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How Writers and Editors Are Like Snails

John Updike once wrote that “writers walk through volumes of the unexpressed and like snails leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves.” (“The Blessed Man of Boston”)  


As an editor, I’m fairly gastropod-like myself. I leave my trail of commentary on a manuscript as evidence of where I’ve been (in fact, I may have an even greater claim to the comparison since if my evidence is scarce, writers are generally happier).

My job is to draw attention to the experience a general reader's likely to have. But as I do, all the while I’m becoming more and more aware of the sacred relationship building between the pages, a quiet space being formed between writer and reader.

In fact, the more I think of it, the more I think everyone who comes to a book has something to learn from the snail. Does any dumb and blind reader standing at the brink of that entrance realize just how much has gone into ensuring the experience of that book is as inviting and engaging as possible?

No. Not if we’ve done our work–concealing the evidence of any work is the work. Like snails again, invisibility allows us bookish types—we who carry our "homes" on our soft backs—to live another day.

Oh, I could probably add a few more comparisons. But I won't.

Bottom line, I see too many authors slide into danger wandering outside the protective bubble of that sacred relationship. We all need to realize we're not really alone, especially when we write. Don't be fooled. Life isn’t created in a monologue but a conversation–an asking and listening, a responding to the unvoiced question, and acknowledging what's behind the questions–even behind the desire for answers.

Because here's the thing: readers only think they want answers because they don’t yet realize what they really need. Only the author can know that. And so authors must go slowly and remain so attentive that their little antenae can detect even the slightest touch.

Because readers are seeking every day, every moment, to know the source of the hope they feel inside. They've felt it, sensed it, somewhere beneath their noisy and insistent daily existence.

If only they had a lowly snail to awaken their memory of it…


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