Friday, August 26, 2011

Editing Ourselves

I’m an editor. Sure, I have hopes of being a novelist one day, but while I wait for that magical phone call from my literary agent I spend a lot of my time fine-tooth-combing other people’s writing. And my mind plays its chronic free-association game in the background as I work my way through all those words.

One thing I’ve discovered over the years is that you can tell a lot about a person by what they include and what they leave out in their writing, how they word things and which images they choose. We all have unwritten rules that we live by and they do a little editing for us unconsciously before our words ever hit the paper.

These same ‘internal editors’ also affect our interactions with other people, our conversations and relationships and careers. The main problem with these internal editors is that we don’t realize when they’re at work. And most of the time we don’t want to, because looking at them is uncomfortable. We all want to think we’re unbiased, don’t we?

Just as I sit at my desk and go over someone’s writing, correcting or deleting the bad parts and saving the good, our internal editors tell us what to esteem and what to ignore or scorn. Some of these values come from our culture and some come from personal experience.

I grew up with a particular set of unspoken biases, instilled in me by my parents and teachers. I always took it for granted that I would go to college and get not only a four-year degree but probably something advanced as well. I never questioned this assumption. What’s more, I never looked at the set of other beliefs that were attached to it, hovering there in my subconscious, flavoring every decision I made in life. In fact, I didn’t face what my internal editor was doing to my life until I had a B.A. in Russian and was halfway to a doctorate in linguistics.

When I finally confronted what was really going on in the back of my mind, I was shocked. Behind the idea that of course I would earn a college degree, my internal editor was telling me other things that weren’t so savory: I don’t have any value to society without a degree. I can’t get a good job without a degree. Not earning a degree would make me an embarrassment to my family. Of course, my internal editor also told me that these values apply to everyone, not just me.

Boy, that’s a load of classist crap, isn’t it? But I was nearly 30 before I realized I had built my worldview on exactly those elitist grounds. It took a lot of uncomfortable soul-searching to even face what was going on in the deep dark recesses of my psyche. And what did I do after all that soul-searching, when I realized I needed to take my life in a new direction? I went after another degree! Granted, the N.D. wasn’t at all mainstream and was something of an embarrassment to my family, but still, it was a degree. Nothing like rebelling while staying in the box. Thankfully, I've gotten a clue since then.

This just goes to show how hard it is to escape from our internal editors. To a great extent they really do run our lives, whether we like it or not. I still find myself expecting certain sets of behaviors from people based on my first impressions of their dress, demeanor and accent. At least I usually catch myself doing it and don’t let it slide too far into the background, but it’s still there.

I’m afraid I don’t have any glib advice to give you about that pesky internal editor; I still struggle with it myself. The old cliché of first admitting the problem applies here, I think. We’ve all got some sort of programming running in the backs of our minds. Knowing it’s there is a good start toward becoming aware of the ways it biases our thoughts and attitudes. The more conscious we make each of these assumptions, the more power we have to choose whether or not to allow them to edit our lives.

Editing on purpose is a good thing; it improves writing and generates a more valuable finished product. The unconscious editing from our hidden assumptions, however, is valuable only when we bring it into the daylight and discover the ways in which it influences (or railroads) our lives.

I was delighted to discover recently that I’m not the only person battling against that infernal internal editor. For an interesting discussion of what kind of biases and hidden assumptions we all carry and how we can work to get around them, have a look at Ramit Sethi's blog. It's a good thing the human psyche is so fascinating, or we'd all go crazy!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Why Be Normal?

Normal: It’s such a highly-charged word these days, what with everyone trying to come up with politically correct or (we hope) compassionate terms for people who aren’t…you know. My first child was born with severe orthopedic problems and I struggled to find ways of talking about her that were compassionate but still accurate. The truth is, she wasn’t normal. That’s a hard thing to face, especially with that word.

Then a couple years ago I did some work for my father-in-law that transformed my understanding of the term. He was compiling the history of a school in Wilmington, North Carolina in order to publish a book about it. He called it the Tileston School, as did most folks in Wilmington in recent times. But as I went through the old newspaper clippings about the school, I discovered its original name: Tileston Normal School. My first silly thought was, “Did Wilmington have an abnormal school as well?”

My ensuing research into schools in 19th-century America led me to an interesting discovery about the word normal. We’re all familiar with the image of the one-room schoolhouse in which a dedicated school-mistress instructs a collection of students ranging in age from 6 to 18. This was the standard in many parts of the U.S. until the early 20th century. And it is this multi-age schoolhouse with which the normal school contrasts.

The word normal simply means conforming to norms. In the case of schools, the norms are ages; a normal school separates the students into classes based on age rather than putting them all together in one big group. That was a smack-myself-in-the-forehead moment. I got out the dictionary and looked up the word, just to be sure I was getting it right. Besides the specialist meanings in mathematics and engineering, the word normal means “according with, constituting, or not deviating from a norm, rule or principle.” And of course, those norms, rules and principles are made up by people.

My philosopher-daughter caught me with my nose in the dictionary and asked what I was so interested in. She pointed out to me that what’s normal has changed over time, and is even different from culture to culture around the world today. Of course. We aren’t head hunters like our Celtic ancestors were and we don’t drive on the left side of the road like the Brits do. Each society has its own set of norms. If you don’t conform to your society’s norms, you’re not normal. It’s as simple as that.

Change occurs in a society when a portion of the population decides that the norms are wrong. The suffragettes weren’t normal. Neither were the supporters of the labor movement in the 1920s and 1930s. But now, women who vote and workers who have rights in the workplace are the norm in the U.S. Journeying to the stars to heal fellow tribe members was completely normal for the ancient Siberian shaman; seeing visions of the divine was normal for medieval Christian mystics. Neither of these activities is normal in western society today, unfortunately.

Some people choose to violate the norms of society on purpose; artistic bohemian types have long done so, as have independent folks who don’t want to be constrained by someone else’s rules. And that’s all norms are - an agreed-upon set of rules (agreed upon by most of us, anyway).

So now, when I hear someone labeled not normal my immediate thought is, "Did they choose to step outside the lines?" Obviously my daughter didn’t choose to be born abnormal, and people with mental illnesses and severe injuries don’t choose that either. But many of us decide that we don’t like where society’s lines are drawn. We don’t agree with the norms. The fact that many people disagreed with those norms created the changes that allowed me to take my wheelchair-bound daughter out in public without shame and without having to confront physical barriers in buildings and public places.

Maybe the most important thing about normal is that we all have to agree on it. And when enough people disagree, we have no choice but to redraw the lines.