The Thingness of Writing

When writers, and especially memoir writers, first begin generating a manuscript, we often understand our words to be extensions of our deepest self.  What we’ve written is an external manifestation of our very being.  Our identity is bound up in the black print of our creation—and rightly so.  This level of over-identification helps invest our words with drive and passion.  The best writing emerges when the author’s very being is at stake.  Writers are often private about these early jottings; they feel too close, too vulnerable, too precious.  First drafts are almost always raw, both in their language and their emotion.  Some writers feel they’ve bled on the page, or spilled their guts.  There are no boundaries between writer and what’s written.

Compare this to a final draft we send to the publisher, or to the print version that arrives in the reader’s hands.  Unlike a diary, which never meets a reader, a literary work is intended to interact with an audience.  In the end, the author falls away; all that’s left is the text and the reader.  The writing is no longer a verb, but a noun—a thing, an object.  The writer’s work is done.  The nexus of creativity happens between the reader and the page.

While our original state of over-identification is good and necessary for a first draft (and even a second or third), eventually those writers interested in connecting with an audience must transition from thinking about our manuscripts as an extension of ourselves—an extra limb—to an object, external and independent.  This happens gradually, as we wean our identity from those inanimate marks on the page.  Slowly we realize we can make choices about how we tell our story, rather than being wedded to the initial version; we need to add details before the story can come alive in the mind of the reader; we need to listen for what’s missing; we need to heed the story’s agenda.  As we journey through revision, the independent life of our writing grows more apparent.  Indeed, each piece has an agenda slightly separate—and more challenging—than our own.  Each piece has a unique heartbeat which pumps vitality through the pages.  Slowly we come to understand ourselves as authors, listening and shaping, and our work as a creation.

This phenomenon becomes most apparent when we show our work to colleagues for feedback.  The best feedback does not respond to the author, regardless of how present or absent he or she is in the work; it responds to the work itself as it stands apart from the author.  As writers, we do well to understand this distinction.  If a reader has a question, it is addressed to the work and not the author.  The work, as an independent entity, must answer for itself.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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