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Theresa Nichols Schuster is author of "Brittle Silver" and "We Are the Warriors" a 2015 USA Regional Excellence Book Award Finalist. She currently lives in southwest Montana where she appreciates the wonders of nature, family, friends, a bit of pottery.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Blizzards and Editing

I have found both format editing and blizzards painful while in their midst, but each also results in wonderful connections and beautiful art.

The last true blizzard I was in, I was fortunate to be near our house in Wolf Point. As I drove the short mile from work with my husband, Jerry, only fifty yards behind me in the Acadia, the cross streets disappeared as sheets of snow beat in waves from the northwest. A white and gray pall covered the landscape and sky, obscuring any distinct shapes and forms. I diligently plowed my way up the 4th Avenue hill.

I feared I wouldn't recognize the way home. A similar fear and trepidation sometimes comes over me when I sit down to edit a long literary piece. I don't know my way through the mass of words and punctuation. I fear making a mistake and causing more problems and errors.

In a state of confusion that day, I gripped the steering wheel, and peered out into the haze. The outline of the towering cottonwoods at the corner of our turn finally broke through the dense whiteness, their bare branches rattling in the wind like angry giants.

My Impala bravely bucked through the drifts forming across the city streets. I stared out the windshield, and nervously hoped no one was hidden in the blinding snow. My foot on the gas pedal, I dared not slow down, knowing one of those drifts would grab my wheels and not let me out.

In the process of editing, when I hit "find" and "replace" in a document, especially when it has resulted in 1,000 cases "found," a tremor of dread runs through me before I hit replace. What if I make it worse and get stuck? What if I ruin the whole novel?

That afternoon as I approached an unsheltered curve in the road, less than a half of a block from our house, the shadowy form of a van, obviously tightly stuck in a drift, came into view. I let up on the gas and steered to the side to avoid hitting the vehicle. First mistake. With a sudden "fump!" my car came to a halt. The right side of the car sat higher on the wind-packed drift, as my wheels spun.

My husband stopped a hundred yards behind, got out and fought his way to my car. As I opened the door, a rush of snow blew in, covering the floorboards in a fine layer. He suggested I back his Acadia up to the next side road to open up the center of the street while he tried to get my car unstuck. I clambered into his vehicle and backed into the side road, firmly hitting another two foot drift. Second mistake—beware of side roads. I tried to go forward or backward, to no avail. Now the Acadia was unable to move.

Sometimes I do get stuck and bogged down when I am editing. The time I fought with fixing my "smart" quote marks and "straight" quote marks, I couldn't figure my way out. I finally got it done, probably not the easiest way.

Jerry and I trudged to our house, only seventy-five yards in distance. The wind chill was an unbelievable fifty degrees below zero or more. We changed from our office clothes into jeans and down parkas, gathered more shovels, and headed back into the onslaught.

Frantically we pulled shovel-fulls of snow from under the car. Each time we pulled out a chunk of snow, new snow replaced what we had just removed. Every time we opened the car door to attempt to rock the car free, the white powder filled the compartment like piles of flour. Whenever we opened our mouths to speak, the wind-driven snow blasted our throats like pieces of sand and knocked our breath back down our throats, resulting in gasps of air. The snow melted on our faces and then refroze wherever it could. My eyelashes were thickly caked, heavy with ice that threatened to freeze my eyes shut. The whole endeavor seemed hopeless. I felt like we should just quit, but we couldn't leave our vehicle blocking the road.

Through the blinding snow, a huge four-wheel drive pick-up from the Fort Peck Tribal Police crawled its way toward us. A big, burly tribal cop climbed out, snow nearly up to his hips. He grabbed one of the shovels and got to work on the dense drifts under my car. A tribal high school student clambered out of the truck, wearing what looked like a spring jacket. They both shoveled, pushed and pulled alongside of us. It seemed like an impossible task, but the guys never quit, never expressed any doubt or dismay. Finally, with one more big effort of all hands pushing, my car broke free. Relieved, I promptly drove it into my driveway and parked it.

Then we went to work on the van and our Acadia. By then glasses were useless, only reservoirs for ice and snow. Hands worked clumsily, the painful cold beginning to numb. With tireless effort, the cop, his young friend and other neighbors chipped in to fight against the relentless wind and snow.

There is nothing like friends, books, experts, co-travelers posting up on Google, to assist with the process of learning to edit more skillfully, I have had very good input, knowledge and suggestions over the years. I marvel at how little I knew about writing—that is, the whole process—seven years ago! Eventually with much effort and help, I/you will make our way through an edit, a process, a piece of art or a new woodworking project.

Finally, our vehicle and the van broke free. Trudging up the driveway late that day, exhausted, frigidly cold, I spiked our shovel into the snow bank at the corner of our house, an offering for the next stuck vehicle. Jerry, by then nearly hypothermic and shaking uncontrollably, fell into a hot tub of water.

How many people and cars that policeman and his friend freed from drifts that day, I don't know. But I admired their courage, tenacity, and willingness to take on such a daunting task—cheerfully and optimistically.

The results that day—freed vehicles, grateful people safe at home—and eventually, artfully created drifts, and moisture for the land to irrigate and grow summer crops and pastures.

Format editing long documents like a novel or a thesis can feel a bit like facing the relentless onslaught of a blizzard. But bit by bit, sentence by sentence, with persistence and some help, a structurally sound and beautiful document can be created.

Happy editing, formatting and digging out of snow drifts if that is what is needed. The outcome may be awesome. Spring will come.


  1. Must admit I'd ONE MILLION TIMES rather edit my way through a novel than shovel my way through drifts in the middle of a blizzard. But what an imaginative post! Wish I'd had it as an example when I was trying to teach methods of comparison/contrast in English 103. :-)

    1. I agree totally! Although even after many rewrites and edits of this small essay, I still had a punctuation error...a miniature monument to the tenacity of editing errors.

    2. Wow! I missed your error, and after 30 years teaching freshman composition my mind is absolutely programmed to catch every one of them (except in my own writing, of course). Could it be I can now say I'm a RECOVERING comp teacher?

  2. Loved reading this from the comfort of my current home where blizzards don't occur, and visualizing that your cars quite possibly were stuck right in front of the home I grew up in. Congratulations on publishing your novel! - Mary McCann