Saturday, August 23, 2014
that we tend to edit our public persona
Authors don't tend to talk about all the rigorous editing that goes into each of our books. I'm always happy with the final product when editors and publishers agree, 'That's good enough.' I throw those ratty old dog-eared, scribbled over, crossed-out, commented on early drafts away. People aren't ever supposed to know about the paragraphs which got deleted because they are redundant, or the extra pages added to supply what the story was initially lacking. They don't realise that the first chapter may have been written later, and what I used to call the start is now found almost a quarter through Chapter Three. Nor do they know that a scene of dialogue has been so changed, that none of the characters say any of the things they originally said, yet it comes across more spontaneous and off-the-cuff than ever. I never mention all the Word documents I've deleted with names such as More track changes for Best Forgotten, Imogen's Chance fifth edit, or A Design of Gold final, final draft. I'm pleased to offer each novel to the public as if the polished version is what I came up with in the first place. It's a big illusion which I think crops up in most areas of life, time and again.
We've probably all been warned about the discouragement we may face when we believe the polished, picture-perfect lives our friends present on social media trump our own messy reality with its irritations and disappointments. But then we do the same impression management, knowing there are some things we would never share. (Well, sometimes people share theirs anyway, and then we cringe for them and maybe even pretend not to see those posts on our news feed.) But in general, we may try to edit our on-line persona as much as I edit my novels. Facebook is probably a pretty apt name.
In general, we are brought up to believe that looking our best in front of other people is our social obligation. Sometimes people's masks are torn off, making us gasp at what was concealed. It turned out the young man who took the accountant's job at the Stirling Hospital after my husband quit spent his couple of years there embezzling money from the till, and almost got away with it. His story made it into the newspaper. And recently, Australian celebrity, Rolf Harris, had his title changed from 'children's entertainer' to 'paedophile.' Although most of us don't have such huge, devastating secrets, we'd probably all hate the prospect of having the content of our minds visible for others to see.
This all begs the question I come across from time to time. 'Who are you when nobody is looking?'
In his book, 'Soul Keeping', John Ortberg makes the point that many of us indulge in sneaky, dishonest behaviour when we believe we can get away with it. He cites a study which showed that a significant number of 'family deaths' tend to happen when students have major essays due. Requests for compassionate extensions tend to be made close to the deadlines, and often the deceased person turns out to be 'Grandma.' Ortberg gives senior readers the tongue-in-cheek warning that their longevity may not correlate with their cholesterol or fitness levels, but with whether or not they have grandchildren studying at University whose major assignments are due.
Do we really try to get away with shonky behaviour when we're sure we won't be found out? I'd just finished reading 'Soul Keeping' when my daughter mentioned something interesting. Emma works at the local fish and chip shop. She said that whenever she clears money from the automatic hot drink machine, she finds all sorts of foreign coins. It takes no great insight to figure out why customers decide to use these in the slot machines rather than paying over the counter with them. When I told Emma what I'd read, she said, 'It doesn't matter, because we keep the foreign coins in a little box for the staff to use when we want a hot drink.'
How about me personally? Well, something happened last week, which I'm tempted not to admit, but here goes. My youngest son and I were about to start a bushwalk, and I'd intended to park in a bus exchange car park, because it was right near the path we wanted to walk. We arrived to find one car park left, near a sign telling us, 'This car park is for travelers on public transport only.' All sorts of thoughts passed through my mind. Nobody else seemed to be there, wanting that park. It was already early afternoon, and most serious commuters probably used it in the morning. There were no other parks nearby and it wouldn't be convenient to have to add miles more onto the long walk we'd planned already. I knew we should have left, but I shrugged and joked to Blake, 'That covers us. We travel on public transport sometimes.' I know, I know, what a bad example for my young son.
So what do we take away from all this? I think it's always wise to remember that no matter how polished and good our friends and acquaintances may appear, not to automatically jump to the conclusion that this is their full story. It is their polished persona and they are not necessarily much different than we are. It may help to think, I've probably missed all the editing which has gone into this impression, but wow, they're doing it good. Yet at the same time, I took to heart John Ortberg's point that little dishonesties, indulged in over time, rub the shining edge off our souls and hurt ourselves. Fair enough. Just because we can get away with something without putting our public selves in a bad light, doesn't mean we should. No more using unentitled carparks for us.