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Think You Don't Need an Editor? Can it!

I have lamented more than once, albeit more deeply while living in Guatemala, the lack of kinship I appear to have with women from my own family. I feel this most deeply in our almost nonexistent habit to share quotidian knowledge. A scant handful of recipe cards and begging to make dishes more complex than cut fruit for holidays is as far as I have gotten. This year was no exception when I decided to learn to can. I borrowed a canner and checked a book out from the library called “Country Skills.” I was also lucky enough to find a DVD from a library program two years ago. With nothing more than reading as my primary skill, I assembled my materials. Like many adults, my learning process was solitary work. With this back to basics skill, canning, I reminded myself as an author what self-reliance looks like.

“You’re canning,” the supermarket checker smiled when he looked at the lids I bought.

“Yes. Learning.”

“I love to can. Can’t make the pickle relish the way my mom did though. What are you going to do?”

“I am just trying it out this year. Hopefully I’ll be more organized next year.”

He nodded and shuffled me and my reusable bag out of the checkout aisle.

I canned peaches. Two half quart jars spilled water out from the canner over the electric stove for thirty five minutes. Was that bad? It meant that the water didn’t cover the jars two inches. The peaches floated in the syrup which was a “problem” on the chart in the canning guide, but the lids managed to suck down.

“Then, you’re good,” was the general consensus of the very informal survey I took from random people I knew who can.

“Uh. Okay.” I left the two jars that should have been one if I had known that I could put a jar in the canner all by itself. Two days later there was still no mold, so I stored them on the shelf in my room. I wasn’t impressed with the peaches, but I came out of the experience armed with questions I needed to move forward.

When I was ten years old, I didn’t know to value the experiences of adults around me. I ignored my nana in her olive colored kitchen in Florida.

“Come watch me cook,” she said.

In her tiny hallway kitchen once a year I replied, “I don’t need to learn. I can read.”

I wasn’t completely wrong. I can read. I can watch without questions to ask. But, what was I seeing? I had applied my reading strategies. I compared texts. I assessed the validity of the authors. I read and reread. I asked questions about what I read. But I was wrong about the need for a second voice in my head. That voice comes to me now as a writer as I learn to edit my own work.

“. . .editing is commonly taught as an intrinsic part of writing, not an external tool. As such, the practice is elusive and random. . . It is vital to teach editing on its own terms, not as a shadowy aspect of writing.” (2)

Armed with questions and ripening tomatoes I returned to the kitchen to try again. This time my dad pulled down two cases of jars from the shelf. I didn’t ask anything about them. I pulled open the plastic on one box and selected six jars. Only after I had filled all six jars and was staring at a half filled pot did I return to the cardboard chart to determine the size of the jars.

“Why didn’t you tell me you had these jars?” I still wanted to blame him from the peaches “incident”. I bit my tongue. “What size are the jars?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Why?”

I wanted to blame him for my own lack of checking, but it wasn’t his fault, not really. Sure, he could have provided loads of information on the front end of all this, but he hadn’t known what I wanted, not really. I had merely asked for jars. He had provided jars. The responsibility for specificity was on me. I had been irresponsible for my own learning.

As a result, I had made tomato basil sauce in half pint jars that I thought were pints. I was so content to cook the sauce I had never considered that I didn’t know what size jars were just by looking. I ended up with leftovers and not enough lemon juice for another round of jars. Had I realized that I was using half pints, I could have used half a tablespoon of lemon juice and finished the sauce. I didn’t know, what I didn’t know. But, I had a meal for three nights.

I wrote in previous blog posts about the important connection for the adult learner to make. He or she must be both teacher and learner simultaneously. Editing others teaches you to teach others to teach you which is the way to success for the adult learner. I did need more knowledge of the process to know what to know to help others and myself to teach me. Without that mindset, I could try. I could act without asking and see what happened. But what was I doing? More importantly, what would I be able to do consistently later?

“The point is to implant the conversation between editor and writer into the writer’s head; so that, when the time comes, the writer can split into two and treat herself as the good editor would.” (3)

Next came the salsa. Yikes! The recipe called for two cups of hot peppers. They must have been kidding. Last spring, my dad had bought the plants for me when I was at work. At this point the small plastic arrows with names and growing instructions were long lost. I had no idea what kind of peppers I even had, much less how to cook with them or how many I might need. I went out to the garden and fruit upon fruit stared at me like our endless boxes of the same color Christmas tree ornament. “They had been waiting all summer for this”, I thought. So, I picked handfuls, but once they were on the kitchen counter I chickened out. I couldn’t follow through with the recipe. It wasn’t for me. My, what Bell would call, “editorial consciousness” won out. I paused and gave away most of the bag to a friend.

“What’s your interest level in hot peppers?” I texted.

“High,” she responded.

“Great! Hopefully you can teach me about them too.”

Slowly the canning piece was becoming the easiest (and quickest) part of this whole adventure. I had no idea. That was the new part; that was supposed to be the hard part like drafting new pages on blank space. I was starting to tire of canning. No. I was tired of cooking, and mostly alone. I ended up with more questions about growing and cooking than canning.

“New valuable ideas may appear during the search. . . Answers are a very small part of the job. Guidance is the gist. . . The editor’s job is to sense the best direction by asking questions of the work. . . Editing is a conversation, not a monologue.” (6)

Finally, came the BBQ sauce. From watching the salsa and spaghetti sauce simmer for hours, I knew that the tomatoes would not reduce in the time stated, if in fact at all. I knew the number of jars needed listed in the recipe was wrong. I knew my blender could be substituted for the food mill as long as I flipped the steps and removed the skins and seeds prior to cooking the tomatoes.

“Editing demands a yogi’s physical stamina, flexibility, and steady mind.” (5)

Nothing ever completely eliminates the need a coach for an outside eye or “expert” if you prefer. However, the blend of teacher/learner within in this process once again reminds me that “expert” is not the same as “coach”. Many people in my life, myself included, can be the perfect coach for my learning needs. In this way the process becomes “less an act of excavation, than one of refinement” in my questions, my goal and my progress. Time can be better spent on nuance than questions like:

“Seriously, how long can it take tomatoes to reduce?”

“A LONG time if you’ve got the wrong, too juicy tomatoes.”

Bell lists 6 macroedits in her text: intention, character, structure, foreshadowing, theme, and continuity of tone. For next year, I have my short list:

Intention: I will know what my purpose for planting each seed in the garden. I will plant towards a purpose instead of attempting to revise while never making anything better.

Structure: Where should I spend a lot of time in this process? Where should I spend less? If cooking too much tends to drain me, what can I do about that?

Moreover, I will refine my own eye and tongue, adapting recipes where needed. In the end the jars on my shelf are not so much examples of great cooking or even frugalness, but that I tested my stamina as an adult learner expanding my skills as my own editor. It will never matter as much that everyone will like the taste but that I understand how it was made.

Bell, Susan. (2007). The artful edit: On the practice of editing yourself. W.W. Norton & Company: New York.

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