As odd as it may seem, I found a child’s book called Little Bear Paints a Picture summarized all that I needed to know about writing. Of course, I didn’t realize it when I was reading it to my children. In 1988, I had other things on my mind, like flying Navy jets, and writing for non-fiction periodicals. But looking back, this read-along book offers the perfect analogy for how I view my creative work.
In this story, Little Bear paints a picture of his mother, and does a very respectable job. He is so proud of his work that he shows it to his friend Owl. Owl looks it over and says, “Why it’s beautiful—except the eyes are too small.” So Little Bear re-does the eyes to suit Owl and leaves. He then shows it to his friend Gator. Gator exclaims, “It’s wonderful—except the mouth is too small.” Once again, Bear changes his painting to suit Gator. Next, he takes it to Giraffe. You can guess the outcome from that one. By the time Mother Bear sees the edited work, it looks hideous, but she smiles and hugs her cub as only a mother can. “It’s beautiful!” she exclaims. Little Bear cocks his head, gazing deep into her eyes. “Really? I don’t need to change anything?” Mother Bear smiles and says, “No, it’s perfect as it is.”
Years later, when I began writing fiction, I found that every friend was eager to offer advice, but their honesty depended upon how close we were. Of course, my mother always loved my work, but her unconditional love has its bias. That’s when I turned to an editor.
I paid several thousand dollars that I couldn’t spare to a highly recommended editorial service. It was my first experience working with an editor, so like Little Bear, I changed whatever she said without giving it much thought. She cut volumes from my story, and then wrote, “Congratulations, Mark, you did it!” But really, all I did was write her a fat check, for the edited book was crap. My next editor saw promise in my work and spent a year nurturing me, teaching me the craft, and in the end, we got it right. He is as much a friend as he is an editor, but people like him are hard to find. After all, time is money, and most prefer money over time.
Years later, I reflected on Little Bear, realizing that no matter what you’re creating, you must believe in your work. You also need an editor who will guide you, not chop your book like a Benihana chef. My first editor was like Owl, Gator, and Giraffe, all saying it was perfect, so long as I changed everything to suit their views. But that’s not what creating is about. Whether I’m doing a story or a painting, my work comes from the heart, and I need the final say. So, Little Bear, I thank you for your insight, and for staying with me through the years. I’ve learned a lot, and am still learning, but I’ll never forget your lesson.