The Editor as Ally

I went to a talk on Sunday at a nearby writers’ group meeting, given by my friend, the writer and editor Hugh Coyle. Hugh has been working for seven years on an historical novel about Alfred Nobel, Bertha von Suttner, and the tensions between them that ultimately led to a more peaceful Europe. But his talk last weekend was about the multiple roles of the editor, which he had been for decades with a major scholastic publisher. The editor is often cast as an intellectual opponent, constraining the author’s creative impulses. But in Hugh’s experience, and in my own, the role of the editor has been much more positive.

I’ve been blessed for the past two books to work with Elizabeth Branch Dyson, senior editor at the University of Chicago Press. In her role, she has said yes to two projects, thank god for that. But she’s done a ton of other things. She’s represented the books to her colleagues; she’s offered precision diagnosis of the problems that a draft presents, and given me time to rebuild a manuscript; she’s given me a commission to write a book that she’d always wanted to represent; and she periodically drops me a line with something she’s read that she thinks might spur an op-ed. She has made both The PhDictionary and The Adjunct Underclass into far better books than they might have been.

Almost ten years ago, I was approached by an editor for the weekly newspaper North Coast Journal. A friend who wrote for them was talking with her about an article idea, and he said that I’d be the right person to write it. So the editor, Carrie Peyton Dahlberg, worked with me for a month on an article about people who have left the gorgeous and economically tenuous landscape of the northern California coast for other lives, and who look back with really mixed feelings about their decisions. I did half a dozen interviews of other Humboldt County departees who (like me) loved their years there but ultimately made other decisions about their professional lives, and put together a first draft that was pretty good.

But Carrie saw through it. Or rather, saw more deeply into it. She focused on one interview, with a married couple who disagreed with one another about their time in Humboldt County and their satisfactions with their new home in Sacramento. I’d included it as merely one among the others, but she knew that foregrounding the tension within just that one household would amplify the ache within all of us who loved it there but who finally had to go. And the article that resulted was vastly better than the one I’d first submitted.

And then yesterday, I had a late afternoon glass of wine with my dear friends Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith, powerful writers and editors who have built their careers around women’s history, particularly of the American West. They had graciously read the first draft of my current novel Trailing Spouse, and they rekindled my own faith in it.

Writers talk all the time about “being too close” to a work and “no longer able to see it,” but those are vague complaints. One of the specific symptoms is in the writer’s understanding of a work’s pace. The pace of a scene is actually three different experiences. One is how long the event would have played out in real time, the thirty-second argument or the thirty-year war. A second is how long it takes to read it: one night in a diner could be an entire book, a decades-long career compressed into a couple of paragraphs. But the third is how long it took the writer to write it. That thirty-second argument might have taken me two weeks to come to grips with, and it now just feels slow, leaden, nearly inert. It takes an external reader to experience it at full trot after I’ve worked on it frame by frame.

Another symptom is that the writer’s work is segmented, and the reader’s work is connected. Part of my experience of working on Trailing Spouse has been the number of times that I’ve set it aside for something other: work on marketing the nonfiction, work on interviews and side articles from that, work on behalf of our tiny town as we volunteer for projects that other larger cities have full-time staff to do. The novel has come in opportunistic hours. And I’ve read parts of it here and there at my writers’ groups, which doubles the emphasis on having ten good pages rather than on how those ten live within two hundred. So the novel has come to feel like a drawer full of shiny beads, all pretty on their own but not strung together into a composition.

For these and other reasons, the writer absolutely cannot make reliable judgment about the quality of the work. And at their kitchen table yesterday, Linda and Ursula saw the book in ways that I could not. They breathed new life into it, not merely cheerleading for it but seeing through it, finding possibilities I hadn’t explored. That’s what editors do.

I’m grateful for all of the editors I’ve worked with for thirty years, from magazine editors to dissertation advisors to journalism teachers. They’ve all sent me back for one last pass when I thought I was exhausted, have seen the work that could be hidden within the work that is.