I planted this yellow rose from Texas a few weeks before my mother—born and raised in Texas—died. It bloomed the day after her death. I named the rose Nell, after my mom.
My mother died last month. Her health had been gradually declining for a couple years, but early this spring her fragile system plummeted. I’m still grappling with the loss, which has me rummaging through buried memories and connections. Mostly, I’ve been pulling out bits related to creativity.
When I remember my mother, I see her in any one of the kitchens that I knew as hers. Typical for when and where I grew up, she called herself a housewife. But unlike my friends’ mothers, my mom immersed herself in food preparation for hours every day.
She didn’t watch television and knew little of Julia Child. Still, her culinary obsession was a household given, whether she was cooking for a large gathering, for a few guests, for our small family of four, or for just her and my dad. I enjoyed the results, yet questioned why she put that much time and effort into culinary masterpieces that were appreciated so briefly (especially as she cared little for saving leftovers; only the truly exalted were allowed shelf space for a day or two).
I was a lucky child, given lots of space and encouragement to develop my imagination. I dwelled in a world of creative fun. Planning menus and cooking, on the other hand, looked like hard work. Children tend not to become bogged down by guilt, but I did feel the occasional pang that my mother wasn’t having nearly as good a time as I was.
Decades later, when my adult life turned into all work and no fun, I started to consciously consider the concept of creativity. And the truth finally dawned: my mother’s work was highly creative and, for her, a ton of fun. That’s why she did it all her life, even when she could have thrown in the potholder and announced to my dad that it was time for convenience foods and take-out. Or asked him to cook occasionally. (And since the time of her final illness and death, he has been eating mostly in restaurants. No surprise, although he’ll never find as good a cook as the one he had.)
Following what I belatedly recognized as my mother’s modeling, several years ago I decided to bring creativity—and fun—back into my adult work. Now everything I do has an element of creativity and enjoyment, whether I’m proofreading, copyediting, researching and fact-checking, writing, or developing my business.
“Wait!” you’re thinking. (Add mind-reading to my creative pursuits.) “Proofreaders and copyeditors aren’t supposed to be creative. They’re the grammar police, the rule enforcers, the ones who get it right. I don’t want my copyeditor having fun with my writing. I want serious correction. I get to play in the kitchen; copyeditors need to grimly wipe up spills.” But word work isn’t that clearly defined.
Writing, like cooking, needs a structure that honors some basic rules. Readers won’t get the message from words strung together without commonly accepted punctuation, and diners won’t appreciate cheese polenta drenched in molasses. (Check with my husband on that one; he tried it once, and only once. Mentioning the “molasses-and-cheese-polenta incident,” which we rarely do, still stimulates his gag reflex.) Consistent spelling prevents distracted, irritated readers, and consistent hand washing forestalls sick, miserable meal guests.
Beyond the basics, though, rules are equally flexible in cooking and writing. Ingredients can be combined and presented in infinite varieties, and so can all the elements of the amazing English language. While my living room bookshelves groan with the weight of cookbooks containing different recipes, my office bookshelves overflow with competing style manuals, dictionaries, guides for grammar and usage, and writing handbooks. If they all agreed, I would need just one of each. Instead, they serve as constant reminders of contextual flexibility, ever-changing standards, new words, variant spellings, and dynamic communication.
Collaborative and Flexible Creativity
Much of proofreading and copyediting, then, isn’t about achieving pure standards of correctness. It’s a highly collaborative and creative process of problem solving, with the goal always to serve a wonderful meal to readers, the honored guests.
Writers rule the kitchen, but copyeditors and proofreaders are the sous-chefs who labor with glad hearts—because they, too, care about both the process and the product. As key assistants, they savor the great work the writer already has done, determine which authorities to follow for basics and consistency, and then throw their creative talents into suggesting ways to help readers taste the words as the writer intended. Instead of merely wiping spills with rigid pedantry, copyeditors and proofreaders cocreate an unpredictable and delicious combination of language possibilities and nuances.
Thanks to my mother and the cherished lessons she taught by example, I know how much fun creativity can be. I only wish I still had the chance to be her sous-chef.
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