My editing style is of the cut-n-run variety. If a reader tells me a moment in my essay isn’t working, I double-check the sentence in question, and promptly put it out of its misery with a cruel highlight and press of “delete.” After seven years in book publishing, the act is second nature to me—especially when I remember the authors who pleaded I spare their words. Like it or not, those are often the ones that must go.
But after reading—perhaps experiencing is a better word—Christian Wiman’s "The Limit," I was hard-pressed to think of anything the essay could live without. It seemed every scene was at once slowed down and sped up: the visceral horror of Dr. Miller's face, a “sentient piece of meat”; the quiet motion of Aunt Opal, “a sense of pure horizon,” stumbling across the bullet that will kill her; and, of course, the cooling bodies of pocketed doves. Put quite simply, I was fighting for air from beginning to end—a rare occurrence.
Meghan Daum’s “Matricide” similarly affected me. Before the pandemic, I had the pleasure of workshopping with Meghan, and though I was of course acquainted with My Misspent Youth (who could forget the weekly bouquet of unaffordable flowers?), I hadn’t read The Unspeakable. Meghan seemed more interested in internet toxicity and the infamous rise of cancel culture that summer than her own life, and so, I was awed to read her poignantly withdrawn account of losing her complicated mother. Once again, I was unsure if even a comma could be sacrificed.
It bears mentioning that these are published pieces. They underwent an editor’s scrutiny long before mine, not to mention the many drafts the writers themselves no doubt produced. However, after seeing more than one storied author try and fail to polish their books, I can’t in good conscience say these two essays were surely the exceptions to what I hold as law: editing yourself is excruciating, often to the point of fruitlessness.
I’ve come to think of my highlight-delete urge as sniffing out moments of Writing, by which I mean those moments I think of as speaking directly to the reader about a theme or idea instead of using prose as a tool to illustrate truth.
Sadly, the example that immediately comes to mind is Stephanie Danler’s memoir Stray, which was highly anticipated by me and everyone else alike but didn’t quite reach Sweetbitter’s high bar. Around page 70, at the close of a harrowing sick mom chapter, Danler says: “I understood that to love is neither exhilaration nor safety, but instead this: painful, too tender, forcing a forgetting that’s close to forgiveness.” Ah, the ancient task of summing up Love; countless writers have fallen prey to this trap practically no one survives. Stray is sprinkled with declarative sentences just like this one, attempting to pack ineffable definitions, Truth and Meaning, into one line (though admittedly not always with the same grating alliteration found in “forgetting” and “forgiveness”). I sympathize with the impulse, truly I do, but the essential challenge of nonfiction, of memoir, is to redefine these universal concepts without cutting corners; compacting something huge and unwieldy like Love into a sentence—one that closes out a chapter no less—is nothing if not an unearned pathos.
Next, before anything else, I’d like to say I greatly admired and enjoyed Nina Boutsikaris’ I’m Trying to Tell You I’m Sorry. However, pretty early on (page 31 in fact), we get the following: “There is risk in the self-naming, the looking back, the acting out: parody and spectacle just appear so much alike.” Isn’t this—the “self-naming”—Boutsikaris’ central aim in recounting her unquenchable thirst for recognition in the eyes of lovers and strangers alike? And isn’t this moment appearing before we’ve seen enough failed attempts to slake that need, so we finally understand that when she says “self-naming” it isn’t to imply such an act is doable but instead always out of reach—both parody and spectacle? Which is the whole point of the work?
When writing is preceded by Writing, the former is unable to do its job and the latter quickly deflates.
However, these summing up sentences aren’t always weak points, namely when they aren’t coming from a place of fear that your reader won’t “get it” unless you explain it to them (don’t worry, I won’t now launch into the tired argument of “show, don’t tell”). In short, moments of Writing—moments of directness about the pieces “so what?”—are bright lights instead of stumbling blocks only when they’re earned.
For example, Wiman imparts the following insight after seemingly unending paragraphs of pain: “For those of us who have gone to war with our own minds there is yet hope for what Freud called ‘normal unhappiness,’ wherein we might remember the dead without being haunted by them, give to our lives a coherence that is not ‘closure,’ and learn to live with our memories, our families, and ourselves amid a truce that is not peace.” If this moment of Writing had come earlier in the essay, perhaps the second or third page, my finger would’ve itched for the “delete” button. Instead, it comes after such effort and toil that it successfully makes sense of the senseless—something Wiman, I’m sure, has spent most of his life trying to accomplish, and we, as readers, require after this brief, violent walk through his life.
It’s a bit more difficult to identify a similar moment of Writing in Daum’s piece, which I think speaks not only to her long career as a journalist but also to her skill. Her closing scene of miscarriage and how it relates not just to her mother’s death but also her continuing grief is a perfect example. Only the miscarriage is relayed; the meaning of it, I gleaned on my own, which of course is influenced by my own life experience and not solely Daum’s (which perhaps it might have been if she told me what she wanted me to think of the ordeal). “I know only that I’ll probably never finish telling [the story] and it most certainly will never be whole,” she says. The close of the piece is strong because it’s anything but neat; instead, it’s up to the reader to order the mess they’ve just endured.
Isn’t this nonfiction at its most powerful? When someone’s private mind becomes yours for a page or two? The best essays surrender an experience, a memory, so it can multiply within the context of other worldviews. The magic lives in this loss of writerly control.
It’s then that the singular story somehow, impossibly, becomes as infinite as its readers.
I don’t know if I can unlearn seven years of cut-n-run editing. Perhaps I’ll always struggle against those telling feelings of scrutiny where I just know something has to go, rarely reveling in sentences that read like earned relief, a purging of knowledge and meaning.
Still, I wonder, can one discern with certainty between writing and Writing in their own work?
Instead of definitively answering my question, I remind myself that just as there’s no one way to write or read an essay, there’s no one way to edit one—no matter how many times I labored with authors over words they found essential and I argued were expendable. There’s simply a sentence. Followed by the next, and then another, and another, which, if I’m brave enough, has the potential to become an unruly creature, just as beautiful unexplained as it is understood.
Haley Swanson is a writer and editor based in New York. Her essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Glamour, Electric Literature, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, and elsewhere. With Eliza Smith, she's co-editor of the anthology Sex and the Single Woman: 24 Writers Update Helen Gurley Brown's Cult Classic for a New Era (Harper Perennial, 2022). She's currently an MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College.