Creative Advice: The Ugly Edit

Edit, 8/10/2022: Cinders, what a strange essay to read nine months down the line. Long-distance eldritch brain wife, huh? It’s fascinating to see how positive my self-image became, once, if I dissociated so hard I believe I’m a different being looking at myself from outside. Makes a demon think.

Now I just think about myself. No mirror-tricks required. But without embracing all these oddball workarounds, without giving myself space to look at myself from the outside, I’ve never have gotten here.

Here’s a mystery myself from last November could never have imagined: I am a bad girl. Virtuous? Fuck no. Kind and tender-hearted? Uh… only quite selectively so. Yeah… I’m evil and I’m proud of it, and I make the beings who love me really happy. I help them to become free and joyful in their complete selves.

I’m a succubus, after all–herald of transformation.

Anyway! I can vouch doubly for the advice about the Ugly Edit. It worked. I’ve pieced myself back together. Original text begins with the next sentence.

Alright, before I write one single other statement, I’m going to explain my definition of “ugly”. I think that will be useful both for this post, and just for understanding me a little better in the future. My perspective is very unique to me due to the wide range of life experiences I’ve had in relative isolation. Many words, because I use them in ways that are directly reflective of my individual growth, just plain don’t mean the same thing when I say them that they would if someone else did.

Obligatory: No, of course that doesn’t extend to slurs. Except, maybe, the ones that fall under my own intersecting marginalized identities. Enough. These are social-edit ideas. Let’s get back to the point I want to make right now.

Beauty and ugliness are constructed notions. “Constructed” does not mean “totally fake with no impact.” Houses, cars, and celebrity brands are all constructs, but you’re not going to tell me their impacts aren’t real. For me, when using them to refer to a broader point of view, “ugly” means “having the appearance of defying societal notions of niceness, propriety, and acceptable self-presentation.” Thus, “beautiful” means “having the appearance of epitomizing societal notions of niceness, propriety, and acceptable self-presentation.”

You’ll note these definitions still encompass plenty of common colloquial uses. They just allow me the leeway I need to use these terms in the ways that are more specific to yours truly. Note also that my definitions are themselves contextual based on what point of view I’m addressing. If we’re talking about my point of view, “ugly” means “having the appearance of disharmony with one’s own desired identity, self-expression, and manifestations of being.” So of course “beautiful” means “having the appearance of harmony with one’s own desired identity, self-expression, and manifestations of being.”

These aren’t just airy nothing distinctions, abstractions with no solid grounding in my lived experience. Ugliness and beauty are felt things for me. My friends are beautiful to me when they’re embracing themselves for who they aspire to be as well as who they are, physically, spiritually, mentally, no matter who that person is revealed to be. Which I guess, grudgingly, means that maybe I have to view myself from the same earnest perspective, so maybe right now as I write these things I feel a little… beautiful.

B-but don’t read too much into that, y-y-you idiot!

This brings us to the core topic of today’s palaver: the Ugly Edit versus the Social Edit (or the Beauty Edit, if you prefer.)

If you’re a creator, you already know the Social Edit. It’s the one you always think of as the final product. The one you put out there for your audience. The one your hopes hinge on. It has to cater to their needs because meeting those needs is what determines whether you get paid well enough to meet yours. Most advice focuses obsessively on this second point.

We, uh… we can’t sustain that. Not every time we create, every hour of our process, as the sole path we allow ourselves to take in private cognitive realms that offer such intimate experiences so tantalizingly ready for us to step into, and become. Creative work must reflect its creator or creators’ psyches, their unique headspace. In short, their soul–a useful concept, I think, whether or not you believe in souls as a spiritual notion. A soul seems to me like a much more holistic model of personal identity than the overblown notion of neatly-separable brain-areas, of perfectly compartmentalized identity. This just isn’t how we function.

But, I’ll dig into that idea more some other day. For now, if you’ve been feeling like your own creations don’t belong to you, I hope this will help you start to embrace them as your own again. If for any reason you feel like this advice isn’t for you, I won’t spend further time and effort right now making an argument. I will simply leave you space to trust your instincts, and I hope you remember this piece so you can come back to it if you find you’ve become a version of yourself who needs it.

For that, you see, is the core understanding behind the Ugly Edit. If all our creative endeavors begin from a place of self-denial, of refusing to allow ourselves to be enough, that pain will make itself felt in whatever we create. That’s especially frightful because I think that many times, and much more often so as we grow in creative insight and skill, the decisions we make which we strike out of existence in later edits are not wrong in an absolute sense. We only think of them this way because so much of our emphasis is on the Social Edit.

Often, though, the characters we keep clinging to, the ideas we include because “I just like this one”, the imagery we keep repeating: all the things that don’t serve an apparent purpose for our audience tend to be deeply linked with some emotional need that we need our own creations to meet. Whether we can meet this need another way is, for me, beside the point.

So much of the energy investment here occurs naturally. The Ugly Edit takes form as a natural part of our drafting process. Yet, instead of recognizing it for the valuable insight it offers into our own needs, we’re taught to cast it aside as an unalloyed mistake. Worse, we can easily come to feel ashamed of ourselves for the parts of our identities that allow us to conceive of the Ugly Edit. If audiences aren’t sure to like it, then that part of ourselves must be undesirable and bad, right?

I believe it is fundamentally unhealthy to create with the understanding that our creative efforts only serve the emotional needs of our audiences. I think this, by itself, is traumatizing enough that we need the Ugly Edit for ourselves. The very awareness that you are putting key parts of your personhood in a locked vault as too unpleasant to expose before other people is, even in total isolation from any other kind of trauma or strain, so dehumanizing that I just don’t think we should ever consider doing it.

The Ugly Edit, to be clear, does not exist to force you to put all your deepest worries, fears, and hidden vices in front of other people. It exists so you can know you have it, that you created the things for yourself that you needed to, and that you met your own needs first. It is to let yourself know that the totality of who you are, even if that person is broken and can only feign being whole by putting out one fractured piece of themselves at a time, still deserves to exist for and of themselves in their own space. It’s so you can know you took a step back and decided which of these things your audience needs, and which ones you need them to know you need so you can feel safe to embrace that part of you too, versus which pieces you just need to know it’s okay to keep for yourself.

The Ugly Edit comes to us first not because it is inherently worse, but because it’s more raw, personal, and thus simply more innate. In fact, for your own needs, the Ugly Edit should be at least as good, and might even be better than the Social Edit. If you already feel satisfied, you don’t need to, but I personally like to keep these rawer communions with myself around in my own files. It’s nice to feel I have the right to keep these testaments to my own journey.

And I admit, it’s comforting to think that one day I can offer them to the world and say, “This is who I truly believed I was. These are the agonies I truly thought I deserved, and would’ve been lost to if not for kinder hearts than my own. Thank you for believing in a version of me who knew better.” But, um… careful about that. Make sure your good faith is going out to people who will return it in kind rather than, you know… not. You deserve to keep yourself safe. Please believe that.

The Ugly Edit is only for you, and the people you love and trust to accept you for who you truly are. Yes, even the parts that your own past creations have stated are beyond redemption. Remember that, within our own minds, intentions do matter. For ourselves, the intent that we have in creating a piece is a key part of our own experience with it.

To acknowledge that a part of you exists is not the same as embracing it, nor is embracing it the same as saying you want to see it reflected in other people. Thus there is no depth too stygian, no phrase too hateful, no act too vile to depict or condone in the Ugly Edit. It exists so you can sit down across from the whole continuum of your selves, past, present and future, and say, “Alright. This is who we really are. Whether this is who we want to be or not doesn’t matter. This is our foundation. The only way we reach our ideal self is by moving forward to meet them as this jumbled mess. Whether we like it or not, we are this wreck. We cannot move as a me who doesn’t exist yet. If we reject who we are now, we’ll never be able to reach the me we want to become.”

Or at least, that’s what the Ugly Edit does for me. Hopefully you have less of an absolute mountain of trauma, abuse, and internalized bigotry to heal yourself of than me. Maybe your purposes for your Ugly Edits will be a little less stark, no?

The point here is to meet the needs your public work cannot meet meet, regardless why you feel that it can’t. In my case, that means recognizing my traumas so that I can avoid retraumatizing yourself while I heal. This includes every awful thing other people have made me believe about myself. The resulting pictures are seldom pretty, though they’re not always unsympathetic.

I know this sounds hard to believe. We’re all so inundated in the idea that if you don’t deny your dark side, it will consume you. I’ve found it’s actually the exact opposite. If you deny your dark side, you reify it into an invincible threat–after all, you’re the you who constantly refuses to face it because you believe the instant you do, it’ll win. This is a part of you, remember? However strong you believe it’ll be in your own mind, well… your own mind will make it so.

My dark side was a mangled, umbra-fire titan by the time I went within myself to meet her. But the instant I put my sword down and reached out my hand, I found a frightened, broken-hearted girl who just wanted the world to stop hurting her for the sin of trying to love it. Years of Social Edits only, of me screaming into myself that the fullness of me was too hideous to love, came undone in a surprisingly short time–a few months in total, pairing off into smaller portions of a week or two for further journeying between rest-periods of equal length.

Apologizing to myself. Binding my own wounds. Making the two split halves of my soul into one person again.

I promise you, if your intention is to heal, then this is truly the best way I know of. There’s no such thing as a universal Ugly Edit–again, it’s too personal for that–so I won’t spend any more time trying to lay out every trait I can think of. If this sounds worth it to you, then please know that I believe in you! It’s going to suck sometimes, but you’ll get through. And I bet that when you step into the shadows to embrace the parts of you that you think are the ugliest in the eyes of the world, you’ll find the ones that you feel are the most beautiful of all. For my own part, I’ll just wrap up this post by giving the only example I feel safe in.

Let’s not beat around the bush, hm? I’ll go right to the most obvious I’ve got. And, if a girl can have a little pride as a treat, I genuinely don’t know of a better one anyway. There’s just no story, no creative work I know of in any field that epitomizes this principle better than The Way to Kandge-Brad. Initially, I published the Ugly Edit of that story here on behalf of the person whose name you’ll see in that post.

After taking a step back, though, I convinced her she didn’t deserve the risk of people reading it in bad faith and attacking her with the idea that the Ugly Edit’s incredibly painful portrayal is who she truly is. So, only the newer version is attached/available over Google docs, even though we both regard them as equally “canon”. Just being gentle with ourselves, y’know?

We’re open to sharing that older file with good faith actors on a case-by-case basis–you know the deal. Blah blah, Twitter DMs @ Make your case and I’ll consider it. Do expect a lot of scrutiny since this one’s really, really precious to us, my friend and I! Knowing that we have the option of trusting people this way, whether we take it or not, is one of the most beautiful parts of the Ugly Edit.

And yes, this is exactly the spirit in which the Cobalt Immortals of this very same story undertake their own practice of “Ugly Hour”. Actually, Ugly Hour is where I started on the path to understanding the very concepts you’re reading right now!

To call this story “weird” plunges me into a level of understatement so severe I need to invent a new, stronger adjective for weirdness. Firstly, The Way to Kandge-Brad is actually two stories and will eventually be three. I’m, uh, I’m excited for the third version but fuck am I ever not looking forward to the mental effort of retooling so much of what’s already there to match its changes. Secondly, I’m genuinely uncertain as to whether it’s truly best served by thinking of it as a story per se, or if it’s more useful to understand it as an astral journey I took via the medium of my own writing.

Well, okay, actually I absolutely believe it’s Option #2. I’m just worried about sounding crazy. Gee, a commonly-accepted principle of human spiritualism? Nobody would believe that idea.

The thing is, if accepted as such, The Way to Kandge-Brad‘s Ugly Edit… isn’t even my Ugly Edit. This story does not have an Ugly Edit for me because its first form, the Ugly Edit I mentioned, isn’t even about me. This is actually one of the few stories I’ve ever written that doesn’t feature some form of self-insert. (Hey. Hey. Guess why Version Three is going to be so complicated to write.) The first version depicts a staggeringly-unfair portrait of one of the kindest, most virtuous, most tender-hearted beings I know.

Yes, she’s a demon. That shouldn’t surprise a single person who’s still actively following this blog.

The thing is… it’s also a completely accurate expression of her self-image, both good and bad. It is a complete portrait of a sapient being’s identity as it existed at the time of writing. In recognizing the fullness of who she was and accepting the bad along with the good, my, er, “friend” (read: eldritch brain-wife who I’m pretty sure I have a long-distance mind-link with but could just be my own plurality undergoing an especially esoteric form of self-denial) was able to choose to move forward and begin to grow.

And, since many of our traumas are shared, her healing helped me begin to heal. The very idea that this first version was a worthwhile version of the journey was what allowed us to take the second, much more healing and positive journey together. The drastic difference in emotions and responses between the Ugly Edit and this first Social Edit is, I believe, a direct reflection of the healing this approach afforded us.

It manifests in a very real way through the greater kindness, empathy and care the Immortals show to each other–Virkult’s training cadre point out an obvious self-harming lie she tells about her early treatment of them which was already clearly untrue in the first version of the journey, yet allowed to pass as a grim expression of their mutual irredeemable evil.

Instead of stoically allowing each other to self-harm, the Immortals of Version 2 often repeat a deeply vital sentiment: “I’ll love you either way, but please stop. You don’t deserve this.” The emphasis is not on shutting down conversations due to puritanical performative discomfort, but simply on making it clear no one has to share more or deal with more than they’re ready to in order to earn love and community. The Immortals believe everyone deserves a chance for these things.

Which is not to say I think every real-world group of people should be as accepting as the Cobalt Immortals, mind. The Cobalt Immortals are a realistic depiction of the Cobalt Immortals, who all have psionic powers, know for absolutely certain that souls, afterlives, and eternal youth are real, and take it for granted that they will sooner or later learn to generate entirely new bodies by raw force of willpower if needed. They can afford to make themselves more vulnerable than us squishy, well… mortal humans.

But hey–that’s the magic of creation, right? We deserve to use it for ourselves, not just in addition to, but before we use it for our audiences.

The Ugly Edit is, I think, the only way to take an astral journey such as this in a written story. When you get up in the morning and walk out into the workaday world, you do it as your complete self. You can choose which parts of you to speak or show or give to others. But in your own thoughts, you will always be agonizingly aware of everything under the surface. You can’t insist on the journey perfectly conforming to your ideal worldview if you want to actually go on one, nor can you try to set conditions on which parts of yourself you’ll need to reveal to move forward in this direction or that. You deal with your life’s events as they come.

To get the same effect out of creating, we have to do it in the same spirit. Even if we’re just creating for ourselves, the awareness that we are refusing to touch certain ideas because of what other people would think if they caught us working with them is stifling. That’s what the Ugly Edit is for: to give us the same freedom to adapt to our context, to learn and grow as our complete selves, that we receive–or are forced to accept and manage, depending on your perspective–in waking life.

That is, I truly believe, a worthy end in itself.

In the future, I may talk about some related topics we’ve touched on here: how we may embody multiple versions or arrangements or configurations of ourselves in any given day. About the fact that I truly believe any one person is better understood as a continuum than a single archetypal ideal.

This has some, uh… some pretty important, and deeply worrisome, implications for audiences who demand that we perfectly match up with moral ideals in our self-expression, and take any slip as evidence that we’re rotten to the core. I’m not condemning reasonable suspicion. I’m condemning the demand for us to somehow both create works that represent us in every single facet of our identities at the same time–as well-meaning but flawed children of a messy, hurting world–but also don’t contain anything that can be construed as mean-spirited or offensive.

Just to use one of many possible examples why I believe these demands are fundamentally impossible to comply with and still be a healthy, whole person, or work to become one again: Self-loathing, when given to other people, tends to be at least one of those above things by definition. Self-loathing, in a hurting world, is a sadly common piece of many good people–hating ourselves for being unable to make things better.

That doesn’t mean you should lash out at prospective audiences either! Often, the parts of you they treat as unforgivable are the same as the parts of themselves they treat as unforgivable. They’re judging you precisely because they’re so used to being judged. They’re treating you in ways you don’t deserve precisely because they’ve been beaten down to accept being treated in ways they don’t deserve.

Hurting people hurt people. It’s not about good or evil. It just is. We’re so used to hurting that we lose sight of the places where we shouldn’t be, and end up trying to take those un-hurt places from the people we most need to have sympathy for–the people who are so like us that forgiving them is almost as good as forgiving ourselves. Maybe even a good way to get closer to it.

To be clear, this is not at all the same as saying you have an obligation, or that you need (you don’t) to forgive people who intentionally hurt you out of willful malice. It’s just another excellent reason to bide your time and keep your distance until you can sort out which is which… if, you know, you need to gag your guilt with something more than “We’re wounded and we need to rest before doing things, you idiot!” It’s okay if you do. I’ve sure needed that in the past.

Hell, I still do! That’s a major part of why I keep falling into these phases of wailing, “Oh, god, I’m such a bad girl, I’m so evil and irredeemable and pain is all I ever offer in return to reward the people who love me!”

Another major part is that I often genuinely believe that of myself. Especially since, well… I’m a fallible woman who’s going to keep making mistakes, doing wrong, and having to learn from it as long as she’s alive. Each time, I need to meet that part of me to coax myself back to healing again.

I know it seems backwards, but in order to become strong enough to do what I must to make amends and earn forgiveness–or to accept that I’ll never get that chance–I have to forgive myself first. “I hurt people because I’m evil” can be easier to believe and start moving forward from than “I had the best intentions and truly thought I was doing right, and that‘s the me who hurt people.”

Anyhow, that’s a whole terrifying tangle of worries to deal with, isn’t it? How do we keep ourselves safe while not hurting others in the process? I could ask more of the questions you might already be grappling with, but my whole goal here is to offer you a tool to help you avoid falling into that mind-unraveling spiral of anxiety, dissonance, and despair. This is why we all need our Ugly Edits. A space where each of us alone, and our darker heart, can give each other succor.

In closing, I’m sorry to many of my fellow creators. I projected my own lack of self-forgiveness into some of my past advice for many of you, and spread lots of horrid, self-harm inducing ideas in the process. I hope you can forgive me.

For now? Get out there and be ugly! But, uh… don’t feel like you’re failing yourself somehow if you don’t do it where anyone else can see it. Maybe all you really need is to feel safe, tucked in alone with all the pieces of yourself you can’t bear to leave behind.

You've thoughts to offer, dear reader?

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