Someone with two decades of experience getting critiques of their writing shouldn’t curl into a ball after an editor’s comments, right?
Then why, after receiving a developmental edit on my first attempt at a novel, did I find myself in such a pit of despair? (Yes, that pit, that ball; I was every cliché imaginable.)
The simplest explanation involves basic math: a novel is about twenty times the length of a short story, so you have twenty times the problems to fix. On top of this, the stakes for me were especially high: I’d taken a year off work to complete the draft on a small grant, and circumstances left me a single mother, all of which necessitated a weekly budget of $330. Just my son’s weekly piano lessons cost $50.
After taking this big leap and working so hard, I wanted accolades. Instead, the editor posed neutral questions that my anxious mind could easily un-neutralize: ‘What governed your decision to include character X?’ became ‘Why did you even write this useless asshole?’ She didn’t trust the perceptions of the character whose purpose was to explore the nature of human perception, which sent me into an epistemological head explosion about my own perceptions. Sure, many of us ignore positive feedback and focus on the negative (and I hold a PhD in Catastrophizing). This cognitive distortion comes readily when the things working well are described in one page, and the things that aren’t take up fifteen.
It wasn’t so much like I felt this editor had seen me naked. It was as if she’d seen me naked upon return from a ten-day backwoods camping trip and offered logical and helpful observations like: ‘Have you considered taking a shower?’ and ‘But first perhaps another go with some toilet paper?
Naturally, my first inclination was to troll the editor on the internet to find evidence of her incompetence. Instead, I rediscovered her facility for insight, nuance, and skilful prose. Dammit.
Yet as I followed the advice of friends and allowed myself a break, ideas started popping up in my mind. How to fix this. How I really could cut that. Yes of course that part was misleading. And I really have no idea how to deal with that subplot but perhaps it will become clear after I fix fifty other problems. These were the kind of blind spots my critique circle might have pointed out on a short story too. Maybe, after such a long period of isolation, I was out of the feedback-receiving habit?
Now my draft manuscript sits on my desk in a neat pile, with dozens of paperclips—all red, I have my standards!—holding together scenes that have literally been cut and collated over months of arduous writing, reworking, and organizing. The day I got back to work, I glanced at my manuscript, and realized the little bubble of joy I’d cradled in my bosom during the brief honeymoon between completion and feedback had popped.
But it probably had to. When I initiated my de-catastrophization protocol and mulled over places to begin, I saw how the editor’s interventions saved me from spending more energy in fruitless directions. I need that energy, because there is a lot, a whole lot, of work still to be done. Instead of resentment or embarrassment, I’m starting to feel appreciation and even something close to affection for this woman I’ve never even met in person. A stranger who’s seen my work, by necessity, at an earlier stage than I’d ever shared work before. There’s a strange intimacy to this.
Speaking of intimacy, I met a wonderful man when finalizing the draft (which is, by the way, not ideal timing for a wannabe novelist, but I’ll take it). Months in, we are still in our honeymoon phase and I am enjoying it fully. Surprisingly, I see that phase more positively than ever, whether it’s for a manuscript or a partner. You need it. You need to build up a reserve of good feelings to get you through the work to come.
Looking at my manuscript now, I realize maybe it was okay how stupidly in love I was. Maybe my delusional vision that my first draft would turn out like a fifth draft wasn’t all bad. Maybe, in part, I needed my delusion to get me through.
Some relationships break down. Some manuscripts never get published. Don’t even try to tell me it’s the journey, not the destination; to deny the cost of failure is to deny the courage involved in trying. But with both my manuscript and my new relationship, deep down I have a strong sense of potential. So I will again pour my heart into both, with all the attendant hard work and brutal vulnerability.
Ann Cavlovic’s fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared in Event, The Fiddlehead, The Globe and Mail, Little Bird Stories, PRISM international, Room, SubTerrain, the anthology This Place a Stranger (Caitlin Press), and elsewhere. She wrote Emissions: A Climate Comedy, which won “Best in Fest” at the 2013 Ottawa Fringe theatre festival. If the heart-pouring works, her novel Count on Me will one day see the light of day. Find her in the Gatineau Hills and at: anncavlovic.com.
Photo credits: Ann Cavlovic (header image); David Irvine (headshot)