By Adam Katz
Last month, the theme for our Big Think was education and scholarship. This month, we’re narrowing our focus to the ways in which our time in the Ivory Tower Boiler Room has helped us discover for ourselves what it means to be a teacher, a scholar, a public intellectual. Enjoy!
When a family friend died on a hiking trail, the initial reaction was shock and sadness. But after a few weeks, this sentiment started to emerge: at least he died doing what he loved. I do think it would be a privilege to get to die doing what I love. But what would that be? Practicing piano? Spending time with my favorite people? It occurs to me that I love editing and revising so much that maybe that’s how I want to go—during a writing conference. Except I can’t help thinking: that would be uncomfortable for the writer I was meeting with. Meetings between writer and editor are uncomfortable enough as it is. Even when the writer and editor know each other; no, more than that, even when they regularly exchange work, such that which one is the writer and which one is the editor may change, there is still some feeling that when you present your writing to another person, you are the one on trial, not just your writing, and that anxiety bleeds over into the emotional tenor of the conference. It would not lessen the already-considerable awkwardness if I died midway through. Imagine the writer getting off the phone (because everything takes place on phone now) and saying to their significant other or roommate: “Oh my God! The editor I was just meeting with… I think he had a heart attack!”
The roommate would be so surprised and distraught, they would probably not have the presence of mind to utter the indisputably correct response: “Wow, really? I didn’t think your story was that bad.”
Ok, just a bit of fun. But it’s true. I think my love of editing comes from the fact that I like talking about art with my fellow artists more than almost anything in the world, and that extends to writers, musicians, dancers (though I’m woefully ignorant) and so on. You can’t edit without talking to a fellow artist about the fundamental questions of their work, and that conversation is like the joy of reading a good book, but concentrated. A year into the grand adventure that is The Ivory Tower Boiler Room, I know that I’m not alone, because that’s what we do. We make no secret of that part of our story: Andrew and I were talking together, sometimes once a week, sometimes more, for hours at a time, entertaining the crap out of each other and keeping the demons of the pandemic at bay. Not only keeping ourselves amused at home, rather than having to go out to stores and libraries that weren’t open anyway, but also helping each other and ourselves cope with the depression, anxiety, writer’s block, etc., that such an event naturally brings. As gregarious a person as Andrew is, we all need someone to talk to and I was happy to be that person; still am.
And so we rather naturally segue’d into bringing a third person in on those conversations, and recording what we said together. We (ok, really just Andrew) send an email to a potential guest to ask: would you like to join us on our podcast and talk about your work, your favorite books, and anything else that comes to mind, and the majority of the time, they answer: “yes!” Likewise, our listeners find out that that’s what our podcast largely concerns itself with, and in the split-second it takes them to ask themselves whether that’s the sort of thing they want to be listening to on their daily walk, a large (and increasing) number say: “yes!”
Andrew and I already knew that we enjoyed each other’s conversation. But baked into the decision to go public; to record the conversations for a wider audience, was the fundamental assumption that we are not so unique; that the things that make us laugh and cry and think will have a similar effect on other people. And it’s true that we have drawn people to us. Some as interviewees; some as audience members; an increasing number as collaborators. And of course those collaborators come with ideas of their own. Erika Grumet thought of adding a website to our burgeoning media-empire, and Mary DiPipi’s idea of cross-pollinating two of her worlds resulted in the column True Crime in Academia.
Part of what’s nice about being the principal editor for this website is that I never have to stop being a fan of my colleagues’ work. Other editors may not share my perspective on this, and I welcome feedback, but I rarely find myself “going into editing mode.” Maybe that’s because I’m already in it. If I’m reading a published novel and I find a sentence I don’t like, I will start tutting behind my teeth and thinking of more graceful alternatives, just as I do with my colleagues’ writing… or my own. Sometimes this critical faculty leads me to greater appreciation of the original sentence, but not always.
I don’t see why some people make the distinction between professional writing—that is, writing that has been vetted by an agent, a series of editors and publishers, and finally a newspaper columnist or two—and the sort of writing I deal with, which, for our purposes we can say ranges from amateur to semi-professional. (Semi-professional writing is actually two categories folded into one. It’s hobby-ish writing by people who have been published in a professional venue or it’s writing by people who have a professional attitude and work ethic but have yet to be, or choose not to be, published in a professional venue. Needless to say, I like both.) Sure there is something amazing about buying (or borrowing) a novel you know you’re going to love, taking it home, and devouring it like a cookie, but more often than not you find things a good editor should have caught, like a bit of unintentionally awkward dialogue in an action-adventure novel or a mishandled relationship in a fantasy, or the character of Cathy Ames in East of Eden.
All of it. Everything about her.
I’d like to institute a new rule that male authors’ ex-wives have veto-power over their female characters, which, in Steinbeck’s case, would mean a panel of at least 2 or 3 judges. But I digress.
The point is that works published by one of the Big 5 (or is it Big 4 now? Big 3? Please support independent publishing houses. At least 1 book a year. Please.) anyway, the point is that works published by a brick-and-mortar publisher often have mistakes, problems, infelicities, at a rate only slightly lower than a prospective blog post some friend on the internet might send me. And what the latter has that the former doesn’t is the thrill of discovery. When I am reading an essay by Andrew or Erika or Mary, I do so with a certain amount of reverence–painfully, gleefully aware that I am likely the first person to do so. I can share the joy of this experience with you by description, but I can’t make you feel it, and for that I apologize. It feels greedy, keeping it for myself like this, but the only way I can think of to share it with you is by asking you to join me; to submit your writing (firstname.lastname@example.org; no I’m not joking).
Anyway that’s how it’s been going for the last three months, that is, since we launched the website: one of the four of us will write a piece, pass it to the other members of the group for comments, and then I’ll have the final say on what makes it to the site. But now, as we are entering a new chapter of our existence, I am increasingly engaging in another activity that is even one or two further steps removed from the finished work you see on the blog.
Typically it involves getting on the phone with someone and, after the initial chit-chat has died down, saying: “so what do you want to write about?” A lot of the time the answer is: “I don’t know… but something.” Usually the person in question knows generally what they want to do: a teacher wants to write about their experience in the classroom during pandemic. An artist wants to talk about their creative process. Usually, also, they are shocked that I am so accommodating. A person who has little time for writing (because they have children to raise, students to teach, etc.) but wants to write for me is not a person I want to chase away. And furthermore, I don’t want to perpetuate the current toxic system by replicating it in our blog. It’s a simple equation, in a lot of cases. The people who have the least time to write, or the least ability to write, are often the people we most want to hear from: these are the people who have a lot to say, but don’t have a lot of experience, or a lot of confidence, saying it; the people who work with their hands; the people closest to the difficulties, both economic and epidemiological, of the last year-and-a-half. Those are the voices that often get left out of the history books, and the history books are the poorer for the loss. I will take it a step further: I consider myself a failure as an editor if I don’t use my abilities and my platform to give the loudspeaker to those voices.
Crisis reveals character; in fact, you could say it’s no accident that our word for a big, stressful event—“crisis”—comes from the Greek word for “judgment.” It’s at a crossroads that you must make judgments, and often when you make a judgment on a new matter, you realize that that’s how you felt all along and you just didn’t have the opportunity to manifest it. That’s what’s been happening in the Ivory Tower Boiler Room for me. There are dozens of guidelines I have set for myself as an editor, as a coach of less experienced writers, that I had not previously said explicitly, but that I now know to have come from deep inside my conscience. One of those guidelines is: the people whose work I most want to read are the ones with the most obstacles—be those obstacles economic, social, neurological. And my own obstacles, in turn, get in the way of helping them reach their full potential as writers. It’s hard collecting other people’s writing when you’re dealing with ADHD and half a dozen other things. So I may drop the ball from time to time with my writers. But it won’t be for lack of trying; and I will pick the ball up again.
Another deeply held, but only recently articulated belief, is that everyone is a writer; but some of us are not writers yet. Everyone who is willing and able to follow the process–to write with complete honesty and to revise with complete humility–will produce something worth producing, and worth reading. The writer will grow as a person from the experience of transferring their thoughts and feelings to the page, and the reader will grow as a person from the experience of connecting with another human by reading what they have been brave enough to commit to the page. And the editor will grow from the experience of midwiving the process. This isn’t how every work is written; it’s not even how every good work is written. But I have yet to see a mediocre piece of writing that was written this way. It’s not a complicated system, when you think about it: be honest concerning your own feelings, be flexible concerning the feelings of others. But it’s a difficult system. And if it sounds like something you’d like to try, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
And a last thought is that the awkwardness I alluded to in the first paragraph doesn’t ever really go away. We still disagree; we still feel abashed by the difficulty of sharing our work. But we do it anyway, because we want the human connection that’s waiting for us on the other side of these difficulties.