History, editing, recycled paper, and World War Two

We’ve been sorting stuff, and in yesterday’s closet clean-out I discovered this:


which is part of the masses of paper printouts of earlier drafts of my books, all now consigned to the recycling bin. (No, I am not going to archive, except via various electronic echoes.) These, in particular, are the chapters and sections of chapters of Time Goes By that I once spread out on the floor and rearranged, because when the first draft was finished I knew I had a book in there somewhere, but not in the order I’d written it. Using four points of view meant that it was easier to write big chunks of one character’s story at a time, but that didn’t make for the best reading experience, so I needed to shuffle quite a lot.

While I was removing all those paperclips, I started thinking about a post I’ve been meaning to make here and didn’t quite have a grip on (possibly I don’t still, especially having breathed in all that dust, but bear with me). It’s just that I’ve been noticing lately, in the news and elsewhere, large numbers of references to World War Two, from comparisons of current attitudes about refugees, to the turning away of Jewish escapees from Europe or the internment of Japanese-Americans, to memories of violent threats to Paris, to the routine reiterations of:

godwins law

via Liberal Mountain

And that’s the thing: it is routine, and I started wondering why. Why are we still so quick at reaching for the parallels in something that’s now been over for 70 years? Why are politicians and bloggers still comparing people they don’t like to Hitler, when goodness knows we’ve had other monsters in our world? Why are creative types still churning out movies, television shows, Broadway musicals, novels, etc., that deal with this period – and why are they still loved? Why is Casablanca so many people’s favorite movie (including, fairly often, mine)? Why did I feel I had to deal with this by writing a book?

When you ask people these questions (I mean, not the last one, you could only ask me that, but the others), they usually say something about how World War Two was our last “good” war (in the sense that most agreed it had to be fought), and how we could all come together over it – and while I think those ideas bear examining in detail and can be argued with, yeah, I see that. For a long time, too, this was the shared experience of the generation in power, and that sort of dominance tends to linger, even as the generation itself dies off – it was an enormous cataclysm, and it made for great stories. It makes for pretty much endless stories, actually, which probably explains the staying power in literature and film; practically no one was left out, and everyone was left with a tale or two to tell. (I’ve written about this before, from different perspectives.) And since we’ve all internalized both the stories and the sense of overwhelming threat and evil, they are easy to reach for when we’re looking for political analogy – easy to simplify, too.

Simplification is dangerous; just because a politician is trying to control some aspect of your life does not make him Hitler, and he isn’t Hitler just because he expresses repugnant views about ethnic or religious groups, either. Not all refugees have the same story, nor do all soldiers. But there’s value in looking at current events from the perspective of historical ones – history never repeats, but it does frequently echo – and it can also be useful to look at people’s stories side by side for what they have in common. To shuffle them around a little, perhaps, and see how they spring into life through juxtaposition, as if – ah, you say, now she is sneezing her way back around – you were editing a book.

I think Time Goes By ended up on the floor, chopped up and reorganized, because it was about World War Two – not that it mightn’t have happened to me that way with another book, but it hasn’t so far – or, in other words, because it was a complicated story with many perspectives and several points of view in which I needed to discover contrasts and parallels not only internally but externally. It needed to make sense in and of itself, in the context of the series as a whole, in association with literature it shares that world with, and as some kind of commentary on the present and the future – which is enough of a burden to make me shuffle a lot of paper around! Whether I succeeded in putting it in the right order is up to the readers, but it was a valuable experience for me, certainly.

I love editing (this is a really perverse thing to say, as a writer, but I do) and I could go on about it for days – but I’m finding intriguing the idea of looking at history, especially in its political uses, as an artifact of editing. Not just in the usual sense of taking things out (whoever manages to edit a piece of writing without adding some stuff in as well?) but also moving bits around and sliding them in where they fit better, or more effectively. The turning away of refugees, the internment of citizens, the mesmerizing effect of demagoguery, aren’t just facts but contexts: you can spin and hover around them and gaze at them from all sorts of perspectives, from the conference table or the ship, behind the barbed wire, from the high platform facing thousands. Truth is always in the contrast of perspective, but to be fair lies can be as well – and lies are probably more striking and appealing. I don’t think the editor’s perspective is the answer to finding the truth – you need exhaustive research for that –  but it does help to be aware that editing is happening.

I should also note that those piles of paper went into my closet by choice at some point, because I needed time to become aware that they were no longer necessary – maybe seeing the book as it is, in final form, allowed me to throw out the book as it was. (Okay, it’s been a year, but that closet was a mess.) It’s interesting that my editing methods have changed now: Not Time’s Fool has never been printed out for red-ink marking, but has only been edited on the computer. The reams of paper seem like a waste now, but they weren’t at the time – they were the perspective I needed. But it’s quite a relief to know they’re in the bin and no longer collecting dust.


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