I have been a writer and an editor for most of my adult life. I have recognized, as a writer, that no work comes to publication by the efforts of the author alone. I have said, as an editor, that I sometimes wish we could dispense with authors entirely.
The worst authors — and I’ve worked with a few — don’t understand that the editor’s chief function is to make them look good. Authors who respect the editor’s expertise and professionalism understand this and are grateful, but authors who would rather be right than read generally suffer in the end.
Writing is 90 per cent editing. The writer puts the words down and then goes back over them, moving passages, rewriting phrases; looking for narrative coherence, redundancies and contradictions, a logical sequence of ideas and events. This is what the editor does, too. Writing and editing use the same part of the brain: they call on the same resources of memory and imagination, knowledge and skill.
I was honoured, and rather startled, when my collection of stories, Nobody Goes to Earth Any More, won Book of the Year at the Saskatchewan Book Awards in 2003, but I was under no illusion that I had done it by myself. I had a fine editor, and it was she who guided the manuscript to its final form.
My book had been nominated in three categories. After the first two went by and my name didn’t come up, I thought, “All right, let’s get this over with so we can leave.” It was a long drive from the awards ceremony in Regina to Muenster, where I was living with my family on an acreage north of St. Peter’s Abbey, and what I wanted more than anything was to go home and pour myself a glass of scotch. Then the last category came up and they read my name. The then-lieutenant governor, Lynda Haverstock, leaned back in her seat to congratulate me. I think I back-handed her on my way to the stage.
If I was surprised to receive the book award in 2003, I was quite calm when a young man from the CBC called one day in 2009 to tell me that my short story, “Badger” had taken first place in the CBC Literary Awards.
“Oh, isn’t that nice,” I said. “Thank you very much.”
I went downstairs and told Colleen, then burst into tears.
People ask authors where their ideas come from. “They come from the air,” the authors reply glibly, or, “They come from God.” If they thought about it, they would realize that ideas come from memory and imagination, and the ability to make connections.
We’ve all had experiences, and all those experiences are lodged in our memory. For example, if you find a dead badger under a pine tree one spring and later see a fresh badger hole dug into the side of a hill, your memory connects the two events. They may be unconnected in what we call the “real world,” but to the human being there is nothing more real than what we take in through our senses. That’s how we define reality. And everything we can see, touch, taste, smell, or hear is stored in the brain, waiting to be remembered and interpreted.
Ideas are the result of the brain’s ability to make connections and give meaning to apparently meaningless or unconnected events. I did find a dead badger under a pine tree one spring, and later I found a badger sett just up the road. Neither of these events had anything to do with the fact that my property had been the site of a hermitage for years, or that there was a large black dog living across the road, or that a consecrated religious is likely to have experiences that none of the rest of us have had — all of these were elements in the plot of “Badger.” The characters were handed to me through everyday experience, and my memory got to work making connections.
In the end, I didn’t really have to make much up. Most of it was editing.