Constant readers know by now I'm in the habit of saying, "You only get better by playing over your own head." The other night I wrote that line, then stopped and added: "You also only get better by playing outside of your own head."
My friend Steven Savage and I recently exchanged manuscripts for finished books. I'm reading his work; he's reading mine; we're comparing notes. Both of us understand to a high degree where the other guy is coming from and what he's trying to achieve. We are not looking for line-by-line corrections except where the error is so egregious it threatens to make one's eyeball burst, but rather things that only the other person might be able to see.
Editors, in whatever form they come in, aren't just there to red-pencil everything in sight. They are also there to show you things about your work that you might not realize, to get you to make those insights your own. They not only turn your work inside out and shake out the pockets, they show you how you can do the same thing on your own.
Steve has read previous works of mine, and made comments about their themes and implications that I couldn't possibly have seen myself. That on its own isn't unusual; other people always see things in your work that you can't. What I took away from it was the sense that I needed to do more than just get other points of view. I needed to see my own work through as alien a set of eyes as I could.
There's a tendency with creative types, not just to get stuck in one's own head, but to justify that as being the only way to fly. You have to say something that's entirely yours. Where else is that going to come from other than some place within you that nobody else gets to have say-so over? A common fallacy, although not necessarily a malicious one: we live with the insides of our heads so intimately (although not necessarily critically or skeptically) that we have trouble not thinking about it as anything other than this immutable uncarved block.
It Just Ain't So. Case in point: self. I don't come up with the same kinds of stories I did ten years ago. I can't come up with the same kinds of stories; I'm not the same kind of person! Ensconce that firmly in mind and it gets incrementally easier to see the point of view you hold on your work at a point in time is just that: a point-in-time disclaimer, worthy of evolving and being evolved.
Back to Steve's comments, etc. I don't think the takeaway with learning about what someone else sees in your work is that you should try to second-guess them and produce a certain kind of calculated reaction. When has that ever worked? The trick is to use it to broaden your sense of what is possible generally. Your own understanding of what you do — what you choose to do, what you can do, why you defend those decisions to yourself — should be considered as necessarily incomplete and subject always to further refinement. Sort of like everything else in that skin of yours.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind