I've been a professional writer and editor since my senior year in college, which was… oh, golly, some 40 years ago now. My first real job came about because one of my English professors was involved in a Mormon church project that required simplifying the missionary discussions, with the goal of reducing them from 18,000 to 12,000 words and taking the reading level down from roughly 12th grade to 6th grade or lower.

He and the rest of his team were stuck, and the deadline was hard upon them: each of the discussions was at least 500 words above the maximum and they simply couldn't get any further. I was initially hired just to count words. After I reported the numbers, this professor essentially threw up his hands and out of sheer frustration or desperation, suggested that I take a crack at it. I did, trimming and combining and simplifying like crazy. When I gave that first discussion back to him, easily under the maximum, he read through it and was utterly gobsmacked, pronouncing my work beautiful and inspired and, and, and. The upshot was that I did the final versions for five of the eight missionary discussions that (so I understand) served as the basis for translation into other languages.

Yes, I know how to edit. And yes, I know how to simplify content (see The Easy-to-Read Book of Mormon). There is an art to rephrasing, there is an art to abridging — to figuring out what content is essential to a work, to finding ways of making simple language convey powerful concepts in a way that is hopefully still… beautiful, or at least "better than adequate.” More challenging, perhaps, is the art of annotation — of adding material, usually as a footnote or endnote, that the original author has left out. Simple clarification or correction or expansion isn't especially difficult — adding, for example, notable information about a person to whom the author made passing reference in the body of the text; what is problematic is when the author is flat-out wrong (either carelessly or more seriously, deliberately), or has omitted information that is (in one's editorial opinion) essential to the narrative, but which the author felt was too embarrassing or personal to include.

I bring this all up because I'm currently typing in my mother's personal history, at this point a 62-page account all in longhand that goes up to 1990 or so. (I'm encouraging her to keep working on the rest.) I've found a couple of minor factual errors, such as the year our family moved from Canoga Park to Tarzana, and I've been adding a few things (photos of her elementary school, that sort of thing). But there are omissions in her account. Most of these I have no problem adding in (in square brackets), and I'm absolutely sure she will be fine with those additions, but there are a handful of other things that she left out, and I'm not sure what to do about them.

I already had a discussion with her some years ago about her leaving out some of the salient details about her first date with my dad. She felt that those details were not "uplifting," even if I found them hilarious. (Clearly I value humor over "uplifting," at least in this particular instance.) I… am still trying to figure out what makes the most sense to do with my mom's "untold stories.”

This all said, I'm trying to figure out what makes the most sense in telling or not telling my own stories. Some few years back I figured out that some fair bit of my writing, particularly my missionary stuff presented verbatim, was boring. There's very little depth in what I wrote down and shared with my family — mostly "this week we did this and that, taught x number of discussions, yadda-yadda." What I wish I had done, be it in letters home or to others, was describe events and people, paint word pictures of the places and experiences I had. I'm not sure if I can reconstruct from the bare-bones narrative style something that can convey the experience of serving a mission in NE France in the late 1970s. And what do I do about my missionary journal, laden as it is with punching-bag entries, hyper-religious self-condemning assessments, and so on? They reflect inner turmoil and lofty aspirations pretty well, but viewed 40 years later, and from a perspective far removed from the mindset I was in back then… it all seems over the top, and carries a different kind of distortion: there's a lot left out as well.

(I couldn't be as honest with my family, especially with my younger brothers, about what I was going through in the same way as I could with, say, Lianne, a missionary serving in Holland at the same time, but I have a lot more family letters to work with than I do letters to Lianne.)

In a different time period, all too many of my letters to Barbara and journal entries were very much in the "let it all hang out" style. And yet. I was very conscious of my audience — I wanted to impress Barbara with my … my what? Spirituality? Intellect? And I was too conscious as well that my journal was (per everything I'd been taught at church about such things) intended for Posterity to read — I was supposed to treat it as some kind of volume of personal scripture. So yeah. My mom's excising of the parts of her life story that she deemed unworthy of how she wants her descendants to view her is something I can understand pretty well, even if I lament the loss of those details of personal imperfection that make her story (and my own) more human and real. (And in some cases, funny as all hell.)

To be continued.