Saturday, September 22, 2018

On Writing: The Poet

by Tom Lewis (editor), , January 27, 2010

Credit: Photo by Smabs Sputzer/Flickr
The Poet of Avon, who, according to contemporary accounts, worked hard at being a bard.

"Of those to whom much is given, much will be required." He got his dream job writing for money, and although the money was good, the writing part -- not so much.

The young man had landed a job as a writer -- a well-paying job at that -- at one of the largest book publishing companies in the country, and he was desperately unhappy. The editor came across him one evening, slumped over his desk in his office. (Yes, it was a time long ago and a galaxy far away in which every staff writer, even a brand new one, got an office with walls all the way to the ceiling. With a door. That closed.) The editor thought he should offer help, or at least consolation, so he asked what was wrong.

To comprehend the young man's despair you have to know a little about the company. It was Time-Life Books, which in its day sold more copies of more books than any book publisher in America, if not the world. The books were large-format, lavishly illustrated, published in series, to which people subscribed. Once signed up, subscribers received a book every 90 days until they remembered to cancel, or until 20 years after their death, whichever came first. Series such as The Old West, World War II and the Civil War shipped over half a million copies of each title. And a series with that kind of sales went on, and on, and on....

Like the magazines that spawned it, Time-Life Books became successful because it was editor-centric: editors ran the company, hired the people, set the standards and enforced the rules. The objective: clear, dense writing that was exhaustively researched and rigorously edited, writing, in other words, that was unfailingly right, and so smooth and easy to read that it revealed none of the effort that went into it. ("Never let them see you sweat," managing editor Jerry Korn used to say.)

When you wrote something for Time-Life, it first went to a team of researchers whose responsibility was to place, over every single word of the manuscript, a red check mark signifying that three reputable sources confirmed what you had written. No red check, the piece bounced and you rewrote it. Then it went to the series editor, who trimmed and sharpened and whittled and usually sent it back for reworking; then to an assistant managing editor, who did likewise; then to the managing editor, who did likewise; and then to the copy room, where they took out enormous magnifying glasses (or so it seemed) and perused your verb tenses, your participles, your semi-colons (they conducted ruthless semi-colonoscopies), your parallel constructions, your errant use of the past-pluperfect tense and the passive voice. If you came across a writer in a nearby bar of an evening, with three martini glasses lined up in front of him and a thousand-yard stare on his face, you would know he had just emerged from the copy-room edit conference, and you would leave him alone until he got better.

This was the system in which our young hero was not prospering. When the editor asked what was wrong, the young man gestured at a few sheets of paper in front of him that were covered -- covered! -- in marks made by a blue pencil.

Okay, a couple more words of explanation. A writer at Time-Life Books started out writing picture captions. Two-sentence picture captions. How big a deal could this possibly be? A very big deal. Since the inception of Time Magazine the editors had been honing the picture caption to a razor edge, and learning to fashion one that was sharp enough to satisfy them was not at all easy. The first sentence, with a verb in the present tense, decribes the action or the setting of the picture; any adjectives or adverbs should validate the reader's emotional reaction to the picture, if it's horrifying, say so. The second sentence adds information relevant to the picture, but not to be found in the accompanying text. And so on, and on. This in addition to the requirement that the diction be precise, correct and clear.

The blue pencil? That was what editors used, children, back in the days when writers wrote on paper, using something called a type writer. You can look it up. Our hero had revised a couple of captions a couple of times, and here they were, bounced again, with a blizzard of blue admonishments for him to work through.

He took it all in with a sweep of his hand and said, sadly, "I don't know what I'm doing here. I'm a bleeping poet."

"Oh. Well," the editor pointed out as gently as possible, "you were hired to be a bleeping writer."

"I am a writer. I write all the time, when I feel like it. But God, all these rules! They've taken all the creativity out of it."

"So let me see if I've got the picture. When you feel like it -- after the third drink, the first kiss, the full moon, or whatever puts you in the mood -- you put some words on a paper, pat them into line, and call it a poem. Have I got that about right?"

"Well, no, I -- I get inspired."

"All comes in a rush, right? Creativity, in full flower. How many hours do you spend on a poem?"

"Hours? Plural?"

"Thought so. How many hours per day do you spend rewriting?"

"Hours? Plural?"

"Publish any of them?"

"Not yet, but..."

"You don't see what a blessing this is, do you? You don't see that by shaping words to the rules of the picture caption, you're learning how to shape words to your purposes, or any purposes. You don't get that every hour you spend here, trying to make words work in a picture caption, is another hour spent figuring out how to make words work. You ever hear a prize fighter refuse to skip rope on the grounds that he's a fighter, not a skipper? He skips rope in order to become a prize fighter. He knows he has to develop strength and stamina by doing boring, repetitive things. And you, if you learn to select words like a jeweller selects a gem, to polish them and put them in exactly the right setting like he does, with infinite care, to dazzling effect, you might become an acceptable picture-caption writer. And if you continue to do exactly that on behalf of poetry for another ten years or so, you might earn the right to call yourself a poet. If you're not prepared to do that, you ought to get a job in the copy department of a fortune-cookie company. Or better yet, sell shoes."

The young writer gazed at the editor, realization dawning in his eyes. The next day he quit, and was never heard from again. We think he went into shoes.

About the Writer

Tom Lewis is an editor for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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4 comments on On Writing: The Poet

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By alan handwerger on January 27, 2010 at 06:19 am

I, Tom, just happen to be the assistant manager at a Fayva (check spelling) shoe store -- or boutique as I affectionately refer to my work space. And I am sick and tired of you creative, intellectual types putting us at the bottom of the barrel, or close out bin, or whatever it is.

This said, int the spirit of "you don't play tennis to get in shape; you get in shape to play tennis;" I think that a good idea of aspiring writers is to do "finger exercises" for some period of time each day before they set out to write on a particular topic. I didn't coin this tern. I read it somewhere along the line when reading about writing.

Like the painist who warms up by doing scales, doing finger exercises means: sit down await the first thought that pops into your head and then write that thought, and any subsequent thoughts, down until you're "warmed up". Sometimes it leads to an idea for further development. Its proposed function, however, is just to warm up and wake up for the day.


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By JJFCPA on January 27, 2010 at 09:24 am

I different type and style of writing from you. I liked it alot. Keep that side of you showing.

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By Cal Godot on January 27, 2010 at 04:03 pm

I think I know that guy, that troubled poet. He's actually teaching creative writing at a junior college in Indiana.

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By Jack Bates on January 29, 2010 at 01:44 pm

"they conducted ruthless semi-colonoscopies" lines like that had me laughing out loud in and collecting stares from the patrons of this coffee shop! Entertaining, on point, great dialogue, hats off!

I completely connected with that editor as I am in IT and when I review technical writing I have to forever remind people that words have meaning, use the correct words and you will be a more effective communicator. This takes practice and thick skin! What a great piece to hammer that home!

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