I kept trying to take the easy way out. But Sarah wouldn’t let me.
This statement pretty much sums up the editorial process the Ethical Dilemma piece I produced for my Spring 2011 Glimpse Correspondence—a three-month-long round of unflinching criticism and substantive rewriting that forced me to push deeper than I’ve ever gone, both emotionally and creatively. The result is what I consider to be the best piece I’ve ever produced, and the one I’m proudest of.
Of course, the statement begs the obvious question: why would one apply for a Glimpse correspondence, get said correspondence and travel all the way to Cambodia just to take the easy way out?
Because I didn’t know I was doing it. My project dealt with some intense subject matter: the long-term, inter-generational effects of trauma, in this case, the Khmer Rouge. I had a personal connection to that trauma, through the family of my childhood best friend. But, I realized through during my stay and through the course of writing my piece, I also had my own experience with trauma.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The short of it was, I was embarking into some mighty uncomfortable terrain. So I did what any scared person would do, and I played it safe.
The first draft of my Ethical Dilemma essay was about the inherent role of bias, how it was coloring my experiences in Cambodia—and a lot of Westerners’ experience in Cambodia—and how the way to effectively deal with that bias was to face it squarely and explicitly.
Fair enough, but the problem was this: the piece took place in my head. There were no scenes, no characters, no story. What there was a lot of: metaphors, abstractions, weighty language and heavy-handed musings, and I buried the story inside of all that. I was circumventing, hinting at—trying to write about something without actually writing about it. Trauma at arms’ length.
I was exemplifying, through my writing, the very phenomenon I’d come to write about: the silence people assume after a trauma. It was about as blatant a metaphor you could ask for. And I didn’t even know I was doing it.
And Sarah called me on it. Goddamnit.
I sat in a hotel room along the Thai border, where I’d gone to find the remains of an old refugee camp, and read her comments and cried. She wasn’t mean about it; in fact, she was quite professional. But she was spot-on, and it was uncomfortable. She insisted there be scenes, dialogue, characters—something tangible to substantiate all the lofty things I was talking about.
After an IM pep talk from a writer friend (thanks, Jacob), I took a deep breath and started to rewrite. The point wasn’t to take the feedback personally; the point was to create a successful piece. So I fiddled, added, moved sections. I wrote new sections, more rooted in actual scenes from Phnom Penh, mindfully steering away from abstractions.
A week later, and I’d ended up with an entirely new piece. It centered around the curious juxtaposition of Westerners’ fixation on the Khmer Rouge and Cambodians’ prevailing silence around it. I offered lots of examples and instances of how that silence operated: foreign tourists at mass grave sites, for instance, and the lack of Khmer-language history books.
I mostly rushed through the personal bits, painted them with broad, vague strokes. But I did include one scene. I’d kind of written it with my eyes closed. It depicted a near-breakdown I’d had in Phnom Penh, one in a small series of near-breakdowns that I’m only now beginning to understand. I was lost, on the back of a motorbike, rushed back to my apartment to sob. There wasn’t any flowery descriptive language, and I didn’t think it was that good, to be honest.
The feedback was that I needed more of those kinds of scenes.
Whereas the first version was over-the-top sentimental, the rewrite was “journalistically detached.” And I realized that I’d been journalistically detached from my own feelings and experiences—I wanted to write about other peoples’ trauma without really writing about my own.
So I started in on my third substantial rewrite. I focused on just telling the story, not inserting a lot of musings or metaphors, just sticking to the What Happened. It was uncomfortable but, what the hell—was I really gonna come all the way here and cop out?
I went to Cambodia with the conviction that I had to go and write about it, but not entirely sure why. It took the drafts of rewrites to begin to understand why; it took sitting in the actual place, both physical and emotional. My own story began to reveal itself to me. And it didn’t need a lot of lofty language or poignant points—just the story, the bone of the story, was enough.
I wouldn’t have realized all this if I hadn’t had the editorial guidance the Glimpse Correspondence offered me. Sarah gave me honest, insightful, professional feedback that really pushed me outside my comfort zone. The experience reminded me just how valuable thoughtful criticism is; a hundred complementary comments on a blog post are great, but they don’t help you grow. The editorial guidance I received is hands down the most valuable thing I’ve gotten from my Glimpse Correspondence.
The Ethical Dilemma piece for my Spring 2011 Glimpse Correspondence program turned into the longest, most laborious and ultimately most ground-breaking editorial experience of my life. And with three substantial rewrites, it ended up being anything but an easy way out.