Who’s Editing Your Life Story?

Every writer needs an editor. Rough drafts are rough, and writers need another set of eyes to create something beautiful and meaningful. 

We need this in life, as well.

Each of us needs an editor, someone we trust enough to tell us what needs to be revised about the story we are living…

Last March, around the time the river (and beer) in Chicago were turning green, and the leprechauns had replaced Cupid in the seasonal section at Target, I was stealing a quiet hour on a Saturday afternoon. I lay on the couch, reading Father Fiction by Don Miller, when the idea for a blog post hit me.

I sat upright. I grabbed my phone to record the idea. And I told my wife I was going to write a post about how important it is for people to be assured they are strong.

She looked at me and told me it was a horrible idea.

She does that. A lot.

She told me some people do need to hear they are strong, but other people know they’re strong—they have spent most of their lives being strong and courageous—and what they need to hear is it’s okay to be weak sometimes and to not have it all together.

Deep down, a part of me knew she was right. But I’ll be honest, there was a little kid in me who wanted to talk back. I can’t remember how exactly I responded, but I’m pretty sure there was pouting and grumbling involved. Because I love ideas—I love forming them on the page—and I like to get them right the first time.

But I don’t like to revise.

In the same way, writing our life-stories with passion and abandon can feel electric. Telling a good story with our lives—one written in flesh and blood on the paper of time—is giddiness and joy. But revising the story of our lives is especially difficult work.

Because we have to admit we may have been wrong the first time around.

And we are not used to doing so.

So often, we are raised in homes in which authority was maintained with a heavy emphasis on right and wrong. And the big-people always seemed to end up on the “right side” of the divide. So, life became like an education in courtroom procedure: the terrible twos were like an opening argument, adolescence the tedious process of cross-examination and defense, and we live the rest of our lives like one long closing argument.

So we populate every corner of the world with people unwilling to revise the stories we are living. Daddies overreact and it feels like pulling teeth to get them to reverse the kneejerk punishment. Waiters rarely fess up to an error: they get the manager instead, and the patron gets a free appetizer. If a doctor confesses to a mistake, she exposes herself to lawsuits that may crush her career and steal her livelihood. If a politician admits to an error, he risks plummeting poll numbers. And people of faith take centuries to admit they acted out of hatred born of certitude rather than grace born of love.

Why is it so painful to embrace our errors?

I think facing our mistakes can feel like a condemnation of all the good things and best intentions in us. It can shake our confidence in ourselves. It can crack the lens through which we view the world. It can mess with our heads and make us wonder what is real.

But most of all, it equalizes us.

Whatever pedestals we sit on in the trophy-room-of-our-minds get kicked out from underneath us when we embrace our mistakes and start to make revisions.

Suffice it to say, most of us will not claim our errors happily and willingly. We will tend to go on writing our lives, stubbornly confident in our authority and authorship.

That’s why every single one of us needs a trustworthy editor.

In the spring of 1998, I had just wrapped up my junior year at the University of Illinois. The day after finals found me and two of my closest friends sprawled out on the quad, soaking up the soothing rays of a spring-sun and dodging wayward Frisbees.

And we were debating.

At that time in the University’s history, it was in vogue for students in Urbana-Champaign to exercise their budding liberal-arts-analytical-skills by debating whether or not Chief Illiniwek was a racist mascot.

And I loved to debate.

As I pounded away at the argument, I sensed I was wearing my friends down.

I knew I was going to win.

And then my good friend looked me in the eye (I saw sadness in hers) and she said, “You know, Kelly, it’s not fun to talk about this stuff with you.”

Outwardly, I think I smirked, pretending she was talking about losing an argument. But inwardly, I felt like I’d been punched in the gut.

Because I knew I could be brutal. I knew I usually put being right before treating people right.

Yet, her “edit” was so powerful not just because it was true, but because I trusted her.

We had met three years before on the very same quad, during freshman orientation. When my freshman homesickness had been bad, she was the one who showed up and invited me to parties. She was the one I ate dinner with in the cafeteria, and the one who gave me dating advice, and the one I set up with my best buddy. She was the one who I could trust really, truly cared for me.

And she was telling me I needed to change.

Stephen King says, “Write the first draft with the door closed and the second draft with the door open.”

As we write our life-stories, everything is a first draft, and we need to open the doors of our hearts to people we trust enough to tell us where we have gone wrong and how we need to be changed. We need people who will say the hard things, people who will serve up the hard medicine, people for whom we will swallow it because we know they are serving it out of love and caring and respect.

And there is healing in the medicine.

Because, when we open ourselves up to our errors, when we invite someone into our mistakes and release the need to be right the first time, we are no longer alone. We discover it is better to embrace our faults—and to be embraced by a caring other—than to sit steadfastly on our certitude, and to sit alone. As we become open books, open to revision, we open ourselves to editors who are loyal and true.

We walk through the world a bunch of rough drafts, making mistakes as we go, and we desperately need to surround ourselves with people who love us enough to live with our mistakes, who value us enough to tell us the truth, and who believe in us enough to know we have a “revision” living somewhere in our hearts.*

You have a beautiful story to tell with your life. It has purpose and meaning, and it needs to be told to a world confused by noisy, numbing narratives. But the beauty of your story will only be complete, and its purpose will only be fully realized, when you have submitted it for editing.

So.

Go! Find your editor. A spouse, a friend, a pastor, a therapist. Find a safe and trustworthy space where you are not alone. And find a place where beauty and meaning can erupt out of your errors.

*About the Blog: I had planned to write about “editors” and “revisions” (e.g., apologies) in a single post. But I sent out a query on Twitter and Facebook regarding the nature of apologies, and I got so much great feedback I decided to give it its own post. It’ll be coming sometime soon.

Share Your Comment! Has anyone ever suggested a “revision” that made an important difference in your life?

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Photo Credit: Photo taken from this website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist, practicing at Alliance Clinical Associates in Wheaton, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Elaina: PTSD-is-Normal.com

    WONDERFUL post!

    This reminds me of a book I’m now reading, entitled: Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.

    After more than 5 decades of striving to Always Be Right, I’ve discovered within just the past couple of years that there is amazing freedom and incredible healing power in simply admiitting my mistakes. No minimizing, no qualifying, no excuses, no denying, and no throwing it back on the other person (but you were wrong, too!).

    Not only is it deeply healing and freeing — to all parites involved — when I admit my mistakes, one humorous little side benefit is how it throws other people off. An example is when I was sincerely apologizing to my 31-year-old son for the mistakes I made as he was growing up. He didn’t know what to do or say! He was like, “Who are you and what have you done with my mother?” ;)

    It hurts to admit when I’ve screwed up. But it helps me to remember that we are all imperfect human beings, doing the best we can with what we have in this hard world. The renowned poet Maya Angelou said it best: “You did what you knew how to do, and when you knew better, you did better.”

    Amen!

    Elaina

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Elaina, The image of your son made me laugh. It reminded me of several times when I’ve messed up, my kids called me on it, and I put myself in time out. They don’t know how to react initially, but I’ve noticed they show me more respect afterward. Ironically. Love the Maya Angelou quote!

  • Elaina: PTSD-is-Normal.com

    Edit: In the 5th sentence, I meant “parties,” not “parites.”

    :)

  • Susan Taylor

    Dear Kelly,
    Somehow my husband found your blog the other day and subscribed to it. Am I ever glad.Your post today is exactly perfect for our situation.

    We have made a decision to send our 16yo son on a month-long camp experience, starting tomorrow. He is incredibly opposed to the idea, has major anxiety about several aspects of it, and his story about what he is going to find needs definite editing.

    He is a good-hearted, loving kid who has assumed a persona of toughness and distance in order to protect himself. I know this persona is not ultimately going to serve him in his life, although I know he feels protected now.

    I have learned in my life that editing the story, revising, cutting, adding, changing my perception and conclusions about aspects, all of those things are a major aspect of finding healing.

    Today and tomorrow are important days as we continue to work through the process of getting him ready and then taking him on the 6-hr car trip to get to the rendevous point. I believe in this kid. Today I am helping him put together a “resource toolkit” he can use as he meets new people, as he feels uncomfortable feelings, as he begins to discover that he has resources that can serve him in growing into the essence of who he is. Your article will be in that toolkit.

    Thank you.

  • Susan Taylor

    Huh. Just read your “about” page. The rendezvous point is your hometown. :-)

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Susan, I’m so glad you found the blog. Welcome! If you were meeting in Wheaton, I wonder if you sent him to Honeyrock? If so, I can personally attest that kids come back from that place CHANGED. My own included. No guarantees, but definitely warranting some hope. I hope you were able to get him off okay amidst the storms!

      • Susan Taylor

        Thank you, Kelly! Yes, you guessed it. HoneyRock. And I agree. I personally experienced my own life-changing experience on Vanguard before I started at Wheaton. So I believe in the potential! I’m looking forward to reading through your archives. Great stuff!

        What a shock to drive through Wheaton last night and see all the storm damage! So nice to be on Campus though.

        • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

          Susan, Glad you go him off! And welcome back to Wheaton, storms and all. :)

  • Elaina: PTSD-is-Normal.com

    Storm damage, yikes. I guess it’s happening all across our country. Here on the south east edge of New Mexico we recently had a supercell, which I didn’t know, until I looked it up, is the rarest and most dangerous type of thunderstorm. A crew of professional storm chasers, who travel North America looking for tornadoes and such, were right here in our tiny town, less than half a mile from our house, when their windshield was destroyed by hail the size of softballs. I have never seen such huge balls of hail! It fell for approximately 30 minutes! It sounded like our roof was being pounded by large rocks! Our like-new 24 ft travel trailer was totalled, our one-ton truck had over $6,000 in hail damage, and our house and garage must have new roofs. Thank God for our wonderful insurance companies! Sadly, some folks here in our impoverished town don’t have any insurance. A few days after the storm, as I walked with our dog, I saw several roofs that have been patched together with duct tape.

    Speaking of our dog, Lady is normally terrified of thunderstorms. But when she looked out the window and saw the fist-sized balls of ice falling helter-skelter from the sky, she got all excited and begged to be let out…. apparently our silly Australian Cattle Dog thought it was a giant game of fetch! Of course we did not let her out.

    When the sky is literally falling, life suddenly takes on a whole new perspective. First, you have the automatic knee-jerk reaction of: YiKeS!! Then comes the introspective phase. I found myself wondering, prayerfully: Lord, are you getting ready to do a Really Big Edit down here?

    The one feature that distinguishes a supercell from other types of storm clouds, is that the entire storm cell rotates. I’m not talking about a tornado, although according to wikipedia about 30% of all supercells do produce a tornado. Indeed, a small funnel cloud was briefly creaated by our storm, which I did not see, but was captured on video by the storm chasers when they were still a few miles west of our town.

    When I noticed the odd fiery-red light coming in the windows just before sunset, I went out into the back yard and looked up — there, directly over my head, was a HUGE, very dark, round cloud, stretching out in every direction almost as far as I could see. It was kind of like the huge UFO in the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Awesomely, spine-tinglingly, terrifyingly beautiful. Lightning was flashing back and forth inside this huge dark round cloud. And… the entire cloud was rotating… very slowly… in a clock-wise direction. It was a supercell, hanging directly over my head! I ran and got my camera, took some pictures, and then: KA-POWW!! The first fist-sized ball of hail hit the top of our RV, a few feet from where I was standing. I ran back insid the, and the sky fell.

    I’ve lived in tornado alley most of my life, and I’ve never seen such a sight.

    YiKeS!! Having your life edited can be painful.. scary.. and… strangely exhilerating!

    By the way, I was Not Strong, I turned into a terrified little girl. Which, to a 59-year-old woman, is something of an embarrassment. But as your astute wife told you in the beginning of this post: “..it’s okay to be weak sometimes and to not have it all together.”

    Does your wife have her own blog? ;)

    Elaina

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Wow, Elaina, thanks for narrating that to us! It sounds like an incredible experience, so glad you’re safe. And no, my wife doesn’t have her own blog, but I couldn’t write this one without her. :)

  • Jacque Small (@jacquebig)

    Excellent Article Kelly,

    I think I might have been my own editor Kelly. I knew changes needed to occur in my life, I was not happy.

    But even though I was my own editor, it took as whole team of teachers and fellow learners over several years before a new work of art emerged.

    I have substantially changed my life, how I respond to life and who I am being in life. I even hired an editor to help me tell the story of my transition. The story is told in a book called Divine Divorce, Turning the Worst Disaster of my Life into a Great Adventure.

    Ever since my divorce life has been an absolute adventure.

    And I think you are right, most of us do need an editor, my partner is my editor, he helps me see what I can’t see about myself. The great thing is that now for the most part my ego is in check and I embrace his comments and work on making more changes in my life.

    Hugs,

    Jacque
    http://www.yourdivinedivorce.com

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      The more the merrier, Jacque! If we have multiple trusted people in our lives, what a blessing to be able to get a range of feedback and sift through it as we change and grow. So, glad you have emerged from that time a whole person!

  • Catharine Phillips

    Great article! I*ve been thinking about it all week. I have had the gift of different editors at different times. For me the challenge has been allowing/inviting others into what I increasingly see as a work/being in progress. In this way all sorts and conditions of folk are my editors even as I am theirs. Moving from parish ministry to therapist/spiritual director and volunteering time as a counselor is allowing me to be more *open for editing* Seeing myself as Part of the Community helps me see others in a fuller way and share myself more fully.
    Blessings,
    Catharine

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Thank you, Catharine. And I hope you are feeling better, in the midst of the heat and storms (both real and metaphorical).