During a dinner in the home of statesman Jacques Necker, someone made a comment to philosopher Denis Diderot which left him momentarily speechless. Later he explained, "L’homme sensible, comme moi, tout entier à ce qu’on lui objecte, perd la tête et ne se retrouve qu’au bas de l’escalier."
Translated: a sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument levelled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again [when he reaches] the bottom of the stairs. This expression used in English has been condensed to l’espirit de l’escalier’ or ‘the spirit of the staircase.’
Word count: 512 Reading time: approx. 2 mins
As the junior participant on a recent writers’ panel, I was asked to speak first. I had no idea what the questions would be and no time to compose my answers. When I reached the staircase later, I realized the points I’d missed:
- I said lay down your work at the feet of editors. A writer who spoke after me suggested that policy might be a bit too accommodating. Very true! If I’d prepped for the question I would've still encouraged writers to set aside their egos. But I would have added: first get a commitment from a publisher and always hold your ground on what’s important to you. Also when an agent or editor says, “We like the book but could you change this for us,” don’t rewrite on a kiss and a promise. You may end up losing months in revision and still be left without a contract.
- Be friendly and diligent. Writing opportunities pop up when you’re not expecting them. Recently a musician put some of poet Bernice Lever’s work to music, simply because she was in the right poetry café at the right time.
- The internet, writing groups, and craft books are full of things you must do as a writer. Absorb as much of that as you can. Then pick your favourites from the Rules-of-Writing buffet. No one rule is absolute.
- I would have encouraged emerging writers not to give up. All the hours, days and years spent writing before publication may seem unproductive but they are not – a lot is happening in the creative part of the brain. It is being exercised and developed. You may not realize it, but you are progressing. Also, as you continue to study, your skill level is improving, layer by layer, like the pearl in an oyster.
Today's blog is my attempt to edit my writers’ panel appearance, to say the things I thought of later. I’m pushing # at the end of a voice mail message and modifying it. I’m recalling the e-mail and adding the bits I left out.
L’esprit de l’escalier is the editing part of writing. It's where we sit down and spend hours finding le mot juste (the right word or expression) to heighten the drama and flair in our stories.
Have you ever submitted or published your work prematurely, before you'd reached the bottom of the staircase? Is there work out there that you wish you could recall and redo? I am guilty as charged, on both accounts.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Fisher Fine Arts Gallery, University of Pennsylvania, by Daderot