Hazel McHaffie

Recovering fast

Phew! As you know I’ve just done a very big editing job on the forthcoming book about saviour siblings. I took out about 17,500 words in the end. That’s some edit!

One major advantage of all that reading and re-reading was that I noticed repetitive words and phrases. ‘Flounced‘ and ‘shuddered‘ loomed larger than life. Descriptive passages demanded cuts. However, the chief culprit by a long way was the word ‘just’ – scattered throughout with gay abandon. How could I not have noticed before? But that’s the advantage of putting the work on one side for a while and coming back to it with fresher eyes. This time around my red pen went crazy.

I’m now recovering from the trauma of consigning all that hard-won text to oblivion by reading other people’s work – and critically appraising that instead. Marilynne Robinson was recommended to me so I’ve been reading a couple of her books (Gilead and Home). Gentle, reflective, sad stories. And I can’t help feeling that, for all their cluster of awards, my own editor would say, ‘Cut them by at least a half.’ ‘Remove the repetitive phrases.’ ‘Look at some of the peripheral characters: are they really needed?’ Oh yes, she’d call for a radical edit for sure!

So there was I, cruising along with Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead, thinking these heretical thoughts, when this passage jumped out at me. (The narrator is an elderly pastor writing a letter to his son, conceived in his late sixties, whom he will not see reach adulthood.)

I notice the care it costs me not to use certain words more than I ought to. I am thinking about the word ‘just.’ I almost wish that I could have written that the sun just shone and the tree just glistened, and the water just poured out of it and the girl just laughed – when it’s used that way it does indicate a stress on the word that follows it, and also a particular pitch of the voice. People talk that way when they want to call attention to a thing existing in excess of itself, so to speak, a sort of purity or lavishness, at any rate something ordinary in kind but exceptional in degree. So it seems to me at the moment. There is something real signified by that word ‘just’ that proper language won’t acknowledge. It’s a little like the German ge–. I regret that I must deprive myself of it. It takes half the point out of telling the story.

I warmed to the old gentleman. And I was sorely tempted to reinstate my own murdered ‘just’s! They do serve a function. They really do! Well, OK, they just do.

Then another phrase resonated:

This habit of writing is so deep in me…

Well, indeedy. I know exactly how he feels. It won’t be denied. Even at 4 in the morning. In the Reverend’s case he has fifty years worth of sermons in his attic as well as the book-length letter to his son.

Ahah! Speaking of sermons … the Reverend Ames has an unusual angle on several points relating to matters religious, too. This one appealed to me:

In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things…
So my advice is this – don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp.

He has a heart problem and knows he hasn’t long to live. But as he becomes increasingly frail, he resents people rushing to his aid.

I’d rather drop dead doing for myself than add a day to my life by acting helpless.

Oh yes! I see and hear this attitude again and again amongst my elderly friends. If only ‘health and safety’ would allow them to. Sigh.

With all this reassurance and empathy I’m recovering rapidly. I reckon I’ll be getting stuck back into my new novel on organ transplantation any day soon.

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