The Story Re-Writer



There’s a guy I know who rewrites other peoples’ stories.  Other people, as in, other writers. The guy is an editor, or was, and he’s been a writer, or tries to be, for a long time, although he hasn’t published, to speak of.

That guy is me.

It’s not like I noticed that this is a thing, this rewriting of other peoples’ stories, well, until recently.

For a long while it was my job to re-write, although my title was Editor, and while I might take sections like the start of a piece and re-write it, mostly what I would do is make notes for the author, and, sometimes, often, even, see that the structure was out of sequence, and even though I’ve often been guilty of burying the lede, I was really good at seeing this in others, plus seeing how certain whole chunks of an article belonged in a different place, or should have been a sidebar, or, really, just needed the ax.

I was pretty good at what I did, and well-suited for it, and I worked a long time as a trade magazine editor, working with professionals within the particular trade who knew what they were talking about, but who were more likely than not not professional writers, and so they needed the sort of heavy editing I was good at.  I was good at being gentle and encouraging with those authors and for the most part I was able to turn aside resentment or oversensitivity on the writer’s part, although there were always a few who were resistant to the sort of criticism that is inherent in a deep edit, and one or two tended toward prima donna. But as the editor, it was my way or the highway, right?, even though not a one ever accused me of being that heavy-handed with them, at least as far as I know.

When one writes for a living—and an trade publication editor also does a lot of writing, along with a whole lot of editing—there is not a lot of time or capacity to write other sorts of things, like short stories, which I could frequently feel bad about, since that was what I wanted to do most of all, or at least I thought. But there are bills to be paid, and there was that mortgage on the first house my newlywed and I bought, and then the kid came along, and another, and a dog. And some goldfish, one named Bert and the other Ernie, because a dad needs to let the kids do some naming around the place, right?

Well, the years pass.

I’d written a number of stories just out of college, and even when I was newly married, living in a small studio apartment with my bride as we saved up money for that future house, and I was working, too, but at the sort of low-level publishing jobs that are the usual start. There was even a book-length manuscript, set aside for a while that turned out to be a couple of decades, which is what happens to a lot of people as they get into having a family and putting in the kinds of 60-hour weeks more or less required to advance professionally.

And then it is 30-some years later and the kids are both young adults out in the world, doing well, one married, and I’m getting divorced, thanks.

It happens.

One of the other things that has happened along the way is that I stopped being an editor, at least for real money, and then started to do something else, never mind what, except that it had nothing to do with editing, or writing, and didn’t demand too much of my time, and I started getting back to writing on my own, some short stories, a crack at a new novel, poetry, and I’m reconnecting to writing and to old workshop mates and college chums, and even some new people, and I start reading their efforts and commenting and otherwise engaging in the business of putting words on paper, which is fun, pretty much, and it turns out there was a reason I had been an editor for so long, I come to realize, maybe a decade out of doing it for a living, like it takes that long for me to recover my original pleasure in that sort of work.

Except, who knows? I’ve been doing this sort of thing on and off for a couple of years now, and I’m starting to see a pattern.

It’s a scary thing, maybe. Or maybe it is just who and what I am, how I live in the world, like how some boxers are counter-punchers, is what I figure.

The first time I realize this, the re-writing, is out of a writers group I was checking out, going only that one time, since it wasn’t for me. But there was a young woman there, I’d actually already read some of her stories, stories that had gotten published here and there, mostly online ‘zines, but a prize or two, too, and out of what I’d read I liked her stuff.

The night I was checking out that group, they’re going over a story of hers, and I ended up asking her to send me a copy in Word, and when I get back home, I’m reading it over, and I’m seeing how it could be, how she had an interesting tone, flat, from the main character, a story like a lot of others since Carver, kind of about nothing really happening, but that says it all.  Except that the story was kind of lost in the nothing happening, since she was trying to keep out of the main character’s head, not take up his voice, but report coolly on what he did and said and the situations he got himself in or didn’t, and the things he did, which was things he mostly wasn’t doing and things he mostly wasn’t really letting himself think about.

A cool writing challenge, really. How do you find something poignant about a boring and lost mope?

She had it all in there, actually, is what I saw, although it took me a lot of puzzling and pulling at the vague threads, and I’m working on the piece, and then within an hour or two, max, I’ve re-written the piece, still using most of her stuff, but re-arranged and re-configured to make his choice of how he is existing clearer to the reader while staying unclear to him, and to build the love he had for his girlfriend without him ever clearly knowing it, and to end with a punch to the reader at that.

I sent it back to her that night. As soon as it was off along the wires, I started getting worried. Worried that I had overstepped in the amount of re-writing I had done, worried that I had violated her, the original writer, the original story, stolen the story, basically, making it my own.

After two days, I emailed her about my feelings that I had overstepped, and to assure her that the words were still mostly hers—which was true—but that I had changed the shape so that the theme could emerge more strongly, but mostly I was apologizing and telling her that I hoped I wasn’t a jerk, and that sort of thing. She emailed me back to tell me that she liked some of the changes, that she appreciated me looking it over, the attention, that sort of thing, but the real response was that she never again mentioned any of what I did with the story, even though I would run into her now and again, her being the daughter of friends of some friends, and I was pretty sure that I had, basically, freaked her out, which, let me tell you, is something a guy who’s starting to get old doesn’t like to think about doing to a pretty young woman, no matter what.

I never did go back to that writers’ group. I haven’t yet found another.

I’ve formed my own writers’ group, in a way.

In a way that’s nice? I don’t know.

I’m checking out some of the many online literary publications, and some self-published stuff, and I’ll copy one piece or another all off the screen, using a text converter if I have to, and I’m off to the races, or what feels like some sort of contest, although I can’t see sharing these stories, these re-writes, which is the problem.

I’m actually loving doing it, transforming weak pieces—yes, my opinion—into stories I think read much better, but what can I do with these? Sure, I could change the names and places, and I’m shifting plot and dialogue sometimes like crazy, but crazy is the trouble. I’m like a stalker, a lurker, a fucking loon.

Where are my stories?

That’s something I’d really like to write.