Soul Work Alive
A MEDITATION ON WRITING, EDITING, AND PUBLISHING
by D. Patrick Miller
I make most of my living these days from editing, critiques, and publishing consultations, and the rest from book royalties. I’ve been editing from the beginning of my alleged career, when double duty as a typesetter and reporter at a weekly newspaper necessitated learning the skills of copy-editing and copy-amputating along with the craft of writing.
Since then I have critiqued hundreds of manuscripts and edited many books bound for publication, along with co-writing, ghostwriting, and working with editors on my own books. I’ve helped prepare books for several literary agencies (including my own), as well as a number of major publishing houses, including Viking, Doubleday, Crown, Tarcher Perigee, Hay House, and John Wiley & Sons.
Thus I’ve had considerable experience dealing with the tempestuous egos of writers who are determined to defend their stylistic weaknesses almost to the death. When I am edited by someone else, I will likewise defend my awkward sentence constructions, florid overwriting, and clichéd expressions nigh unto the bitter end. (That last sentence being a perfect example!)
Whether I am dealing with my own protests or those of my clients, I still marvel over the remarkably thin and transparent skins of all writers. Why, I’ve often wondered, are we so sensitive?
The cynic may answer that all of us ink-stained wretches (including the hip, contemporary species of digital wretches) are just that: hopelessly neurotic folk trying to sort out their hapless, unworkable lives through endless writin’ and ruminatin’, and coming up with so little that’s truly defensible that the mere writing becomes more dear to them than life itself.
My own take is more charitable: I believe that most writing done for creative purposes is truly soul work, the attempt to render in visible words the invisible essence of our root consciousness.
Because all but the most formulaic or technical writing has a deep and mysterious source, we tend to equate whatever we put down on paper or the screen with our very soul. So when some smart-ass editor comes along and suggests that what we have written isn’t very easy to read, or doesn’t make sense, or is just plain stupid, we naturally take offense. The deepest, truest, purest part of ourselves has just been attacked for no good reason, and we owe it to God and Cosmos to take up arms against the infidels.
What I often have to remind myself — and gently suggest in various artful ways to my editing clients — is that while our writing may indeed be inspired by the deepest and truest parts of ourselves, those parts don’t get put down on paper in their pure form. The mystical, creative oomph we feel in the gut has to rise up through countless layers of thinking, feeling, word-associating, conscious and unconscious censorship, and sheer egotism before it can find expression in words. Not surprisingly, this baroquely complex translation process can too easily result in a hideous disguise of the original soulful impulse.
If we recognize the hideous disguise and toss it in the real or electronic trashcan before anyone else reads it, we’re lucky. That means we’re on the way to developing some craft, which is the responsibility we owe to our soulful impulses. What hurts more than anything is to mistake a total mistranslation of our soul for the soul itself, then hand it over to an impartial reader — whom we naturally expect to collapse in grateful tears upon the first reading — only to have our masterpiece handed back with a quizzical look and the inquiry, “So is this supposed to be funny, or what?”
That said, a miracle still happens sometimes: we manage to write words that shine like a dazzling facet of Truth itself, and our lives and those of others are changed for the better because of it. I suspect that most writers take up their craft because they have read such an illuminating fragment of soulfulness put down by a great poet, novelist, or essayist, and then make the fateful decision: “I want to write like that someday.” Of course you never do learn to write like that exactly; you may write better or worse, but because your function is to translate a different bit of human soulfulness for a different audience in a new time, you will always write differently than your heroes or mentors.
If you are wise, you will remember that you are nothing more or less than a translator of the collective human soul. Whether you sell a million copies of a book or labor for a lifetime in obscurity, you are just the intermediary between the giving aspect of your own spirit and the needs of readers who may be able to learn something from you. Those who don’t need to learn anything from you never will, so it is no use trying to convince them of your skill or sincerity. And the fact is that most people will never even encounter your work, regardless of how wildly you succeed. Believe it or not, the New York Times bestseller list means nothing to billions of people across the world.
I mention that deflating fact because the soul work of writing needs an almost constant infusion of humility to keep it focused and true. Because soul is a sort of psychic ether that everyone shares, it is all too easy to globalize the significance of your soul work in your mind. You know when you’ve just written down a gem of universal truth (that is, until you show it to an editor) so you sensibly conclude that it should be read and appreciated by the whole world. Right away! And you naturally expect a magazine or book publisher to do that instantaneous worldwide distribution for you. How it might get done is not your business, but theirs. After all, you’re working on a higher plane — or is it a deeper level? At any rate, you’re a soul worker, not a salesperson.
When you become your own publisher — like more and more folks are doing these days — you swiftly become aware of the need to develop some business acumen and marketing chutzpah. The learning curve can be steep, but I don’t want to scare off potential self-publishers who may be among my audience at the moment. For publishing is truly a hero’s journey that should not and would not be undertaken by any sensible person who was properly forewarned. Like Jonah, Odysseus, or Gilligan, you have to sail into the breach yourself and face the killer whales, perfect storms, and situational comedies of such a voyage without a decent inner tube, much less a lifeboat. There’s no point in being prematurely frightened away from this risky undertaking when you will learn so much more from being maturely frightened once you are too far gone to swim safely back to shore.
But the enthusiasm of would-be-published writers is virtually impossible to dampen. And I believe that ever-upwelling enthusiasm has as much to do with the natural impetus of soul work as it does with mere egotism or wishful thinking.
In fact I have come to see the struggle to write well and share one’s writing as a spiritual path in its own right — a path in which disappointment and exasperation teach the seeker just as much as vision and inspiration. To stay on the path means that you must increasingly become both tough and forgiving, hardened and softened, skeptical and idealistic. As you mature, you will increasingly appreciate the joyful hardship of writing for its own sake, and worry less about whether you make a fortune (or even a living) by it. That means you will become an ever more effective medium for your soul’s timeless expression while becoming less attached to your personal, temporal stake in it.
This ennobling process is rarely pleasant, and one doesn’t usually feel or act very spiritual as the raiments of pride and self-esteem are progressively shredded before your very eyes. But if you are a serious writer, you’ll have to endure this process of internal purification regardless of your degree of external success. Writing for publication may be an especially insane and unkind business these days, but I cannot imagine it ever becoming perfectly ordered and fair. If so, those of us working hard to convey the very stuff of the human soul in mere words would have to go elsewhere for the karmic kicks in the teeth that serve to make us eloquent, insightful, and maybe a little bit wise.
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