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!