Just Another Writer–Chapter 9

Chapter Nine

If you’re reading this on my blog and it’s been a month since Chapter Eight, let me recap. I got back from the book tour for Against Rape what we called in our family slang “motionly and fizzily zhausted.” (I suppose it says something about my family that we had a baby-talk version of that particular phrase. Ah, well.) With my beloved little sister, I opened my second store, a kind of crafts supply store cum batik workshop, and continued to do appearances from time to time about the book and its subject. When I decided to go to Europe before my thirtieth birthday, I sold my collected treasures and took a free-lance editing job to raise the cash.

After doing the job, from time to time, for more than a quarter of a century, I can say that it takes a particular kind of person to be an editor. You have to know the language well, of course, although judging from the copyedits I sometimes get back on my own manuscripts, many publishers seem willing to overlook that qualification. Next, you need the patience to see the language mangled and react by trying to fix it, rather than by showering imprecations on the writer and throwing things against the wall. You need to be able to think your way out of a brown paper bag because most writers can’t and you will have to guide them. Most good editors also have remarkably large vocabularies. (The better to curse you with, my dear.)

When I said I wouldn’t make generalizations about writing, I didn’t say anything about editing.

If I remember correctly, I got that first editing job through Bob Nelson. A client of his was publishing a test of some kind, and the author of the test had written a short book explaining its methodology. It contained a lot of theoretical material, and the publisher wanted someone to make the language a little clearer and more accessible.

How can I explain how bad this manuscript was? It was not particularly ungrammatical, in the narrowest meaning of that term. It was, instead, incomprehensible. And not just incomprehensible. There were sentences, paragraphs, even pages with no meaning. I’m not saying that the meaning was difficult to discern. I’m saying that there was no meaning in the words on the page, as arranged, AT ALL.

How could this be, you ask? Well, let me jump ahead several years to a time when I was helping a group of artists write their artistic statements for an exhibit. I agreed to do this in exchange for a small piece of art by one of my very talented friends in the exhibit, and I must say that most of the other artists were also talented. It was really a good exhibit.

The artistic statements on the other hand were . . .  I remember one moment with great clarity because it was a watershed in my understanding of writing. A sculptor and I were sitting over tea at my kitchen table, with her first draft in front of us. I had just read it two or three times and was looking into my tea leaves for inspiration. I asked, “How did you write this? What was your process?” (I was doing my best to speak her language.)

The sculptor said, “Well, I thought of all the words and phrases that seemed to apply to my work and then I put them together into sentences.”

I said, without irony, “Have you ever considered thinking out what you want to say about your work and writing that down?”

“Oh, that’s an interesting approach,” she said.

I’m not making this up.

In a way, it was a good thing that first manuscript I edited was such a mess. I had absolutely no experience as a copyeditor. I didn’t even know proofreading marks. I made a photocopy of a list of them from a book in the library and put it above my desk, but a real publisher would have spotted me as an imposter from the getgo. However, having been both a high school debater and a philosophy major, I was trained in logic. I was able to look at a sentence or a paragraph in context and figure out what the author ought to be saying at that point. Then I’d write that, replacing the original paragraph. When I could, I used some of the jargon from the original, but sometimes I just couldn’t. So I just threw the whole paragraph out and replaced it.

I also rearranged the manuscript to give it a structure. I have learned, over the years, that I am ridiculously linear in my thinking, and I take that into account when I am tempted to be critical of a writer whose thought processes are more . . . uninhibited. Some authors think from A to B to E, and, as an editor, I consider carefully before filling in C and D. This one thought from A to Q to J, and there wasn’t any question of preserving his poetic arc. He was writing a manual for people who were going to administer tests. To people. People whose jobs and livelihoods were at stake.

At any rate, I plowed through the pages at night, or when someone else had a shift in the store and I didn’t have other work to do, and completed it in good time. The publisher was very happy, and the author of the manual was ecstatic. He had never encountered an editor who was able to improve his writing with so few changes. (!)

Then I organized a garage sale. For years I had been collecting stuff. Until I started writing history, my fascination with the past was almost entirely focused on acquiring things that were older than I was. I had  a passionate attachment to objects from the past, whether they’re old baking powder cans or hand-made lace. Old things call out to me when I see them in a thrift shop or even in an alley.

When I was working for the Press, there was a moving and storage place next door that I passed every day, and I could see through the window that they had old furniture on display. After awhile I decided to drop in on my lunch hour to look around. At the back, behind the furniture, I found trunks. This was a very old business, and there were things that had been left in storage there since the early years of the twentieth century and even before. From time to time they brought out the contents of a locker that had been abandoned and sold the contents, including whatever was in the trunks.

This was the late sixties and early seventies, and the rage for antiques and vintage items had not yet started. As a result, I was able to buy handmade lace for a quarter. I bought a Victorian dress with mutton chop sleeves, whalebone stays and a handmade lace ruche for five dollars. My parents got me box seats to see Katherine Hepburn in Coco for my birthday, and I wore my dress with great pride. James went with me and did not act embarrassed, bless him.

Anyway. By the time I was nearing thirty and ready to go to Europe, I had boxes full of antique finery. I put it all out at my garage sale. I had decided that I could bear selling my only treasures if they would buy me a great adventure, and that’s what I intended my trip to be. I wasn’t going for a few weeks to look at tourist sights. I would stay for four months and discover life in a different world. (I’d read an awful lot of nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century novels. I really had.)

With what I had left from my royalties and the results of my sale, I had enough to buy my ticket and keep me going for a time. The check from the editing would come while I was in Europe, giving me an infusion of funds to pay for the rest of my stay.

Saying good-bye to places, like the store, was not particularly difficult for me at that time. (It got harder as I got older.) I suppose that’s because my family moved around so much when I was growing up. Anyway, I was always more interested in where I was going next than in what I was leaving behind. I left Raw Materials without a backward glance. Of course, it helped that Sara had already moved to San Diego, Judy was going away to college, Andra would be coming to visit me in London, and the rest of the weird crew–James, Paul, Kathryn, Christine, et. al–would be there in Chicago when I got back

Like every other impoverished young person of the 1970s, I would be flying Icelandic Airlines into Luxembourg. Then I would take train and boat into London. Because I knew from my reading that European train stations were unheated and the trains themselves not toasty, I made myself a kind of cape/poncho that would serve as a blanket. I think I got the pattern from Good Housekeeping. It was a very clever design, and I was able to sew it by hand. That was important because I have a fear of sewing machines.

I carried a suitcase, instead of using a backpack, because I had heard that backpackers got hassled at customs, but I found a cloth suitcase with a shoulder strap. I took skirts so that I would be less conspicuously an American tourist. I had never been so well prepared for anything in my life.

Finally, the day came. James drove me to the airport and walked me to the gate, which was possible in those days. As I took off on my Grand Tour, I realized I had left my ingenious poncho on the kitchen table. It was early spring and I was going to London without a coat. That would turn out to be the very least of my problems.

Click here for Chapter Ten


8 Responses to Just Another Writer–Chapter 9

  1. Jan Gleiter says:

    Please, please, PUH-LEEZE post these chapters with more rapidity. It drives me crazy (whether that’s a drive or a putt is not the issue) to have to wait so long for another installment. Quit cooking; quit making a living; quit whatever else you’re doing. Just work on this book! Also, let me add my request to what must be a veritable chorus of pleas that the next time you mention your autoharp, you include some of the lyrics you wrote for songs.

  2. Mary nagle says:

    Yes, I agree with Jan, don’t make us wait. I care about the characters and want to know what is next. Perhaps because I am the same age as you Kathleen I can understand the times you write about and enjoy reminiscing as I read each chapter. Thanks for sharing and thanks to Mike for informing me about it on Face book.

  3. Ellyn says:

    This is my favorite chapter so far, which I say every time I read a new one! Agree with Jane, get cracking!!! Can’t wait for more.

  4. Ellyn says:

    No Jan not Jane, sorry JAN!!!

  5. Penny and Irene says:

    I don’t mind waiting. It’s like sitting in the kitchen with bread in the oven.


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