Two years ago, the floodwaters that ravaged homes and businesses throughout the Midwest also left their mark on many of us in supposedly safe bedroom communities. Our losses were so minimal in comparison to those close to the river that, even now, complaining feels shallow.
Still, loss is relative. And what I lost in three feet of muddied, basement floodwater felt devastating: Our children’s baby books, my wedding album, my college yearbooks, such irreplaceable Christmas ornaments as the cookie-dough replicas of our sons’ miniature handprints.
But it was when I opened the bottom drawers of two metal file cabinets that real despair set in. Where once lay 15 years’ worth of magazine and newspaper articles I’d written, there now sat sludge-smeared pages reeking of rotten sewage. My insides felt as heavy as the waterlogged stories.
Disasters drain the human spirit, and this was no exception. After chastising myself – should have moved everything, should have foreseen – I sat down on a stool to took at my stories one last time. As I tried to separate the pages, I saw a story I wrote for our city magazine when I was starting out as a freelancer. Fascinated by how differently people age – why some just give up on life while others continue to go forward, more deeply into it – I interviewed seven people, all over 70, who had been stars or pathfinders in their prime. I hoped to grasp what it takes to age with grace and dignity. Those interviews left my whole body tingling. I’d looked into the souls of exceptional people and, in so doing, knew the kind of person I wanted to become.
I spent a long time on that article. When I turned it in, I knew I had something good. The editor called to say how much she liked it, confirming my instincts.
When the article came out, however, I was devastated. The art director put the oldest individual on the cover, in close up. It was ghastly, one of the most awful magazine covers I’d ever seen. The inside was worse. The introduction I’d labored over was cut completely; the profiles that followed had no focus. The photographs that should have portrayed energy were staid.
In tears, I called the editor. She agreed with everything I said; she apologized profusely. The cover story that was scheduled got pulled at the last minute. There was a lot of scrambling. It was a matter of space. And so on.
Looking at the story in my mud-encrusted basement, I was getting mad all over again. I hated the,way that story turned out. Why should I care if my clip was ruined?
Next I pulled apart an investigative piece on modeling, also written for our city magazine. I’d spent hours crafting a sidebar on modeling schools to give a balanced view of a controversial business. The article appeared months before it was supposed to. I hadn’t seen galleys. Some editor cut the sidebar by half, slanting my once-even tone. I was enraged.
Let it go, my psychologist husband gently advised me. I knew he was right. Let it go, I told myself.
But I couldn’t. I called the editor and told him what I thought. When I got off the phone, I didn’t feel any better for my tirade. I decided writing was bringing me too much heartache. I needed to shift gears. I went out and got a job as an editor.
After five years editing other people’s manuscripts, the day came when I wanted to produce my own again. This time mill be different, I told myself This time I’ll write for national publications.
I dug out of the file cabinet an essay I wrote on parenting, one of my first for a national magazine. In the essay, I’d Written the phrase “an often surly 14-year-old boy.” When I received the galleys, I noticed often surly became occasionally surly. I winced, not only because the lengthier word meant the sentence didn’t flow, but because it simply wasn’t true. Why would an editor do that?
I called. Five years had matured me in one way: Instead of yelling, I now spoke sweetly and diplomatically. But I still called.
“I’m curious why you changed the word,” I said.
“I changed it,” the editorial assistant answered with an adolescent lilt, “because I thought it would hurt your son’s feelings to be described as often surly.”
I groaned inwardly. “You don’t have to worry about that,” I said. “He’s read the essay and he has no objections. He knows he was often surly.”
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll change it back.”
When the article came out, I discovered other changes since I’d okayed the galleys. It wasn’t that an editor had changes (I’d been an editor; that’s what they do). But I felt essays were a part of my soul, and seeing words added or substituted that weren’t part of my vocabulary was infuriating. One more essay I’d probably never use as a clip.
I looked at the articles stuck together in the file cabinet. What was I grieving for? The work – the real work, the work that made me think and grow and develop my skills – was accomplished long before the article came out. The work was when I thought of the idea, when I took long walks shaping the idea into a story. The work was interviewing people about their innermost feelings, their passions, their fears. The work was sitting at the computer, writing and rewriting until my lead compelled, the words flowed, and the ending was just right.
The work wasn’t on those slick, printed pages. The gratification wasn’t there, either. That came when I finished an interview and felt goose bumps on my arms, because I knew I had a story. That was at the computer, when I knew the story worked. That was when the editor called to say she liked the story, confirming what my instincts already knew. That was when I received letters from across the country – like the one from a new mother who said she kept my story by her bed to read when she got low. The real, deep gratification was when you knew you had touced lives, when you wrote something that made a difference.
That flooding changed my life. Without a back-up of writilig samples, I found myself working harder and faster to produce new material. What I’ve written in the past two years is far better than what I wrote in the previous 15. Why do I need those old stories around? I know how far I’ve come.
And I’ve gained an understanding of what writing is and isn’t. It isn’t packaging, it isn’t maneuvering lines to fit space, it isn’t dealing with all the personalities that make decisions at a publication. Writing is listening to people and making connections. Writing is shaping ideas into stories, working with words and images. Writing is a process, not a product. And now, that I’ve let go of the product, writing is a joy.