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Editing Personal Pieces

By Hannah Ramsey

 

To me, a “personal piece” can fall under one of two categories:


1) a piece that is in some way relevant to my personal life or applicable to my past experiences


or


2) a piece that elucidates upon a vulnerability in an individual (whether it be the author or a character they’ve created) in a way that is palpable with emotion and often telling of some tragic flaw or unfortunate situation that the speaker/narrator has been exposed to.


Inherent in either definition of a "personal piece" is the premise that the reader feels intimately connected with a specific character—often the main character—and can therefore relate on a deeper level to that character's conflicts. In this sense, reading a personal piece involves immersing oneself into a story that features poignant subject matter, which then elicits some sort of visceral response. Often, the situation that the reader endured is entirely separate from the predicament that the character is subjected to in the story; the two situations bear no external resemblance. However, the internal mechanics of that situation—in other words, the emotions evoked from that situation—are nearly identical. Ultimately, the reader ends up feeling less isolated in their experience, because the author is able to adequately express their struggles through storytelling. It's a win-win, at least for the most part.


I'm not one to outwardly express emotion when editing a piece, but when I read work that is personally compelling, I often end up walking away from it with my thoughts racing and unwarranted emotions flooding my conscience, no matter how many cognitive barriers of logic and rationality I try to put up. This is both my favorite and least favorite part of being an avid reader. I crave for the sensation of relief and wonder that comes when an author is able to describe something and make me think: “I've felt this for quite a while but have never found the exact words to identify it.” I love being able to empathize with a story and the characters in it through, for instance, an unexpected and dramatic plot twist or the inclusion of some vague, concise aphorism that seems to summarize every wise and cliché lesson I've learned in life thus far. The feeling of being understood is cathartic. Yet, it can also be convicting to the point of no return. When a piece presents you with an uncomfortable truth, especially one that is applicable to reality, it can sometimes take everything inside of you, and then some, to not dismiss the piece as either out-of-touch or downright wrong. Of course, everyone has preferences with regards to what they like to read. Having a specific taste for literature is not a bad thing, but discerning whether you are putting a piece down for the right reason is critical; otherwise, you miss out on the chance to challenge and expand your current worldview. It is even more important if you are an editor as, if you are not vigilant, your subconscious biases may completely exclude an author's work from being read holistically and fully appreciated. With prejudice and partiality comes misunderstanding and ignorance, both of which an editor is to stay clear from.


Although, just because I know it is wrong to judge a piece because of my negative associations with its content (which, by the way, is completely outside of the writer's control) does not mean I am immune to the nasty disease of bias. After all, it was Richard Bach who said "We teach best what we need to learn most," and I think this is true for most Polyphony editors. Almost all of us know what it is like to read a personal piece through a biased frame of reference. It's what we do as humans. For example, if the content of a story/poem is relevant to an event that has occurred or is occurring in my life, I tend to start discrediting aspects of the work I disagree with, while also feeding into my confirmation bias through focusing on the sentiments I support. All too easily, my once objective comments can transform into a subjective projection of my personal experience(s) with the narrative situation that the writer is attempting to create in their writing.


This type of response (i.e. a biased response) should not come as a surprise. Reading, let alone editing, personal pieces can be challenging because the topics discussed are often emotionally charged and socially divisive. These pieces extract salient memories from our minds and compel us to unintentionally make connections between our lives and the piece's characters. Repeatedly editing such pieces can result in the build-up of emotional lethargy. In short, we get tired of feeling all the feelings.


In an age of trigger warnings and disclaimers, it can be difficult to read something unsettling without calling for a timeout. Most of us, whether we know it or not, want to avoid emotions that elicit negativity. However, as a reader, it is vital to learn to sit with uncomfortable emotions. Just because a topic is challenging to read does not mean you should not proceed to review and edit it (with obvious exceptions, such as pieces that touch on past personal traumas). In fact, that may be an even greater incentive to continue forth in editing of the piece. As hard as it is for you to read, it was likely harder to write. The author has chosen to write about something deeply revealing that testifies to the complexities of life and their experiences in it. Besides appreciating the author’s points of view and diverse narrative voice, you may find that reading such a piece educates you on national issues, social conflicts, and global events that you were previously unaware of. As a result, your compassion for the characters in the story/poem is amplified, in addition to an increase in your compassion for the world which surrounds you.


There’s no doubt about it: editing personal pieces can be rewarding for both author and editor. The question then is, how do we, as editors, maintain our subjectivity when confronted with emotional urges to refute or confirm the events in the stories and poems we read?


Firstly, we want to stay clear of absolutes. Virtually nothing is "always" or "never" purely good or bad. Likewise, there is no such thing as "best" or "worst" in literature, especially considering that there are no definite, objective parameters that can be used to determine the quality of a piece's greater meaning. Admittedly, it can be difficult to prevent oneself from falling into the trap of using superlatives when you feel certain about a belief or value you hold, but I encourage you to prevent yourself from relying on such extreme language as it ca actually come across as naïve, perhaps even insincere. For example, if you are telling the author that their description of the narrator's home in the story is the "best example of imagery" you have ever encountered, they are likely going to take that as mere flattery, not honesty. Comments such as these do not offer the author insight into what makes their imagery the "best" compared to other writers’, and it leaves them with nothing to revise and improve. It also seems like filler text, which can prevent the author from trusting the genuinity and thus credibility of your commentary, since it seems as though these phrases may be haphazardly sprinkled throughout every set of commentary you provide, regardless of your opinion of the piece. In short, avoid superlatives and other lofty claims so that you can maintain your stance as an authentic and reliable editor. You can also offer critiques that launch the writer forward in their revision, rather than keeping them grounded with too much criticism or inflated with too many compliments.


With that said, you can include your own assumptions and personal evaluations of the pieces you edit; in fact, I think it should be encouraged. The only caveat is that these personal assessments should be disclaimed as such. Bringing your unique lens to a piece, as derived from your personal experiences, can be exceedingly helpful to the author. Why? Because it clues the author into how different readers are approaching their work. The goal of the author is not to satisfy every reader, but to instead find the niche audience that is receptive to their work so that they can then further extract the opinions and perceptions from that select readership and use that highly specific criticism as fuel for improvement. Along the same lines, if the author notices a common theme among all editors—such as confusion on the rationale for a random contextual detail or an absurd line of dialogue—the author can then reexamine their work.


In essence, your personal take on the piece does matter; it's even beneficial. The key is to not treat your opinion as though it is fact. You need to continuously reinforce your humility by including reminders throughout your commentary that emphasize that you acknowledge your perspective is based on your own subjective experience and that it is not the end-all-be-all indicator of how all readers interpret the piece.


If there is one thing you should leave this post knowing, it's this: your personal interpretation of a piece is valid, but it isn't always true; be respectful and empathetic to the author in your commentary, but also show some empathy to yourself; take breaks from reading and editing to prevent emotional fatigue, and remember that your story, just like the author's, matters.

 

Hannah Ramsey is an Editor-in-Chief at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.


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