An Editor for the Soul

I asked fellow Patheos blogger, Max Lindenman to look over a little piece of fiction I’ve been working on, with specific instructions to “be brutally honest.” It’s hard to reassure people that you’ll still like them if they offer you anything other than false praise.

Thankfully, he took me at my word, and called me out on several instances of “telling” rather than “showing.” He also pin pointed some missed opportunities in my plot that might have heightened conflict, added realism, and raised reader interest.

I was glad to know I wasn’t getting away with anything. Or maybe glad is not the right word. I was annoyed that I was going to have to get back to work and write better, but glad that someone cared enough to show me ways in which to do it.

There’s nothing worse than reading a piece of literature that someone worked really hard to bring to publication, and know how close it is to good–if it had just been through a few more rounds of editing.

I was thinking about this concept after Confession the other day, when our priest–who is excellent–didn’t try to soften the blow of my confession and tell me I’m really not that bad. It’s the first time in a long time that’s happened, since I think often, in an attempt to present Christ’s expansive mercy to the penitent, many confessors inadvertently downplay the severity of sin.

I was relieved that my priest, reserving comment on the gravity of my sin, skipped instead to finding a worthy penance. I had come to the confessional seeking mercy and absolution, yes, but also reparation–a way to do better.

The priest told me to choose some holy number, like the number seven, and ask seven souls in purgatory who had struggled with similar sins to pray for me, while I, in turn, prayed for them. I was also supposed to fast for a day from liquids other than water.

The praying part was easy. I did my seven prayers for the souls in purgatory before leaving the sanctuary, but I have struggled with the liquid fast, because, see, I am a coffee addict. Each morning since I received my charge, I’ve gotten up and tried to psyche myself up for the headache and the absence of that routine in my morning. And each morning I’ve faced excuses and resistance.

Similarly, since I received my much needed criticism from Max, I’ve struggled to make myself sit down and do the hard work that writing well requires. I knew that getting my story right would require a lot more time, and I would have to stretch out of my comfort zone. You can’t ask a reader to accept a subpar stand-in for what you really want, but aren’t able yet to say.

And at some point in the spiritual life, you’ve got to make a sincere effort to mend your ways.

I was taking a walk recently on All Souls day at about 6 pm, and the sun was low in the sky, just at the blinding point for cars driving into the sunset. It has occurred to me a thousand times that this is not a good time to be a pedestrian on a country road, but that never seems to stop me. I like to walk at dusk.

But I had a little daydream about what would happen if this walk were my last–what if this time, the driver in the oncoming car is blinded and doesn’t see me walking there? What if I died today?

In my favor, I had just gone to Confession, and had taken with me a gaggle of children, all of whom also received the sacrament. And here I was on the side of the road with a Rosary in my hand, praying for the dead. Would my children testify in my favor? Would the priest who had just heard my confession?

Ooh! They may well open a case for my beatification seeing as I’ve had such a holy weekend.

Then I remembered that I hadn’t yet finished my penance, and that actually for most of my life– the previous weekend aside– I’ve looked for shortcuts in my spiritual life, ways to ignore the “show, don’t tell” mandate of good writing and good living.

I have often hoped that somehow my ego and my desire for Heaven could peacefully co-exist, that I could bumble along, on average terms with Jesus, on better terms with myself, just hoping for the best. That at the end of my life, I will have gotten by. I will have done just enough to ensure my entry into Heaven, but I will have brought with me my one true love–my Self.

Have I ever, except in imagining the moment of my death, even wanted to be a saint? Not especially. And have I ever, except in imagining the accolades of having written something really good, wanted to do the hard, lonely, solitary work of a novelist? I have not.

My guess is, there are many more than seven souls in purgatory who have also wanted only the product, but not the process.

About Elizabeth Duffy

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