In this week’s episode of The Habit Podcast, I have a lovely chat with Christie Purifoy, author of Garden-Maker: Growing a Life of Beauty and Wonder with Flowers. As I was reading through Christie’s book, I was particularly struck by this passage on the unexpected benefits of weeding:
Weeds pull us into our gardens. They get us down on our (creaking, aching) knees, where we might otherwise only go at planting time. Weeds are like Alice’s “Drink Me” bottle. They say “Pull Me” and thus pull us right in and down and make us small to see the inner workings of everything. While weeding, I see the way the stem of a cosmos has lain down on the soil and grown new roots in that place. While weeding, I take up my place within the garden, rather than continue towering over it.
I tend to think of weeding as a necessary evil. But Christie is right: by getting you right down there, eye-level with the plants, weeding opens up whole new ways of understanding what’s going on in a garden. You think you’re just going to pull some weeds, but then you see some little marvel that you didn’t know to look for—some bug-dance or small unfurling. Or, perhaps, some problem that goes deeper and needs more immediate attention than the weed that you thought was the problem. Weeding can a path to wonder if you’re willing to pay attention, and if you’re open to the unexpected—or, to put it another way, if you’re open to see what’s actually there and not just what you expect to see.
Editing can be like weeding in that regard—or can be. You think you’re going in to fix some punctuation errors or swap out a few words for better words, but if you’re observant and open you might begin to see what’s really going on in a sentence or a paragraph or even a whole piece.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. In a recent memoir workshop, one of the writers was working on an essay about her bad sense of direction (among other things). One of the first times she drove alone, a sixteen-year-old in a 1969 Mustang, she got lost going to a shopping center she had visited dozens of times. She’s been getting lost ever since. GPS and smartphones have helped, but she still feels the fear of getting lost every time she gets behind the steering wheel.
My oldest daughter has wondered if I experienced some sort of “getting lost” trauma early in my childhood, something that happened way before the ‘69 Mustang that I don’t remember, because the actual gravity of the situations rarely, if ever, matches my extreme reactions.
That sentence is kind of a mess, mainly because the writer is simply trying to do too much in one sentence. The ideas in this sentence are plenty interesting; it’s just that there are too many of them. The easy fix is just to split the one long sentence into two shorter sentences:
My oldest daughter has wondered if I experienced some sort of “getting lost” trauma early in my childhood, something that happened way before the ‘69 Mustang that I don’t remember. The actual gravity of the situations rarely, if ever, matches my extreme reactions.
There. The weed is pulled. But since we’re down among the weeds, we might as well look around and see what else we see. What happens, for instance, if we flip-flop those two sentences and lead with the idea of out-of-proportion fear and anxiety?
The actual gravity of the situations rarely, if ever, matches my extreme reactions. My oldest daughter has wondered if I experienced some sort of “getting lost” trauma early in my childhood, something that happened way before the ‘69 Mustang that I don’t remember.
Better? Maybe. I can’t decide…but now that we’ve got that “gravity of the situations” sentence isolated, it’s easier to see just how abstract and general it is. Our writer is missing an opportunity to invite the reader into her specific experience of fear and anxiety. And the “oldest daughter” sentence could use some tightening up too. After a couple of iterations, we might end up with something along the lines of the following (note: I made up all the specific details).
Everybody misses a turn from time to time. But when I miss a turn, I’m overtaken by an irrational fear that I’ll never find my way back to the place where I went wrong. I sweat. I hyperventilate. All the while, Siri is calmly telling me what to do next, but I find it hard to listen once I get in that state. I realize that these reactions are all out of proportion to the situation. My oldest daughter has wondered if I experienced some early childhood “getting lost” trauma, long forgotten or blocked out.
There are a hundred ways that sentence could go. I’m not claiming that I nailed it in my revision. In fact, since I made up all the specifics, I think we can be confident that I didn’t nail it. My goal was to demonstrate a process. If you’ve got an overly long and wordy sentence, there’s a quick fix: break it into two or more shorter sentences. But while you’re down there at eye-level, have a look around. When you look closely at those new, shorter sentences, you might find it easier to understand how better to do what you’re trying to do.