Sunday, January 18, 2015

Where are the editors?

Not perky, but human - I actually got dressed this afternoon for a meeting here, a review of the Babe in the Barn pageant with suggestions for next year. But I will take it very easy until class tomorrow evening, with only Downton on tap for tonight. It's a flu bug, I think, fended off before it dug itself in too deeply. Ah, the power and glory of chicken soup and rest.

Spent last evening in bed reading Plum Johnson's memoir "They Left Us Everything," which I was happy to learn has been nominated for the Charles Taylor Non-fiction Prize, the biggest non-fiction prize in the country. Happy - because it's a personal-type memoir as opposed to the fact-heavy non-fiction books about politics or history that have dominated the list other years. This year there are several memoirs on the list. THERE'S HOPE FOR US YET.

But I had problems with the book. Mostly - as so often - I was left asking, "Where was the editor?" The book is a fun, lively and often moving saga about the last years and deaths of her very strong elderly parents, and the herculean task of clearing out the family home, a lake-side Oakville mansion packed to the rafters with stuff. The writing was fluid and vivid, the story entertaining, at least for those of us who've been there and done something like that - and she has a fascinating family to boot.

But the book was much too long, lengthy descriptions of the lake, many many family gatherings, many openings of boxes and meanderings off into other issues which are touched on lightly and then vanish. Wayson was here recently with a book written by the daughter of a very famous Canadian author, a novel that has achieved great reviews and international distribution, but which he said was greatly over-written. He showed me - from the first page, sentences sagging under the weight of adjectives, often five in a row, viz, "Her expression was calm, unruffled, serene, placid, unemotional ..." Etc.

The writers I edit for know the wrath of my red pen. CUT! PICK ONE! LESS IS MORE! I repeat. But no one did for this novelist, and no one did for Plum Johnson.

Of course, I know how it happens. It happened to me during the last So True event - I'd decided to talk about being an actress, I'd practiced my riveting talk which, it turned out, was way too long. Tedious. I will try not to make that mistake again. It's our job to come up with a lot of stuff, then to try to see what doesn't work ourselves and take it out, and then to turn it over to someone who will help us cut a great deal more. As I say to my students, there are two important parts of a memoir: what you put in, and what you leave out. Which is just as important.

While we're on the topic of self-editing ... a New Yorker article on Beethoven quotes his negativity about his own life and work. "Everything I do apart from music is badly done and stupid," he once wrote, and later, about his late string quartets which many feel are the pinnacle of Western civilization's creative achievements, he wrote only, "Thank God, there is less lack of imagination than ever before."

That was as much self-praise as he could muster. Let's remember, when we get discouraged, just what Beethoven means in the world today.

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