to come as well. I have not written anything so large and complex, but I understand the drill. Good luck!

    It is interesting that you speak/write of adding rather than subtracting content. I have been sketching. I found I draw the basic shapes and add shading and color to create depth and light/dark. My (small) drawing of Notre Dame (it was an experiment in complex things) was a grid of boxes, each a section of the building. I added shading and created depth and it looks like a cathedral, not a grid! But it took time and was in stages of ADDING features. It’s also important as you note to recognize when adding becomes too much and clutters up the vision–leads you from your purpose–to move the story forward. That’s a good standard. I have an essay pending that I tried to pair down. I ended up adding some detail first, then deleted where things became duplicative or irrelevant.

    Again, good luck. I have a feeling there is still a lot more editing ahead…not b/c of quality, but because that just is the process. Hopefully, an editor’s fresh eyes will be on it soon and help guide you.

    and of course, Happy Landings!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Patti. I’ve posted some on my blog and linked to Facebook. I want to set up a gallery. I have not found a hosting service I want to use yet. I’ll let you know when I get it together.


  2. I just want to thank you for all you have done. I’ve loved Emilie Loring since I was a teenager–and that was a while ago. But I wanted to tell you that I’ve been rereading them this year. I have three more to go. But I have appreciated your commentary and information about her. I love how you point how things that reveal her character; it makes me appreciate what she wrote all the more. I feel like this time through I have seen and understood so much more. You have made a difference in my understanding of her books. Thanks so very much!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lorraine, thank you. Truly, what I’ve learned about Emilie has been just too good to keep to myself, and comments like yours confirm that her story is important to tell. It makes a difference for me to hear it; thank you for writing.


  3. I look forward to your completed work. As you continue writing, know that I as well as so many others are cheering you on. You have made Emilies stories so much richer for the fun of reading them over and over. Have a wonderful editing journey, almost there. Aloha

    Liked by 1 person

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