Thursday, January 8, 2015

An Editor's Notes to His Writer Self

When you were a student at the university level, your notebooks were filled one of two things, notes or doodles.  Because of events much earlier in your life, related to penmanship, dip pens, desks with inkwells, and everyone in your class but you having a sturdy, bright red, dip pen, which signified their advancing to the good penmanship club, you used a fountain pen to take your university notes or make your doodles.

Fountain pens, then and now, were and are your way of telling yourself these instruments are tools you intend to master, respect, and enjoy as a valued friend along the roads you have chosen to tread.

Thanks to a friend who was a graphic and fine artist, your university-level fountain pen was filled with Higgins eternal black ink, which somehow gave your doodles a more accomplished presence, and imparted to your notes a modest approximation of printed text.

The differences in your notebooks between notes and doodles were in direct correspondence to your rate of interest or your affliction with boredom.  The handwritten notes often filled the lines with word-for-word reports of the lecture at hand, with the possibility of books or essays related to the subject.  Your pre-emoticon doodles indicated your particular enthusiasm for a statement or observation from the professor.  

Notes were meant to be reviewed during and after a course ran its arc, leaving you with a sense of having the class brought to life as a personality.  The least of good notes helped you prepare for exams.  Notes at their best helped you organize the impressions necessary to make the kinds of connections that helped you hold a story or poem or novel or essay in place and in context.  To you, notes were stepping stones to a view at the parade of the literature you were studying, shaping the pathways of the things you wished to write.

Away from the university, bridges rapidly burning away from any landfalls leading to meaningful work beyond writing and the insights attending writing, such money you produced went into the tools you needed for writing, paper, typewriter ribbons, carbon paper, envelopes, postage stamps, the yearly editions of Writers' Markets and Novel and Short Story Writers' Markets.  For the longest time, notes meant the boiler plate on rejection slips or letters, then the occasional "Try us again," and one you often got from The Atlantic Monthly, "You write with a skill that has held your attention," a noted you soon discovered was also boiler plate, but at least boiler plate of a higher plateau.

You actually began giving notes before you got notes of any significance for your own work.  As an assistant editor, then a more generic editor, then a senior editor, your major chore was writing reports on submissions that had progressed beyond the cursory winnowing readings, expressing visions of the strengths and weaknesses of a particular project, what steps were necessary to give it an even, authoritative voice.

At about this time, you made the connection you considered necessary between the term "author" and the term "authoritative."  To be authoritative, one needed a notable narrative presence, confident, reflective, certain of itself, even if the topics at hand were negative ones such as despair, hopelessness, helplessness.  

Through what amounts to the reverse osmosis of giving notes to the editorial committee of which you were a part, arguing with a publisher who was well-informed only about twentieth-century art, and a sales manager who did not seem to grasp the need for implication and evocation in acquired manuscripts, you began to develop approaches to giving notes to the authors whose works were taken on for publication.  

From the giving of notes, you began to look at your own writing, beyond the artificial horizon you'd set for it, all the way to seeing your characters reacting to things you'd previously felt but did not know how to articulate. 

Somewhere in this process of providing what editors are trained by their jobs to accomplish, you began to regard editing as an amalgamation of being a paramedic, a diagnostician, and, thanks to one book you almost-but-not-quite contracted, a chiropractor.  This combination was romantic, in the face of advice you'd been given to keep your editing approaches as functional and non-emotional as possible.

Ignoring this advice was a huge step forward, allowing you to give notes that reflected the voice and intent of the manuscript rather than your own approach to the material.  This was big; you saw how liberating it was for you, in a way you'd never expected. You were taking on the combined role of the manuscript, listening to it, not as you wished it to be, rather as you heard it wishing to be.

In a real sense, as an editor, you must do what the actor does in preparation to portray an individual other than him or herself.
Some of the skilled editors you know have been able to accomplish this understanding much earlier in their careers than you in yours as an editor.  Some skilled actors are able to achieve this ability to observe and detach in order to engage at early points in their career.  Some skilled writers seem to emerge from their early works with this knowledge well in control.

Here you are now, caught up in taking on a book in which you are bringing together for the storyteller some of the many techniques an actor uses to leave the individual host behind in order to become another person altogether.  And here you are, attempting this leap in order to teach yourself how to become all the cranky, excited, pestered individuals who are squatting rent free in the attic and basement of the building where you thought yourself to be the sole tenant.

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