“You’re quite the sailor,” she said cheerfully.
God, how I hated that line. Every time I came across it, I’d wince and read on as fast as I could jump over it. Why did she say that dorky thing? What was she, eighty? A condescending eighty? I wanted to smack her in her fatuous little chops.
What bothered me most was that she was in the middle of being abducted by a vampire who was taking her to an unknown location–and she was attracted to him, to boot. Just because she was a nerd developing Stockholm Syndrome didn’t excuse that line. Who wrote this crap? Well, I did.
This piece of writing just sort of lolloped back and forth through a couple of years, as other bits got written (including a doctoral dissertation), but Toria’s plopping out that bizarre little stupidity hung in there the entire time; I’m pretty sure it showed up in the very first draft. And I vaguely remember (or am backediting) that I hated it from the start. It wasn’t my fault, really. At the time, I had no idea who Toria Piper was; I didn’t know her abductor either. They were just people who showed up on Memorial Drive one Cambridge night, and I wrote about them, just because.
So every now and then for two years, I’d shudder and move on. And this wasn’t the only place in my writing it happened: I’d reread, feel ill, and go on to the better stuff that didn’t make me feel stupid.
Then one day a few months ago, I had an epiphany. I highlighted the sentence with my mouse–and pressed delete. It was sort of the way I feel when I take off my bra at night. Why did it take me so long? What was my stupid deal? I owned this work; I owned Toria and everybody she met that night. But it was as if I didn’t; as if I were somehow locked in to keeping it, as if I were in a bad relationship which I was committed to make work.
And I think it was that very thing. I had been in a bad relationship on which I squandered years of my time, in which I felt helpless and passive; it was as if I were reading my life as written by somebody else. Word after word, day after day. I learned that it didn’t matter what you liked or didn’t; that things just were the way they were.
More insidiously, I knew that beneath the talent and pretense, I was actually a pretty bad writer, just as I was a pretty bad everything else. I had my characters say things like that (even if rarely)–and it was a dead giveaway. I had to leave those little breadcrumbs of mediocrity alone, to demonstrate that I didn’t know what I was doing; that I was your basic talentless fangirl who wrote nothing but awkward sententious crap.
Ironically, I’d already been able to make a lot of major changes fairly fluidly–X-ing out pages of longhand; noting in marginal pen things like, “What are you thinking?” and “Oh, just stop it.” Similarly, I’d made many big changes in my life–moved, changed jobs, finished school, had a lot of therapy, etc. But looking back, I think that one little change meant something more.
It wasn’t like when I could see the blinding miserable fact that maybe an entire half-chapter was pointless and really needed to be moved to the outtakes file. The devil is in the details, after all, and when I finally silently bitchslapped that duhhh out of Toria’s mouth, I was taking it out of mine. It said that I had control.
Like so many things I’m actually quite good at, I’d somehow seen the story as something outside myself. It was really decently done, which meant that I didn’t really write it; indeed, it felt–and still feels–almost like automatic writing much of the time. It works best when I get myself out of the way and let the story flow through my fingers. But I am doing it; it’s not a fluke. I am making this good thing from my own cleverness, and because I own it, because I own me, I have control.
There’s undoubtedly a whole lot of dumb left, in both author and work, but when I see it, I can change it. I am not helpless and passive. Sometimes I have to take stock and weigh how much fiddling around it will take to fix it, and sometimes I just do a workaround as I can. But if I am able to, I just hit delete, and make one more dumb thing go away.