Editing and haircuts

A few months ago, author Ethel Rohan (whose beautiful book Cut Through the Bone you all should buy), made a comment in her blog about her recent haircut. “I cut off most of my hair, twelve inches of length and a crazy amount in volume, and now have Flash hair.” (I love that phrase: “Flash hair.”) She doesn’t bring up the haircut with much purpose — it seems simply to be something on her mind (or perhaps off her mind?) — but what she winds up saying about it is really interesting:

I don’t know how many times yesterday the hair stylist said I was brave,” Rohan writes. “He seemed shocked that I’d chance a new stylist with a completely new do. We are all brave in our own ways. For me, cutting off my hair felt nothing, felt like a grasp at forcing a new chapter.

It’s that last line, combined with her use of “Flash hair,” that got me equating my own hair and my writing process. It reminded me immediately of Truman Capote’s old line that “I believe in the scissors more than in the pencil,” and Rohan, too, must have been thinking along those lines, because she ends her blog post with the simple statement, “Scissors, Baby.” And in general, I believe in the scissors more than the pencil, too, and I usually advise my students that, in writing first drafts, it’s always easier to write too much and cut later, mostly because I’m trying to encourage them to cut.

Cut, cut, cut.

But I have an extraordinarily hard time cutting.

See, I have long hair. Not “shaggy,” not “casually long,” not even shoulder-length. I mean long. You might not know it to look at me because my hair is fairly lightweight and springs up into curls, but when I’m fresh out of the shower, my hair is down to the middle of my back, sometimes even longer.

And I am in NO hurry to cut it.

My wife sometimes daydreams about me with shorter hair (she’d love me to try something like Simon Baker’s hair in The Mentalist), and she teases me that my attachment to my hair isn’t very Buddhist of me. And she’s right, in a way, though I’d like to think that if my hair got caught in machinery or burned over a bbq pit and wound up short, I wouldn’t spend too much time fretting over it.

That’s certainly how I am about my fiction. When I send out stories to my friend and writing workshopper (and fellow longhair) Ryan Werner and he sends me back an utterly butchered version that’s only half as long, I can usually let the text go and work with what he’s left me. So maybe I would be the same with my hair.

But that’s what it takes, in either case: I have to find myself in that position, with shorter hair or shorter text, because I have a hell of a hard time putting myself in that position. And I wonder why that is. What’s with this discrepancy between what I tell my students or the advice I give to other writers — cut, cut, cut! — and my own reluctance to do the same for myself?

In the case of my hair, I know it’s because my hair grows very, very slowly. I can’t really “experiment” with my hair the way my wife (whose hair grows fast) can — once I cut it, I’m stuck with it for months and months. If I cut it really short, I’d be stuck with short hair for more than a year at least. And I’ve done the short hair thing, all the way down to a shaved head. It ain’t pretty. I don’t have a handsome dome and look fairly ridiculous bald, and my hair doesn’t like to behave when short. So no thanks, I’d rather not play around when I know my hair works long.

That’s no excuse with my prose, though. Writing long is easy. I can ramble for pages and pages. I can write 2,000 words on a lazy day; I’ve cranked out more than 6,000 in a day during NaNoWriMo, and I still had more to give the page. So when I do cut text, it’s not like it’d be a struggle to “grow” new text.

And it’s not like I’m afraid to experiment, either. The Writer’s Notebook ought to be evidence enough of that. In writing, I’ll try any “hairdo” once, just to see how it plays. In that way, stories for me are more like wigs than grown hair.

I think of hairstylists as being a bit like sculptors. Apparently, a good sculptor can look at a lump of clay or a chunk of stone or a piece of wood and they see the art living inside. I see rock; Michelangelo saw David. Hairstylsits, too, I think, must have some artistic second sight through which they can look at a head of hair and see how it would take a razor cut, which way it wants to part, what layers or highlights might look like. They see it, and they start cutting away until they find the hairstyle living inside.

But I can’t do that. Not with stone, not with hair, even, sometimes, with my own work. Sometimes I get it, but a lot of time, it’s hard for me look at my long mess of words on the page and see the story I’d been trying to tell hiding somewhere down inside there.

When I was writing my dead-Santa-Claus story for the 2011 Holiday Half-Issue of Jersey Devil Press, I sent it around to the other editors and readers for feedback. Our awesome content editor Mike Sweeney sent it back to me utterly butchered. He cut a few words from the title. He move one section. He whacked out a full 500 words from what was already a fairly short story to begin with. I mean, he stripped that thing down to the bone, and he was merciless doing it.

And I loved him for it. My exact words when I wrote him back were “All the fat is gone, all my reminiscent indulgences (a lot of this is autobiographical, but don’t tell the cops), all the rambling confusion. Thanks for seeing the story inside my story, man.”

See, that’s my problem. Sometimes I can’t see the story inside the story, even when it’s my own damn story. Sometimes I need someone to give my story a serious haircut — to shave my story’s head — so I don’t have to, and once it’s all gone, I really don’t have much trouble saying, “Man, that looks weird and I can feel the wind on my neck, but yeah, I can totally live with this.”

But I won’t be cutting my hair anytime soon. 🙂

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6 thoughts on “Editing and haircuts

  1. Great post, Sam. Thanks for the kind mention. I find it much easier to cut my work when I’ve set it aside for a time and then come back to the writing less attached and with distance and fresh perspective. You’re right too, of course, in that at a certain point in the revision/rewriting process we ourselves realize the heart of the story we’re telling and can then cut the extraneous and tailor accordingly.

    1. Wow! Hi, Ethel! How totally awesome that you stopped by here!

      Okay, that’s my quota of exclamation points for the rest of the year.

      Yes, that’s it exactly: time and emotional distance. Perspective. All those things I’m too impatient to wait around for, which is why I pawn the work off on friends and fellow writers: they start out with emotional distance and can break through the breastbone much faster. I know that heart is beating in there somewhere, and I want to get at it now! 😉

    1. “The quickest way to a man’s heart is through his ribcage.” Who said that?

      Honestly, I was in the middle of typing “and can cut through the bone much faster” when I realized what I was doing. I stole the image from whoever said what I quoted (Roseanne Barr?), but I was stealing the language from you. 😉

  2. Having seen you go through the processes you describe about your hair I think I would have trouble seeing you with a different hairstyle as well, but like Jennifer sometimes I wonder what erxactly would you look like with shorter hair (would you be the same loveable Sam?). Also wonder this about Jon, whom I do not see cutting anything anytime soon either. As for the writing we often would have students participate in clockwork by sitting in a circle and passing their papers around to let several others edit their work with fresh eyes. Have you considered letting your own students look at some of your work in an attempt for them to see the value of “cutting” while you get some feedback as well, just a thought. Keep up the good work.

    1. I have done that now and then, but it’s tricky because once students know it’s my work, they lock up and don’t want to offer too much criticism (or, if they’re like I was as a student, they try to tear into more than they would just to show they aren’t intimidated, which can be good practice for them but doesn’t always provide constructive feedback). But yeah, once in a while I’ll sneak in something I don’t tell them is mine and see what happens. I’m definitely going to do that with the creative nonfiction class I’ll be teaching next year!

      I really like that clockwork exercise, though! I might try that before we get into small workshop groups as a way of introducing workshopping and of breaking through the fear of letting someone else mess with their work. Totally stealing that. 🙂

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