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.
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.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.