Everyone needs an editor

Young people can be so arrogant. Why is that the humans who know the least seem to think they know it all?

I remember when I was in college, taking journalism classes, and I was already making money from freelance writing. The school newspaper editor accidentally gave me the same assignment she’d given another student, and in a fit of frustration I announced to several other mass comm majors that, “I do this for a living and I don’t have time for this.”

Well, that was an idiotic thing to say.

Little did I know that it was exactly my job to factor in time for and be understanding of other people’s mistakes, because in the coming years I would make plenty of my own. When I got my first newspaper job, there were times my bosses could have fired me for making stupid mistakes, but they didn’t.

Overconfidence has never been one of my problems, except when I was younger and when it came to writing. I had gotten a little smug because of comments my English teachers wrote on my essays and because I’d won a few awards and professors sometimes tapped me when they needed a writing tutor. I didn’t know at 20 that as soon as I got my first job working with other professional writers and editors that I would no longer be the best writer in the room at any given time. I didn’t know that by 37 I would have collected far more rejection slips than acceptances. I didn’t know that when I decided to leave journalism and become a teacher, I would tell school administrators in job interviews how I would make a good writing teacher since I’d paid my bills as a writer and their response would be something like, “That’s nice, but we’ve got 19 other candidates, most of whom have experience and master’s degrees, so …”

At 20 years old, you don’t know what you don’t know.

So it shouldn’t surprise me now when the teens I teach come off as a bit naïve when it comes to writing and other aspects of life. Some think it’s OK to just write what they want with no regard for punctuation, formatting or intended audience. Some think profanity makes their writing impactful and thought-provoking.

Yes and no.

But mostly no.

If you turn something in to an editor and he can’t understand what you’re trying to say because you don’t believe in punctuation, then chances are you’ll get a rejection slip.

Imagine checking your inbox and seeing this query: “Dear editor, please consider this $****!@ piece that I dashed off in a fit of rage. I am actually an excellent writer, as you will see, and I am angry at the world today, which is what makes this $***!@#$$ story so unique, because my anger and rage is a revolutionary kind that will inspire your readers. And if you don’t like it, I don’t care because I am an awesome writer. &***** you!”

In my experience, you can’t make much of a living that way, and it’s hard enough to make a living as a writer. In fact, I’m not sure I’d recommend it.

The most successful writers I’ve interviewed – people who’ve written multiple books and gotten advances from publishers – have told me that they couldn’t really pay all of their bills through writing. A lot of them are married to someone who makes a good salary and that’s why they can afford to be writers. Or they have large trust funds. The sad truth is that you can be pretty talented and the world just may not care enough to pay you a living wage for it. I always struggle with how much of this I should say to young writers because the reality of it is discouraging.

The best writers I’ve met almost all have the same advice: Write because you enjoy it, because there’s no guarantee you’ll ever be published, and even if you are, you probably won’t make that much money.

At least most of my students have that part down – writing for themselves and not for some imaginary editor or audience. In fact, they are better at it than I am. This is why they tell me they don’t need punctuation. I continue to argue that they do, and that they should be able to edit one another’s work, and that they should seriously consider the suggestions of other writers and editors.

They write and read about what’s important to them, and I’m always grateful when it isn’t too dark or disturbing. Yesterday a student of mine read a poem about hair by Gwendolyn Brooks. I told the class that poem was proof it’s OK to write about hair. It’s OK to write about how, when you were 6, you refused to eat anything but macaroni and cheese. Not everything you write has to be fueled by visceral rage or profound discontent.

I do understand, though, why they think good writing should stir the emotions. I often want to write about hair and other such feminine topics, but I feel like the world won’t approve because I’m 37 years old and I should be writing one of those really depressing stories about midlife.  About cancer or divorce, or getting a divorce when your spouse has cancer. In the age of the viral personal essay, it seems those are the kinds of stories people my age are supposed to write. I read them in the middle of the night when I have insomnia, and despite being somber, many are quite interesting.

After she read the Gwendolyn Brooks poem, I remarked that we ladies think about our hair more than we care to admit. One of my students said she no longer cares about her hair. I told her I didn’t believe that. Some of us sick individuals care as much about our hair as our writing, though you might not know it to look at us. Recently, while reading depressing essays in the middle of the night, I stumbled on an ad for a new product that you put in your hair before you go to sleep and it guarantees you good hair for four days afterward. In the interest of honesty, I will tell you that I plan to go straight out and buy it.

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Don’t call me ‘sensitive’

We’d had a rough morning at home with the kids fighting and my husband and I hurling invectives at each other about the messy house.

I’m not sure whether he meant to say that I am a useless person because I can’t hold down a full-time job, keep a tidy home and also remodel it as necessary, but that is what I kept hearing.

So at noon I packed up my two kids and took them to Red Lobster, a restaurant they’ve never been to. Going into a restaurant with no playground is such a deviation from our normal routine that I felt as if I might be ready to enter a new phase of life. In America, we call this phase of childhood the ‘tweens. For adults, it’s called the midlife crisis.

Now that my son is almost 10 and my daughter is nearly 7, my role in their lives at home sometimes feels perfunctory. We wake them up for school, do their laundry, nag them to do their homework and brush their teeth. I serve them dinner. If we have conversations, I’m talking to them while thinking about the next pile I’ve got to clean up.

Our lunch with just me and the kids at a restaurant where you sit down and have a conversation before the meal felt like one of those every-other-weekend deals that I imagine divorced parents experience. I’d stepped out of my chore box and I was seeing my two kids in a new light, or feeling that way myself. Somehow our discussion came around to personal finance, and they were surprised when I told them that some people are quite wealthy for a short period of time, but if they’re not careful, it’s pretty easy to go from bourgeois to broke.

I told my son Oliver I didn’t think that would happen to him, though, because he’s one of the most cautious people I’ve ever met, and he knows the value of pretty much anything that takes up space. He may not ever get rich, but once he acquires something, he is not quick to part with it.

Take, for example, a pair of pants I once ordered for myself from Land’s End. When they came in the mail, I was shocked and appalled to find they looked nothing on me like they did on the 6-foot-tall, 110-pound, 18-year-old model in the photo.

I was going to send the pants back, but Oliver entered a plea: “Give them to me,” he said. He was serious. “Waste not, want not” is one of his mottos, although he doesn’t know it. He keeps all of his baby teeth. I once handed him a gummy vitamin which he accidentally dropped on the floor. Oliver doesn’t eat things once they’ve touched the floor, but he also doesn’t throw them away. Oliver has great difficulty discarding anything.

“Just put it in the trash,” I told him. His eyes did not leave mine as he pulled a plastic sandwich baggie from a kitchen drawer and carefully placed the gummy vitamin inside before leaving it on the counter. Then we burst into laughter at what we both knew was a little bit of absurdity. What can I say? If my son was six years older, he’d make a great John Green character.

I like that he is cautious and I told him so. It’s one of his uniquenesses. We all need uniquenesses. Unfortunately, mine seems to be that I always look sad and tired, even when I’m not particularly. It works for Grumpy Cat, and I don’t understand why it doesn’t for me.

Since I was on a roll, telling Oliver about all the things I like about him, I decided to mention that I am so grateful he is a sensitive person. For Oliver, being sensitive is linked with being tenacious, sentimental and orderly. He develops attachments easily to people, places and things.

I was thinking about how it’s a trait that is increasingly rare in a world where you could be reading a poem, or talking about how your cat just died, or the world is about to end, and a lot of folks will just keep right on texting.

Oliver goes through a period of mourning every time one of his fish dies, and he has a lot of fish.

But he didn’t think it was great that I had called him sensitive.

“That’s the worst insult I’ve ever heard!” he said, looking at his sister for support.

“Do you think I’m sensitive?” he asked her.

“Mom, she’s way more sensitive than me. I mean, she cries over everything,” he continued.

I asked him what was so awful about being sensitive and he said that maybe it would be OK if he was a girl, but he isn’t.

I see, I told him. Although I hadn’t meant it as an insult, I do know how it can be hard to interpret certain comments on our character.

I told him about the time I was 11 and my own father said he didn’t think I’d want children because I’d probably grow up to be someone who was absorbed by my job and social life. I didn’t like it. I knew at age 11 that even if I was self-centered, I didn’t always want to be.

Of course, not everyone who knew me thought I was a strong, independent female. I was annoyed when a college boyfriend remarked smugly, “You’ll probably be married by the time you’re 25.”

He was right. I did end up getting married at 24, and not to him. But I was pretty sure his comment was a more of a jab at my conventionally acceptable behavior than it was an implication that any man would be lucky to have me.

And then there are the comments that sound like compliments, but carry a subtext of resentment. These can be filed under the “That Must Be Nice” category.

Just a couple of days ago someone told me I had a nice house. I said thanks, but I wondered if there was some unspoken message, such as “and you don’t deserve it,” or maybe something more along the lines of “for the likes of you.”

That’s probably not what he meant. People say “you have a nice house” like they say “I like your haircut” or “this pie is delicious.”

I guess if somebody called me “sensitive” I might imagine it was their way of saying I’m a basket case, because, you know, it’s true sometimes.

What others mean to say about us isn’t always what we infer, and sometimes what we hear has more to do with our own insecurities than anything else.

I told Oliver that even though sensitivity may be associated with femininity and weakness, I didn’t mean that he was either of those things. What I meant was that he is a rare, perceptive, and observant person.

I’m not sure why, but it took a change of scenery and a digression from our normal routine in order for me to remember that I love those things about him.