I write novels. Writers will tell you that good writing involves far more rewriting and editing than it does spewing out intuitively inspired prose. We all do a lot of self-editing in the course of producing a manuscript. But if our work is being published, there comes a time when we must work with a professional editor.
Editors take different approaches. Some are tougher than others.
There is one editor in particular with whom I worked for years—he was ruthless, abusive, and utterly convinced that he was always right. He persistently humiliated me and made my life miserable.
Why, you may ask, did I stick with him that long?
I was a kid. He was my dad.
My father was a smart man, there was no denying that—he was his high school’s valedictorian, and remained articulate and well-informed throughout his life. He was also a fairly gifted writer, but he never pursued it. He had trouble pursuing anything. He was antsy, impatient, intolerant of others, and though he could be charming when he wanted to, he rarely wanted to. As a result, he never finished college—he quit every corporate job he ever landed within weeks of his start date—and ultimately wound up owning a series of small, moderately successful greeting-card shops with his younger brother.
When I was in fourth or fifth grade, he determined that I had some talent as a writer. From that moment on, he appointed himself my editor, and vowed to teach me to write properly. Which, to him, meant training me to write exactly as he would. I suppose it had something to do with having me live out a dream of his that he could never quite negotiate for himself.
Understanding his motivation, however, didn’t make it any easier.
The editing process never varied. If I had a report or an essay due for class the next day, he’d demand that I have a handwritten draft ready for him when he got home from work. Then he’d sit with me at the kitchen table, and demolish what I’d done. Dinner had to wait until our session ended, and it could go on for a couple of hours. He’d cross out nearly every sentence, and tell me I was writing like “an idiot.” “Say it this way!” he’d insist, penning his replacement prose. Occasionally he’d ask me to try to supply the new verbiage, but he’d inevitably reject that too. “That’s idiot-writing!” he’d insist. “Here’s how to say it.”
Then, when the awful ordeal ended for that evening, I had to sit there at the table and rewrite the piece in my own handwriting, incorporating all his edits. Then he’d review it.
Only then was my mother permitted to put our dinner plates on the table.
It was exhausting, mortifying, and excruciating. It went on exactly that way for years. I saw no way out of it.
But when I was a sophomore in high school, an idea occurred to me. My confidence had been bolstered because my English teacher that semester frequently had us write essays in class, and hand them in to be graded before we left for our next period. So my father never got his hands on these.
To my great surprise, my English teacher thought that the essays I produced under those conditions were superb. She told me I had real writing talent.
I made the mistake of showing one of these essays to my father after the fact, to try to demonstrate to him that my writing was good on its own. He’d have none of it—he even sat me down and made me go through an editing session with the already-graded essay, just to emphasize how much better he could make it.
It was after that experience that I hatched my brilliant scheme.
One day, after school, instead of going straight home, I stopped at our local branch of the public library. They had a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica. (I’m a baby boomer—I attended high school in the 1960’s—there was no Internet and no computer access—if you wanted information you had to go to the library and find it in a book.)
I chose a random volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica and thumbed through it until I found an article on a subject not dissimilar from those I’d been assigned to write essays about in the past. I sat down at a desk in the library, and copied that article in longhand, word for word.
Now I was ready to execute my ingenious stratagem.
When my father got home from work, I showed him the article. I told him I had written it—that it was an essay I’d been assigned at school.
He immediately sat me down and went to work. For the next hour and a half he scratched out sentence after sentence. “You write like an idiot!” he screamed. “Look at this sentence! Terrible! It’s idiot-writing. Here’s how you should say it.” I didn’t protest. In fact I didn’t say a word. I let him plow through it like a tank, in his vicious all-knowing manner, completely uninterrupted.
“Are you done?” I asked, when he finally put his pen down.
“Yes, I’m done,” he said. “Just copy it now.”
“I have something to tell you,” I said calmly. “ I didn’t write this essay. I copied it word for word from the Encyclopedia Britannica.”
I thought I had him. Actually, I was certain of it.
I was wrong though.
He didn’t miss a beat.
“They’re a bunch of idiots, too!” he yelled. “They don’t know how to write either.”
About fifty years later, shortly after my father turned ninety-five, I mentioned this recollection to him on the phone. He laughed, and said, “That’s right. They’re still a bunch of idiots.”
That phone call turned out to be one of the last conversations we had—he passed away a few months later. At the time of the call, my novel, Enemy Queen, was in its final stages of publication, soon to be released. And right after that phone call ended, I inscribed the title page of an advance copy of the novel, and shipped it to him.
My inscription read: “To my father, who taught me to write. With love, from Robert.”