When Does Editing Become Censorship?

When Editing Becomes CensorshipWHEN DOES EDITING BECOME CENSORSHIP?

I recently had to answer this question when Vermont Public Radio prohibited me from using the word “grandfather” to name my childhood abuser.

They insisted on alternatives, like “male relative.”

I refused.

For ten days we went back and forth, trying to find a way through this editorial impasse until finally, I withdrew my script and wrote the story of what had become the all-too-familiar narrative of being blamed, shamed and silenced for speaking out about sexual abuse.

But I wasn’t silenced: I wrote the story about VPR’s attempt to censor me, published here.

DRAWING AN ETHICAL LINE IN THE SAND

I was torn between my desire to broadcast my story and my need to be accurate. In the past, I’ve mostly accepted editorial suggestions that I thought were less than perfect but not worth taking to the mat. This time, I balked for the following reasons:

  1. Precision of Language: There was no reason to be vague when the English language already provides a perfectly good, accurate, and specific word to name my abuser: He was my grandfather.
  2. To use one of VPR’s suggested substitutes, like “beloved male relative” or “someone close” would be to cast aspersions on many innocent people, including all my truly beloved and respectful male relatives and friends;
  3. VPR’s claim that to name “my grandfather” crossed the line of “journalistic integrity” is specious:
    1. My grandfather died in 1972; the dead cannot sue for defamation of character;
    2. This is a commentary, not a news report;
    3. My contract clearly states that I’m responsible for the veracity of my content, not the radio station.

A MATTER OF TRUST

Worse than the arguments outlined above was the station’s complete lack of trust in me, despite their repeated protestations of “complete trust in your integrity.” Ironically, the script I’d submitted was about why women stay silent about sexual abuse for fear of being disbelieved. I was disbelieved.

Worst: VPR worked harder to protect the reputation of my long-dead abuser than to help get this story out in the world. They didn’t succeed in silencing me, as I found a different outlet for the story, but they have done their audience a disservice by remaining silent about what happens to ordinary women who are willing to speak out about what we’re discovering to be a common occurrence.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post, among other mainstream news outlets, continues to publish the voices of well-known women willing to talk about their abuse. Are only celebrities allowed to speak? Let’s not kid ourselves: sexual abuse occurs across all ages, genders, races, religions, socio-economic groups; it is truly inclusive.

ENDING THE SILENCE

At first, I was hesitant to insist on accurate language for fear that I’d never be allowed on the radio again. But during the ten days of arguing by email, I knew that speaking the dirty truth was more important than sanitizing my words, even if it meant losing what has been a wonderful gig. I’ve already found other outlets for publication.

And most important: I’m doing my part to end the silence that allows the ubiquitous abuse of girls and women at work, at school and at home to continue.

I hope you will read both He Was My Grandfather and Ordinary, Daily, Demeaning Abuse.

Thank you.

Deborah Lee Luskin, photoDeborah Lee Luskin lives and writes in southern Vermont. She blogs weekly at Living in Place.

 

Memoir Writing: Interview with Shelley Armitage, Author of Walking the Llano

llano-front-cover1(This is an edited transcript from a live chat with Shelley Armitage at The Writer’s Chatroom on Jan 22, 2017.)

Moderator Lisa Haselton (aka Lisa J Jackson): Welcome to The Writer’s Chatroom. Our mission is to present fun and educational chats for readers and writers.

Let me introduce our guest, Shelley Armitage, author of the memoir, Walking the Llano.

Shelley grew up in the northwest Texas Panhandle in the small ranching and farming community of Vega, Texas, in Oldham County.

She still owns and operates a family farm, 1,200 acres of native grass, wheat and milo farmland bordering Highway Interstate 40 on the south and the Canadian River breaks on the north. Shelley shared this landscape from childhood on, riding with her father and grandfather to check crops and cattle and later jogging and today walking the farm roads.

Shelley’s professional life has offered her a connection with landscape through studies of photography, environmental literature, cultural and place studies. After living and working in diverse places—Portugal, Poland, Finland, and Hungary, teaching in the Southwest and Hawai’i, researching in New York, Washington DC, Oregon, Illinois, Missouri, Connecticut—place has taken on special meanings.

The author of eight books and fifty articles and essays, Shelley has held Fulbright Chairs in Warsaw and Budapest, a Distinguished Senior Professorship in Cincinnati, and the Dorrance Roderick Professorship in El Paso as well as three National Endowment for the Humanities grants, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and a Rockefeller grant.

Shelley resides part of each year in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

LH: Shelley, what is the Llano Estacado and why was it important to you to walk some of its many miles?

shelley1SA: The Llano Estacado is a vast tableland (much of it at 4,000 feet) – an elevated plateau – one of the largest in the U.S. My modest part is in the northwest part of Texas near the New Mexico state line.

I found it important to walk there in order to really sense the place, its prehistory, history, and the various stories, including the land’s own narrative by actually feeling the place. I say in the book that I felt I took the land up in my body and it came out writing.

Also, that area is much maligned, called by some still the Great American Desert, and stereotyped as flat and “unworthy of love.” I found special beauty and surprising revelations by spending many summers walking there.

LH: Do you remember a moment when you ‘knew’ you’d write the memoir? A day or when you noticed something in particular?

SA: Actually, I had been teaching a memoir course, without having written a memoir! And yes, looking back on notes and photographs I took, I started thinking about what Mary Austin said one time: “it’s the land that wants to be said.” Someone else I had done scholarly work on, a poet, also said she wanted to be a tongue for the wilderness.

I thought that memoir as a form was particularly suited for what I thought about the experiences: it may deal with interiority, but also with the explicit world, thus concrete experience, but also interior thoughts, even dreams, the spiritual, etc.

LH: Shelley, what did you discover about yourself as you walked in relationship to the land where you grew up?

SA: Oh, so many things. The walks were also a respite from the worries I had carrying for a declining mother and later dealing with her death (while this process was going on) and also the death of my brother. I essentially lost all my family while on these walks. I turned to the plains as a kind of family, believe it or not, something that gave me strength and wisdom. I did a lot of research after each walk and thus studied lifeways and beliefs of Native peoples, the care of the land by pastores (New Mexico sheepherders), etc. The stories are what help us along, as Leslie Silko has said, “we are nothing without the stories.” Living these other stories, while making my own, was profound for me.

In one passage, I say I want to be adopted by mother earth and father sky, which sounds very corny out of context, but as an adopted child, it resonated many ways.

LH: What were some of your challenges in writing the memoir?

SA: Well, for one, I had never written this kind of nonfiction. My scholarly works I hope are very readable; I have always thought of myself as a writer (or someone who attempts to be) rather than an academician. So grace and saying through style have always been important. I had never written about myself until this memoir. And it’s amazing how it went through so many stages. I wrote and rewrote it, through a few years. I think each time I got closer to it writing itself, a kind of flow that was natural. A real story. And I learned I could write in segments. That I didn’t have to have a logical sequence. This was the most freeing discovery–this and the realization that memoir allows for fictional devices, so as I say I did not have to make everything logically sequential.

LH: Thank you! Was it challenging to figure out what to include and what to leave out?

SA: Oh, yes. Great question. At one point (and back to the question about the poetic) I clipped and posted up on my garage wall the poetic lines I could not part with. Yet, I didn’t know exactly what to do with them. Then, looking at them on the wall (like Faulkner diagramming As I Lay Dying) I saw they were the subconscious underpinning of what I wanted to say. So I could build on them. That way, I could cull what didn’t fit, didn’t connect as extended metaphor or expanded imagistic theme.

LH: Sounds like quite the process! 🙂

SA: I found it kind of tricky when you already are a critic, a literary professor, and come at literature from that perspective. To critique oneself, yet not gut what is a primal sort of notion, the given line, the lyric voice, was difficult. I found another self, the one I had always wanted as a writer, in this book as in the poetry.

Chatter Janet: A reviewer of your memoir said “She carefully mines the history, character, and geology of the Llano Estacado and combines it with a compelling personal narrative to create an account that flows with lyricism, authenticity, and wisdom.” You have crafted a beautiful story I believe. What period in your life is in the book?

SA: The book, or I should say the experience of the walks, began in my fifties. That was a very transitional time for me; as I say, my mother had all sorts of health problems and I found myself the prime caregiver even though I lived 400 miles away. I think that experience (the combination of adventure and loss) really helped me grow.

Chatter Tricia: You mentioned your mother’s and brother’s deaths. Do you talk about your grieving in the memoir?

SA: Absolutely. I couple those experiences with the hikes, the walking. I don’t know how to explain those chapters, but everything is interwoven, which becomes the heart of the book. I still grieve frankly when I reread passages of the book and am buoyed as well. The walks helped me cope and gave me strength.

LH: Did your approach to the memoir-writing class change after you wrote the memoir?

SA: I think the one thing that most affected me was realizing how narrative is not sequential. I actually wrote almost flash pieces, sections, even some which were aided by prompts (or forced by prompts!!). But somehow there was a thread, a kind of subconscious reality, that, when I looked at the fragments, they could be worked together.

I should give an example. There is the obvious element of water, of the lack of it, in the llano. The Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest in the world, runs underneath, but is rapidly being depleted. So in terms of water I had a natural trope emerging. My mother actually died from water on the brain. At one point, thinking about her condition, I say “water will have its way.” This has been set up in earlier chapters with my observations of the landscape where water has previously sculpted the geography. And there is also an earlier section about my father building a dam which didn’t hold against the periodic rains. Water will have its way.

LH: What tips would you have for someone wanting to write a memoir?

SA: Value your own story (stories). Examine your life and think about the seemingly small and insignificant things about it which are waiting for you to revisit. With memoir, we have a double memory, that of the first experience, trying to remember it, and that of recreating that experience. It’s almost like revising oneself, perhaps we become a better self once written out. And I would say write, write, write then look at that writing as if it is someone else’s. What have you learned from it? What is missing? What do you want to know? And, back to my two suggestions, what can be found there? What is remarkable about the seemingly pedestrian elements of our lives?

And I forgot to say earlier that a major theme in the book is that we ARE the landscape. As Leslie Silko has said (sorry, but she is so right on in her comments), we are as much a part of the landscape as the boulders we stand on. In other words, landscape is not something “out there.” But, maybe we could say, in here.

LH: Shelley has been an entertaining and informative guest with much to share with us. Check out her website after chat: http://shelleyarmitage.com/. Our Chatroom Team and I want to thank Shelley for an interesting and entertaining chat. Thank you!

SA: Thanks! Super experience!!!

lisajjacksonLisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with businesses of all sizes. She loves researching topics, interviewing experts, and helping companies and individuals tell their stories. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Grammar-ease: Let’s Talk about Lets

Let's Do ThisI’ve seen a lot of lets and let’s and different technical pieces I’ve edited in the past couple of weeks, so I thought it would make a good grammar post.

Let’s is the contraction for “let us” (introduces a suggestion or request); whereas lets  means to allow or permit (third-person singular — he/she/it lets).

Let’s see some examples:

  • Let’s go to the beach.
  • My twin sister lets me borrow her clothes.
  • Let’s forget this ever happened, okay?
  • He lets the rabbit run around the house.
  • Let’s go, girls and boys.
  • Bart lets his daughter walk to the bus stop on her own.
  • Let’s consider all the facts before making a decision.
  • The teacher lets his students eat during class.
  • Let’s be kind to one another.
  • Facebook lets you connect with people around the globe.
  • We can forgive, but let’s not forget.

Confusion comes in, I think, with phrasing such as “Let’s you and me get out of here.” since it evolves to “Let us you and me get out of here.” The “you and me” portion can be considered emphasis for specifying who should actually get out of here (if there are more than two people), but overall the wording is a bit of overkill, redundant, a mouthful, and not standard English. You can simply say, “Let’s get out of here.”

Here’s an example of wording that might sound incorrect, but it’s not: Don’t let’s throw away the baby clothes. We can donate them.

In summary:

  • “Let’s” = “let us”.
  • “Lets” is a verb.

What grammar topics are you finding challenging lately?

Lisa_2015Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with businesses of all sizes. She loves researching topics, interviewing experts, and helping companies tell their stories. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Our Summer Vacation: Editing

OUR WRITING ROADMAPWeek three of our summer series, and a topic I know very well. Editing. I just submitted book #3 of my Clock Shop Mystery series, and the editing is still raw. Before I go into more specifics about my process, let me frame what editing is/when it comes in.

For some people, a first draft is a slog through molasses going uphill in January. For others, it is an easy brain dump that gets you to the shaping part of your novel.Everyone has a different first draft experience, so have your own. But always remember two truths. First, no matter how wonderful a writer you are, editing is part of the process. Give yourself time to do it, and don’t shortchange that part of the process. Second, someone said you can’t edit a blank page, and they were correct. I am a firm believer in moving forward while writing. A reminder, I am a plotter, so my first draft has some surprises (you can’t anticipate everything the muses offer), but I have a roadmap moving forward. I have learned to trust that, and keep moving.

Editing is an art. As a writer, you can do a lot yourself. Here are some of the layers of editing I’ve discovered.

Developmental. This layer of editing is big picture, first reader editing. Does the story make sense? Are there plot holes? Are the characters consistent? Does the scene order make sense? Do things need to be shifted around? I have a trusted first reader who is a friend, knows the genre I write in, and gives me some tough love. I find this to be a vulnerable time in my process, so I have chosen this first reader carefully.

Structural. I had a tendency to make leaps of logic that make sense to me while I am writing, but I don’t always connect the dots for my readers. Or I make a change in my story (he becomes a she, he goes from married to single, her cat becomes a dog) and the change isn’t consistent throughout the novel. Maybe a subplot needs to be fleshed out, and interwoven with more elegance. This phase of the editing makes sure the frame of the story is strong.

Enriching. He said. She said. He said. They did. All great for scenes. But add some physicality to the scene. She’s making dinner. He’s folding laundry.  That grounds the scene. Add descriptions. Help the reader understand your intention not by telling them, but by showing them. This layer is where the art comes in. For my most recent manuscript, I was thinking about the theme of the novel, and how each scene supported it. Then I realized that one of the subplots could be tweaked and would better serve the overall theme. It was fun adding that layer to the work.

Polishing. Final layer of editing is cleaning things up. Spell check. Reading not for content, but for words. Checking grammar. Triple checking punctuation. Doing a “find” for words that you overuse, and getting rid of them. (This blog post is a big help in finding some of those words.)

Final step? Letting it go. There comes a point where you need someone else to look over your work. You can get an editor at any one of the above stages. But you will need to know when to let your work go, either for querying to an agent or submitting it to your editor. I try to stop working on my manuscript before I screw it up. Sounds like I am being funny, but I’m not. Tweaking and adjusting becomes addictive, but at some point practically perfect becomes a hot mess. Let it go before it gets to the hot mess stage.

Spend time on editing–all phases of editing. It is where the fun of writing lives.

Dear readers, do you prefer one phase of editing over another? Where do you bring in others to help?

*ClockandDagger********************
As Julianne Holmes, Julie writes the Clock Shop Mystery series. The second book in the series, CLOCK AND DAGGER, will be released on August 2.

Weeding and Words

I think about my words as I weed my garden. Last weeded 6/11/16; photo taken 6/14/16 at 6 am.

I think about my words as I weed my garden. Last weeded 6/11/16; photo taken 6/14/16 at 6 am.

Sometimes, weeding is the best way to learn how to write.

Thinning plants can be as painful as deleting favorite passages of description or dialogue, and just as essential. If seedlings in my garden are two crowded, none of them thrive; if my page is crammed with too many details, I risk losing my readers’ attention.

Weeding out what’s crowded, stunted, or unnecessary is essential, especially since I always start with more than I need. In order to ensure the hardiest, strongest plants, I sow more seed than I will ultimately nurture. Some won’t germinate, and some won’t grow straight and tall; some will have to be thinned. Similarly, I scatter words profligately, knowing that I won’t keep them all, just the ones that hit home.

I'm committed to keeping my new asparagus bed weed-free. It will take consistent attention and considerable patience before the asparagus are ready to harvest - just like writing a book.

I’m committed to keeping my new asparagus bed weeded. It will take consistent attention and considerable patience before the asparagus are ready to harvest – just like writing a book.

Weeding is good practice for becoming a strong editor. It’s easy to pluck out the weeds that obviously don’t belong: the ones that grow in the pathways and between the beds. Eradicating the weeds from the vegetables themselves is often more difficult. Some weeds hide or become entwined with the plants I want. Some even look like the vegetable plants I’m cultivating, so I have to differentiate one from the other and then tease them apart. Occasionally, I have to transplant a seedling from one place in the garden to another, to give it a better chance of survival.

It’s the same with my prose: I sometimes have a hard time identifying which words don’t belong; sometimes, I have to recast an entire sentence in order to strike the weedy word out. Sometimes, I have to move a paragraph or a chapter to a new place in the work, where it has a better chance of telling the story at hand.

Every year, I have a new idea for the garden: a clear vision of how I want it to look and what I want it to yield. Every year, it surprises me. Last year, it was cucumbers that grew in abundance. This year, I’ve already harvested pea shoots, two kinds of lettuce, scallions, spinach, herbs and tatsoi, but the radishes, which are supposed to mature in twenty days, haven’t yielded anything in over forty.

When I start a book, I also have what I think is a clear idea. But writing is an act of discovery. I cast many seeds onto the page, see what germinates, and then cull the ones that detract from the narrative arc I nurture to harvest.

Some days, I’d rather weed than write. What’s not to like about squatting in the warm earth, plucking weeds from the soil with the sun on my back, thinking about the work on my desk? Weeding the vegetable patch gives me time to think about what I want to say and the courage to go back and hoe my words.

Deborah Lee LuskinDeborah Lee Luskin is the award-winning author of Into the Wilderness, a love story, set in Vermont during the Goldwater – Johnson presidential campaign in 1964. She blogs Wednesdays at www.deborahleeluskin.com

Grammar-ease: Passed vs Past and Other Confusing Words

In my editing endeavors recently I’ve encountered a lot of words that spellcheck doesn’t always catch and so it prompted me to share a few of them with you.

Passed (verb) vs Past (preposition or adverb)

  • The time has passed for you to submit the rebuttal.
  • That event happened in the past.
  • I passed by the door on the way to the bathroom.
  • I walked past the door.

Confusing WordsTwo vs Too

  • Two is a number (2) — I have two cycling friends.
  • Too means ‘also’ — I have to invite my cycling friends to the event, too.

Four vs For

  • Four is a number (4) — She has four brothers.
  • For is a preposition (or conjunction) — She needs her brothers for protection.

Peace (noun; uncountable) vs Piece (noun; countable)

  • The peace between the cats and dogs lasted until the treats were devoured.
  • Mom won’t get a moment’s peace until Dad gets home and can watch the baby.
  • Meditation helps reach a peace of mind.
  • She used four pieces of paper.
  • The musicians separated the sheet music into separate pieces.
  • Can you give me a piece of advice, please?

Of course there is their/there, too, and so many others. I’m sure you come across many in your daily reading. Share a few that you see too often or that have stuck with you, in the comments.

Lisa_2015Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with businesses of all sizes. She loves researching topics, interviewing experts, and helping companies tell their stories. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Before You Hit Send with Angela James

Angela James presented her workshop Before You Hit Send in New Hampshire last month. James is an engaging and lively presenter, even when she’s talking about something as dry as the direct address comma. Her presentation style is conversational and witty, and never condescending. This is good for someone like me who has strong storytelling skills, but is weak with grammar. Don’t get me wrong, I still need an editor, but I’d prefer to eliminate as many of the potential errors in advance to make the process as expedient and efficient as possible. Angela delivered real world strategies that made me feel like I will deliver a more polished manuscript.

Author Claire Brett introduces Carina Press Executive Editor, Angela James

Author Claire Brett Introduces Carina Press Executive Editor, Angela James

Before You Hit Send is offered online as a multi-week course; the day-long workshop is a pared-down version of that course and it is still bursting at the seams with information. We had handouts with the PowerPoint slides and I still took close to 40 pages of notes. I can summarize the headlines here, but the value in this workshop comes from the examples Angela offers to demonstrate her points.

My personal highlights

Use descriptive words, but be careful of overwriting. A little subtlety can add polish to a story. She provided multiple powerful examples here.

Read your story out loud or use voice to text to read it to you. This will allow you to hear things you might otherwise miss.

  • Where your dialogue sounds unnatural.
  • Is the story boring?
  • Did you leave out a key piece of description (e.g., your character moving to another room).
  • Notice where your attention drifts from the story.

DO NOT edit as you listen – take notes or add comments to a Word or Kindle document.

Don’t overlook the basics such as formatting and spellcheck (even if Word does check your spelling as you type). She also offered tips on how to use MS Word’s Find and Replace function like a boss. I learned how to make paragraph marks appear in MS Office 365! This will mean nothing to 90% of the readers, but it was huge to me.

“Punctuation is there as support, not to carry the load.” Pare down your exclamation points. If you need to show excitement or extreme emotion of any kind, use words, not !!!!

Eliminate garbage words from your expository writing, but remember the rules are a little more lenient for dialogue.

Garbage words:

  • Really
  • So
  • That
  • Well
  • Very
  • Totally
  • Just
  • Quite
  • Good/Great

James asks her editors to ensure that something is grammatically correct for the story being told. This is especially in true dialogue. It’s unlikely you’ll find “coulda” in Victorian England, but you might find it in modern conversation.

Don’t use dialogue to convey information that the character already knows just so you can educate the reader: “As you know Bob, …”

Engage all five senses, BUT NOT ALL IN ONE PARAGRAPH!

Don’t tell the story in backstory. Your characters need to interact on the page. It’s their actions and dialogue that convey the story to the reader successfully.

Photo of a jagged mountain with the text "Commas are not the hill you want to die on." - Angela James

The Editorial Relationship

When I interviewed her prior to the workshop, Angela talked about how the editorial relationship should be a partnership. In the workshop, she offered some concrete examples.

  • When you selected a publisher, you also selected an editor and a certain editing ideology.
  • Every editorial relationship is different. She maintains a professional relationship with all of her writers, but she has become good friends with some of them.
  • The editorial relationship will evolve. There is more explanation earlier in the relationship, but you do develop a shorthand and a better understanding of expectations the more you work together.
  • Your editor is your best line of defense against a negative review. That doesn’t mean hiring a good editor will eliminate ALL negative reviews, but they understand readers and what the market wants.

When working with an editor, you want to balance the edits with author voice. “Commas are not the hill you want to die on.” An editor should NOT eliminate your voice.  An editor should:

  • Make suggestions,
  • Show by example, but NOT rewriting entire paragraphs. Rewriting is the key word in that statement, changing the order of the text is not the same thing.
  • You are allowed to say “I don’t agree with this, can you explain your thinking here?”
  • You can’t reject every comment.
  • Read the editorial letter and then walk away to give the comments time to percolate.
  • When you are reviewing a contract with either an agent or a publisher, it is acceptable to ask how the editing process is handled.
  • Questions to ask your editor
    • Do you read for pleasure? What?
    • Do you use Track Changes?
    • Do you offer an editorial letter?

When to stop editing.

6 years is too long.   If you are unsure if you are done, set the story aside and come back to it with fresh eyes.

By the end of the day my head was ready to explode, but in a good way. The downside of learning all these polishing tips is that when you see a lack of sophistication in a story, you can’t un-see it.

The online course is offered two times a year and will be offered again in September. Registration is now open. For more information, visit http://nicemommy-evileditor.com/before-you-hit-send/. You can also read my posts to learn more about Angela and her thoughts on publishing.

I thoroughly enjoyed the day and I’m excited to implement my new skills on my work in progress. I’m hoping my schedule will allow me to take the class in September, but if not, I will definitely be signing up for the early 2017 offering.


Lee Laughlin is a writer, marketer, social media consumer and producer, wife, and mom, frequently all of those things at once. She blogs at Livefearlesslee.com. She writes for the Concord Monitor and her words have also appeared in a broad range of publications from community newspapers to the Boston Globe. She is currently working on her first novel, a work of contemporary, romantic fiction.