By Elaine Holliday
SCWW Board Member
I hate editing. I have always enjoyed the cathartic rush of writing a new poem, starting with a new line, on a new page (though writing a new poem, with the same line, on a new page has its interesting outcomes as well). To me, to write a new poem is to start over, to express a new idea, to have a new chance to speak my mind, or to draw a new scene, or to build a new world.
And then I abandon it.
Every mistake I’ve made. Every word I couldn’t get right. Every writing trick I’ve tried to pull off in with a neat, clever twist – I drop it. I forget it. I’ve moved on. I don’t ever ever ever want to see that poem again. That’s how I feel. If I do look at a “old” poem (whether it be 5 years, 5 months, or 5 minutes old), I instantly notice the mistakes and the weaknesses before I remember what I meant or what I wished the poem could be. I’ve gotten good at writing a good poem the first time around, but even I will admit that a perfect poem, a polished poem, takes polishing.
Writing is innately flawed. I cannot express to you with any words exactly what I am thinking and feeling and remembering. I can try. I can tell my readers about magnolia trees, about their leaves which are shiny and almost waxy on the top and fuzzy brown underneath, about the two giant trees in the front yard of my aunt’s house and the circle of leaves that litters their base in the fall, about the rows and rows of magnolia trees planted alongside the highway in Georgia that my father and I passed when he drove me to college. But you will be thinking of your own magnolia trees, the ones you have and have not seen, smelled, or felt. You will be thinking of magnolia perfume, of magnolia blossoms, or of Steel Magnolias. This is why I know each word matters. This is why I try to appreciate that once I’ve written something, I’ve let it go. If I really want my reader to think about magnolia trees as the potentially massive beasts they are, I have to say it.
When a words is wrong, or not as right as it could be, it must be changed. When a phrase is awkward, or not as smooth as it could be, it must be changed. Writing, like all art, defined in its focus: what do we include, what do we leave out. Negative space is just as important as the images we include, the dialogue our character do say, the settings we decide to describe. When we edit, we refocus our lens. We say, “Don’t look at that, look at this.” To edit a poem is to say: this is a poem that has something to say, something that matters enough to say it right.
Elaine Holliday is a librarian and adjunct professor at Horry Georgetown Technical College. She studied Creative Writing at Agnes Scott College and has published poetry in Aurora, Agnes Scott College Writers’ Festival Journal, and in the upcoming edition of The Petigru Review. She lives in Myrtle Beach with her husband and too many cats.