By David Charlton Taylor
As my world runs headlong into crisis, I'm trapped as a prisoner of the drug war being fought on the wrong battlefield. I wake up daily in this place of endless nothingness.
And then my manuscript arrives with its first edit, a professional edit. Someone else has read my story and transformed 478 pages of handwritten scribble into 420 pages of typewritten words badly in need of structure, clarity, polish, and punctuation. This is the first of what will end up being three full re-writes.
Each printed page is one inch left of center leaving two and a half inches on the right for editor comments, corrections, and notes. Lines from the sentences are highlighted to the comments themselves. A feature I'd never seen before, this is apparently, I learn later, the Revision feature of Microsoft Word. To my editors it’s everyday technology. To me, it’s magic.
As I go page by page addressing each editorial comment I dig thru my story like a miner prying out gemstones and shiny nuggets. I cast off lumps of fools gold, and then polish and remount each nugget carefully back into the story.
Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
I hope he’s right, because I have the imagination, but lack the literary knowledge. When I read my edited manuscript, inside the margins are instructions, and valuable conversations between Stacy, Keltin, and me on the format, structure, and punctuation of my manuscript. It inspires me to study books that in the past held no interest for me, such as “Elements of Style.” With each re-write I gain knowledge and confidence…in my writing and myself.
Early on Stacy recommends books for me to study. My mom orders them from Amazon. And bless both their hearts, a book a week arrives for me at mail call. I dive right in. Books like “Story" by Robert McKee and “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. My mom even sends me the Oxford Thesaurus and Oxford Dictionary; basic tools, but priceless to me.
While editing, Keltin soon realizes I'm a Hemmingway fan and comments: "Dave, Hemmingway also said you must kill your darlings," which I find out means I need to get rid of anything that doesn’t move the story forward. Because we are limited to communication through “snail mail,” Stacy and Keltin both ingeniously help me shape my story (and teach me) by giving me guidance within the margins of my manuscript. Sharp witted and skillful, their words always make me think and smile. And more importantly, give me confidence they understand my story and how to convey it.
I work for weeks, which fade into months, and melt into years, oblivious to my incarceration (Ah! So invigorating, so exhilarating to not be thinking about where I am.) Rolling back in my mind to the late nineties, reliving moments like an actor setting the scene. Calling forth the emotions to find the words to elicit a smile or a tear.
Then I send back the manuscript all marked up by pen with my scribble, and wait like a child at Christmas for its return to see their precious comments. Did I get it right this time? Is the dialogue believable? Is the story structure solid? I have a million questions and Stacy and Keltin always answer each inside the margins.
When the manuscript finally arrives and Stacy or Keltin confirms, “You nailed it, Dave! You took the advice and ran with it." it brings me so much joy to know that I can rise to the challenge of telling a good story. It almost means as much to me as my mom saying, "I'm so proud of you, honey."
I particularly like the comments that push me, such as "Show me, don't tell me. Exposition, boring! Cliché! You can do better." And my favorite is when Stacy told me, "Now that I know you have the writing chops, I'm raising the bar. Reach down deep, Dave, and bring that imprisoned emotion to the surface."
I spend weeks doing just that, with an intense passion for precision in getting the story right from both my editors’ prospective and mine. (I, having lived it, they being professional storytellers.)
Continuously, my pencil moves through the sadness of recollection as if it has a mind of its own. I find this process heals something inside me, something prison put there. When you put words to your emotions it’s a balm for wounds picked at and scabbed over.
In the margins Stacy advises, "Share with the reader your fear, make it real, make it raw, make them believe they are there."
So I ask questions of myself, shaking the Magic Eight Ball upstairs…and then I discuss the answers with Angelica, my muse. She plays me like an Ouija board. The words flow one by one from my brain, down my arm, and out my pen. I read our collaboration. Laughing, I think, Yes. I nailed it.
I explain this because the process still mystifies me. Almost three years into our collaboration and it’s still miraculous how words "inside the margins" given from people I’ve never met, but who have knowledge and imagination that I admire, can move me to conjure up my creative self, when it seems, I alone, cannot.
This experience has brought me peace in a place of chaos, confusion, confinement, and sorrow.
Stacy, Keltin, and my copyeditor, Elizabeth, saved my soul from a thousand miles away. At the time, they had no way of knowing how their words moved me and gave me purpose. It’s not easy to work with a writer in prison. Generating thousands of pages of work, transposing to and from Google docs (and whatever else they use), and then back to paper so I can realize a dream.
It takes graciousness, tolerance and understanding to go that extra mile for an unproven artist, especially one who just happens to be a convicted felon!
At this juncture of my journey Angelica softly sings into my ear an old Sammy Kershaw tune: "Ain’t no angel, but I’m sitting out a few more dances with the devil. I can finally stand the man in the mirror I see. I'm not as good as I'm gonna get…but I'm better than I used to be!"