Lately, I’ve been feeling like an editor. It’s not a bad thing.
By chance, always by chance, I came across a wonderful book by Betsy Lerner, a former book editor and current book agent. I like to think that fate brings me to the same authors over and over again and that these writers carry me through various critical moments in my life even though I gravitate towards certain sections of the bookstore (fiction and literature, cooking, biography, etc.) Having stopped in Moe’s between classes, I was in a hurry to attend my next class but the fastest passage out of the tightly packed bookstore was blocked. To avoid a rather large and surly man who had parked himself in between “New Non Fiction” and “Sale Literature,” I took a right into “Resources For Writers,” a section I normally avoid. It’s populated by writers whose take on craft is often too personal or narrow for me to truly learn from. Their advice, though varying in degree, never strays too far from what I already know: write what you know; set a schedule; write everyday; don’t kill yourself, etc. etc. But the cover of “The Forest For the Trees” caught my eye (pencils that sprout into trees) along with the author’s name. I picked the book up, knowing in the back of my head that I would be late for Milton; after all, I had just become reacquainted with an old friend.
Six years ago in New York City, I teetered on the brink of self-destruction. I was a college student, but went seldom to class except to turn in poorly written papers. Instead I divided my waking moments between a twenty-four hour grocery store near my dorm and the cozy interior of Shakespeare and Co. and similar bookstores. Thus: when I wasn’t buying pints of ice cream, pots of double clotted cream, Oreos and scones, I was in a bookstore trying to feed what psychologically, was the same hunger. No drugs, no alcohol, just sugar and salt to (vainly) satiate some insatiable loneliness. One afternoon, after a particularly loathsome episode which most likely involved all four aforementioned foods, I came across “Food and Loathing,” Lerner’s memoir about her struggles with her weight. She had written it after her first book, “The Forest for the Trees,” but looking back, I am grateful to have read them in reverse order.
“Food and Loathing” was a paper mirror: two hundred or so pages written by a woman I had never met and who was many years older. At her core however, she was essentially the same person as I. She was a writer. I aspired to be one. She had come to New York to do an MFA; I too, was a student in New York. The city was a foodie’s heaven, but we were bingers, not foodies, and thus we were in hell. I hated the book because one hates the ugly parts of ones reflection but loved the book because she was I and her words, my thoughts.
Lerner’s book did not propel me out of my despair as I had hoped it would, but like a good friend her words held my hand and sat with me in the dim dorm room and showed me that I was not alone. The sad irony of course is that everyone struggling with their weight knows they are not alone, that there is most likely (especially in college) a girl next door going through the same self-inflicted ordeal, but like the desire to become a writer, it is a lonely struggle and as much as we would like to, we seldom talk about it.
Eventually, I returned home and in the warmth of family and friends, reestablished myself as something more than just a mouth, stomach, fat. The rewiring of my brain took some time – in fact, it is undeniably a work in progress; sometimes the wires twist and tangle and I feel I am back at square one – but what I had never lost was rediscovered and, I like to think, strengthened. I began to read in earnest and to open my eyes, to look and see at the folks around me and question my place in the world only in my ability to understand it. This is what I have begun to accept about my abilities as a writer, and as in her first book, Lerner’s “The Forest For the Trees” reaffirms this notion. That it is okay to think like this, to recognize potential in shortcomings. I am not a creator but an interpreter.
Lerner was a both: a poet, promising enough to be accepted to Columbia and later, a successful editor and memoirist. But it signifies something to me that her most successful works are a memoir and a book about her experiences as an editor, the latter which she crafts into advice for writers. In “The Forest For the Trees,” she mentions “giving up on poetry.” She says this almost matter-of-factly, and I am moved by her bravery.
In a previous post I wrote about my struggles to write short stories and fiction in general – I still hope to do so some day, but there is also a satisfaction in knowing that there is a place for writers like me (and perhaps a steady job too, in editing) where real life provides the framework and we put our lens over it, our brush and color in the flesh, the flowers, the fruit and the trees. When you read, you see our colors – and in this sense we are artists too, but there is no fantasy involved – nothing imagined or created, just the language of our illustration.
This too, I think, is what I like about editing – regardless of what – a friend’s essay, poem, or personal statement – you give me the body (with too little or too much flesh) and whatever I return, is hopefully enhanced with my energy.
In her book, Lerner quotes the famous editor Maxwell Perkins, most known for editing such literary greats as Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Wolfe:
“An editor does not add to a book. At best he serves as a handmaiden to an author. Don’t ever get to feeling important about yourself, because an editor at most releases energy. he creates nothing.”
In a sense, this is what I aim to do in writing. Not to create worlds a la Rowling or Orwell, but to re-create the worlds you and I already know: my worlds – Taipei, Berkeley and where ever else I will eventually explore – and the people in them. Once it seemed a strange goal – flat, underwhelming. But honest. After all, one must build the vessel before attempting to reach the stars.