This post kicks off a new Bearings Online series on editors and editing. For this series, we asked editors to reflect on the particular joys and challenges of working with writers, and we will publish their responses every Thursday for four weeks.
Editors are often portrayed as imperious gatekeepers, minor sadists who thrill at tasks of correction and rejection. As an editor, I admit this is not entirely false. At times I whack writers’ prose with the unkempt joy my son takes in chopping kindling, and I dash off rejection letters with aplomb. But the dirty secret of the publishing industry is that editors are less heartless control freaks and more clingy hangers-on. We attach ourselves to writers whose work we love, literally hanging on their every word—yes, chopping some and altering others. But mostly hanging on for the ride.
I recently attended a writers’ conference where I was pleased to meet some of my authors. Some I had previously met in person, but others only as voices in a phone or small squares of light on my computer screen. My authors: I do not use the possessive pronoun lightly. I know it suggests proprietorship, a claim to another’s creative labors. Some of the writers I edit may object, and rightly so; I do not own them, nor their words. Yet at times I have heard, with a flush of pleasure, them also laying claim to me. “This is my editor,” one said, introducing me to a friend at the conference. “Stop by the exhibit hall and meet my editor!” another chirped on social media.
I do not mind this evocation of belonging, even kinship. There is an intimacy that develops between writer and editor—if not quite the tie of family, still the communion of mind and heart. The authors I work with are writing about things that matter, and matter deeply: Jesus. Race. Marriage. Violence. They are disclosing their souls, in portions commensurate with their topic and balanced with Scripture and Spirit and world. They are writing about memories long submerged, about injustices and furies of the present age, about futures unformed. My authors are crafting rough drafts and brainstorming chapter headings and tracking down page numbers and searching for inspiration. Many are also parenting and working regular jobs and caring for aging parents and leading worship and wiping down kitchen counters at midnight after baking cookies for the youth group lock-in.
Eventually, though, they write the very last word of their drafts and send their manuscripts to me, sometimes shy and cautious and other times so relieved that they end their emails with three exclamation points. I open up their documents, and I start reading. Because I belong to them, too, as their editor I try to read prayerfully, generously. Too often I read hastily, because there are so many words to get through in a day, or crossly, because minutes earlier I argued with a surly teenager walking out the front door. But eventually I slow my scan to a skim and then my skim to a deep, slow, attentive read.
Because I am their editor, it is my job, then, to place red lines through certain sentences and to point out the absence of others. I dig up paragraphs and transplant them to a different spot, suggest lines of argument that might work better for this or that audience. Sometimes I even say, well, I think you must start over on this chapter because, let’s be honest, right now it is not earning its keep.
Given the spiritual and emotional pitch of these labors, this confluence of struggle and creativity and gospel, how could we not lay claim to each other?
But what my writers may not know, and what I only rarely admit, is how often I envy their work. At times when I am reading one of their manuscripts, I gasp at the brilliance of a word or close my eyes at the beauty of a line. At times I long to have been the writer rather than the editor in this arrangement. When you are a reader, the thrill of someone else’s perfect sentence is exquisite, pure. But when you are a writer, the reading enterprise can suddenly erupt into jealousy and longing.
Editors are readers, and many of us are also writers—or would-be writers, or has-been writers, or if-there-were-more-time-in-a-day writers. Our work brings us into constant proximity with those whose work we love and admire. So maybe jealousy is just an occupational hazard, as it is for any profession in which you collaborate with those you aspire to be: NBA coaches, orchestra conductors, accountants for the very wealthy.
But envy is also one of the seven cardinal sins, along with pride, greed, lust, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. Scripture repeatedly warns against covetousness, starting right in with the Decalogue. My neighbor’s wife, ox, or donkey have never been the objects of my desire, but my neighbor’s prose has, and with that reality I must reckon. “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind,” James tells us—which should be enough to warn all of us jealous editors away from our sin. For what could be worse than disorder?
Still, overcoming envy is easier said than done, and I mostly fail. The most self-actualized editors among us learn to keep their covetousness in check, perhaps even to render it useful. The rest of us muddle through and hope our envy doesn’t show. Just last week I read chapters from one of my authors, a homemaker in Kansas, and flinched in both jealousy and joy at her description of the “flood of larks” above her on a country road. I read and re-read her paragraph about harvesting wheat with her husband, Matt:
“There were several does in the area, does with new fawns. It was amazing to realize that Matt was spending his days in gold: cutting the ripe gold wheat, watching the golden grain pour into the bin, and watching it again as it poured into the truck. At sundown (the sun was golden) when the does bedded down for the night, he watched for small golden fawns, just the color of the wheat, that might get caught in the header. Even though he was covered with dust, even though he had to tend the monitors on the combine, had to teach the boys how to run the grain cart, had to make sure all the equipment was full of fuel and running properly, still, he was flooded with gold, all that gold!”
I read her writing aloud to my father when he called in the afternoon, and I sent it to two colleagues because I couldn’t bear to keep it to myself.
Do I covet this writer’s way with words? Yes. But covet isn’t quite the right verb; I need a word for this alloy of envy and delight and gratitude I feel when I read her work. There must be such a thing as holy jealousy, this bright flame that burns us not out but in toward God, toward the sublime. “Why do you look with envy, O many-peaked mountain,” writes the psalmist, “at the mount that God desired for his abode, where the Lord will reside forever?” Frederic Fysh’s 1851 lyrical translation of the Psalm frames the question in an even more delicious way: “Why are ye piqued, ye peaked mountains?”
So many Scripture passages flare with judgment of those who envy the wicked. But the Kansas housewife is far from wicked, so those verses help me only a little. Here, in Psalm 68, is a jealousy I can get my head around. Here I detect empathy from the writer for the “many-peaked” mountain that gazes resentfully at the place that God has chosen to dwell. It’s as if the psalmist identifies with that jagged, jealous peak—as if he, too, has looked with longing at another writer who found words in which God has chosen to lodge.
This returns us to a probable cause for the possessiveness I feel about my authors: simply put, when I attach myself to their words, I draw close to God. Perhaps the peaked mountain, rather than fight its jealous pique, can sidle up to the place where the Lord resides. Perhaps holy envy can purify rather than smolder. Perhaps it can flood us with gold—all that gold.
So I am learning not to begrudge writers—“mine” or anyone else’s—their radiant sentences, their liquid paragraphs about larks and wheat and sundown and fawns. When I hang on to their words, they lead me up the mountain of God. I am their editor, and they are my writers. For a short time we belong to each other. Forever we belong to God.