Editing For Joy

The first time I heard about editing my life, it was a throwaway idea from the manic radio commedian Jean Shepherd. “I saw my editor today,” Shepherd said after promoting his collection of humorous short stories, In God We Trust All Others Pay Cash. He said he thought everyone should have an editor, not just for literary efforts, but for life itself.

Think of all those moments you’d rather not remember, Shepherd went on. A few quick swipes of a pencil, and faster than you can say delete-and-close-up, they’re gone.

I was an adolescent when I heard this. Five nights a week (and sometimes on Saturday, when his stand-up act at the Limelight nightclub was broadcast live), Shepherd would improvise stories of childhood pratfalls (“The Christmas Story” is his best known), his Army sertvice, teenage humiliations, embarrassments and utter failures that, no matter how regretful, contained a lesson, a moral, an insight into a cold, unforgiving world that nevertheless permitted moments of comic tragedy and grand romantic gestures. Jean Shepherd was among many who inspired me to tell stories of my own.

I was too young to know what an editor was. At the time I had teachers who would mark up my assignments with a red pencil, circling, underlining and generally making a mess of what I thought was perfectly good prose.

But the idea of being able to cut from your life the stuff you didn’t like appealed to an overweight, bookish kid who was terrified of girls and spent five months of the year sneezing and sniffling from hay fever. I had read some versions of this in science fiction time-travel stories, most of which ended on the note that, when it comes to the past, we’re better off it we leave it alone.

But I couldn’t stop remembering, and beating my self up, over things I did that didn’t come out as I wished they might. And, having become a professional writer who has met good editors and not-so-good, married the right girl, published a few books, taught at prestigious places, written for prestigious publications and has enough money in the bank not to scrape and scramble as I did in my youth, I continue to think back and get mad at myself for not having sufficient people skills, not clamping down my conversational “filter,” and other times when I zagged instead of zigged. I’ve spent a lifetime with the psychological equivalent of a red pencil, circling, underlining and turning much of my personal history into humiliating, Jean-Shepherdesque failures that, unlike Shepherd’s stories, end with a grim hindsight, or a wistful fantasy of how things could have been if only I had done things differently.

A life editor wouldn’t help me rewrite those passages. But what if I just eliminated them, cut them out, refused to think about them anymore?

While some self-help books may advise this, I’ve also come to admit that, having cluttered my life with numerous strategical errors, I have learned a thing or two from them, and that this has supported some of my more meaningful, worthwhile decisions.

Sometimes the path to wisdom isn’t paved with excess as much as it may be strewn with banana peels. Slip on a few and you’ll want to put your fruit residue in a garbage can.

But what about those regrets that haunt us? What to do?

Some time ago I decided I would no longer line-edit manuscripts offered for my reading and comment. I did this on a hunch that by circling, underlining and making a mess of the roughest of drafts, I wasn’t helping the writer–who shouldn’t be worried about grammar in the early stages of writing–or myself. When I line edited, I’d focus on the prose when I might be getting something else from reading the piece. That, and, after a two to three hour meeting of my writers group, I was too tired to enjoy the convival, refreshing experience that conversation with like minds in a good writers group can bring.

So, why not apply this to my life story? Acknowledge that we do very little rehearsing for what life brings us, that if we are not improvising our responses to the slings and arrows, we are falling back on habit or instinct that, no matter its source, is more about who and what we are, then it is about right or wrong.

Accept what has happened, honor it to the extent that without it, I wouldn’t be the reasonably kind and loving writer I’ve aspired to be, and then let it recede from view.

What happens when I do this? I have one more chance to rejoice that I’m still here, and reasonably capable of taking part in the daily, little miracles whose only mystery is not that they’re here, but why I spend so much time letting slights and circumstance distract me.

Yes, bad things happen. We’ll never understand why, to what extent we brought them on, or didn’t do enough to prepare for them or avoid them.

But, when the bad things are not imminent, we can look at where we are right now and not even begin to count blessings that are so numerous that we could grow old very quickly looking for someone to thank.

Better to stand where we are right now, in joy.



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