The Economy of Words


Coaxing the Coals

When I first graduated from college, I wanted to work in the publishing industry helping writers edit their work.  I like editing, and every writer really needs to be a good editor.  I didn’t live in one of the big publishing hubs–New York, LA, London, etc.  So I settled for the first job that I could get that was even slightly related to my field.  I took a job as a technical editor for a searchable website database that helped researchers and postdocs find projects and funding.

I would take 20-50 page abstracts describing technical and scientific projects and edit them down to a searchable page–the essence of the description.  I did this for about three years.  During the majority of that time I tracked Department of Defense funding opportunities.  That meant I often edited abstracts that dealt with cool research on nanotechnology–things you’d swear were lifted straight out of the latest science fiction novel.  Unfortunately, it also meant that I edited a lot of abstracts that sought new and wonderful ways to kill more people in less time.  My conscience and the pacifist in me, struggled with the latter.  I liked reading about exciting scientific studies, but I had real problems with being even the slightest bit involved in helping to develop new means of taking lives.

I learned quite a bit in those three years, both about paring down a description to it’s essence, and about my capacity to tolerate things that I abhorred in order to earn a paycheck.  I’d learn both of those lessons over and over in the years to come.

I switched gears and started working in arts administration after that.  I thought that at least by working in the arts, I wouldn’t have to advertise opportunities to figure out how to kill people.  I also thought that I’d be able to use my love of storytelling to benefit the arts in my community as a grant writer.  Grant writing is, in many ways, storytelling.  And I really like that part of it.  Unfortunately, I landed somewhere that business speak was prized over storytelling by those with yes-or-no powers, even though I’d heard repeatedly from those in the grant industry how jargon should be avoided at all costs when writing a grant.

So storytelling about arts programming flew out the window as well.  I learned again, with online grant forms that had word-count limits, that an economy of words was important.  I was schooled again in how to be succinct.

These were good lessons for me as my early creative writing was overly flowery and descriptive.  So I learned how to write in a way that was the polar opposite of my innate ability.  It’s amazing how we can allow ourselves to be sculpted into something that we never set out to be.

Now, in the midst of what I’d like to call the epic endeavor of storytelling–the novel–I find myself both glad of those lessons in economy, but also angry about them.  I’m having to tap back into my natural, but put-aside, gift for description, when my instinct is now to budget my words.

I’m finding my stride and I’m certain my gift for eroticizing the landscape will flow over me again.  I still have it, but it’s been tamped down for so long that I’m still coaxing the coals back to fire.

No matter what I feel I’ve learned or lost, I’m finding balance.  And not just with my words.


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