Thursday, March 7, 2013

Writing, Distance, and 100 Secrets

My writing professors always said that I needed to gain distance from the true stories that I was writing about before I could write them well. I never liked the idea of gaining distance, because I thought the idea was that things would matter less to me, like when someone tells you that something won't matter 10 years from now (which is condescending). But I realize now that the problem isn't being too close to the story - it's being too far away from the reader.

Here's a real-life problem: Person 1 has been very hurtful to Person 2 in the past. When Person 3 comes along and sees how Person 2 interacts with Person 1, they accuse Person 2 of over-thinking, overreacting, or misunderstanding Person 1, who seems innocent to someone who doesn't know the history. If I were writing a fictional story in which Person 2 acts hostile towards Person 1 when Person 1 appears to be friendly, I would have to make sure that the reader understood the conflict between them, so that they wouldn't think Person 2 is just being rude.  This would not slip my mind because I would have invented that conflict for the story. But if I were writing a true story in which I was Person 2, I may forget to explain the conflict because I'm so used to interacting with Person 1 in a certain way that I forget that it's not how I normally interact, that there is a reason for it. As a result, the reader wouldn't understand what the problem was.

When you edit your own work right away, you may overlook mistakes that would jump out if you were reading someone else's work. Since you know what you mean to say, it's easy to read right over typos and omitted words. I find it easier to catch mistakes when I've gotten away from the story for a while, so that it's no longer fresh in my mind. The same is true for editing a true story - the more time passes since the real event, the easier it is to view the story as an outside reader and to figure out the best way to communicate the story to someone who doesn't know what happened.

Three months after I graduated college, I posted a list of 100 secrets that I wanted to share about my college experience. These secrets totaled 16,000 words, or 50 double-spaced pages. This is a classic example of something that people say you're going to look back on and laugh about, which I knew that I would not. I reviewed the list a few years later, and I understand everything. There is not one single secret that make me wonder, "Why was I upset over that?" The only thing that makes my writing "better" now than it was in college is that I've come up with better ways of conveying the same information, like when you draw a blank at what to say in the heat of the moment, but come up with a great comeback afterwards.

Two years after I began this blog, the "how to say it" just clicked with me. I was coming up with clearer metaphors to say what I really meant, and I knew how to be brief and get to the point.  It takes care and confidence to get right to the point. Time doesn't diminish importance - time helps you understand how to convey that importance to the reader.

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