In the mid-1990s, shortly after I moved to Vancouver, I got a job doing Investor Relations for a public company drafting news releases, presentations, brochures, and the like. I would put drafts of these items together and present them to management and staff. During these meetings one sedulous and normally silent colleague would typically tear my work to pieces: “What about that, and this. And you forgot that,” etc. I did my best to address all these concerns and fill in the lacunae and maintain my professional demeanor.
One afternoon during such a meeting the company President evidently guessed that this regular show was beginning to make my smiling responses seem a tad bit forced, and he asked my colleague, “Where were you when the page was blank?” (I believed at the time that this utterly marvelous sentence was original with my client. It wasn’t, alas.)
While this remark later became my unofficial job description on basil.CA — “Essentially what I do is stop pages from being blank” — it completely silenced our sedulous colleague forever after, sometimes to the detriment of our company’s IR activities.
I tell my students that colleagues and teachers who edit their work have the same goals they do: To make prose on a piece of paper (or on a computer screen) more correct, concise, complete, convincing, and current. “It’s about the paper, not you. Don’t take it personally. And certainly never feel hurt by this process.”
Addendum: The company President mentioned above needed no more than three or four elliptical sentences by me on a draft news release to compose a detailed, two-page revision himself. But he was helpless before the blank page. My mentor at Prometheus Books Inc., Doris Doyle, was the same way. Each could compose blemishless prose themselves, by fixing the work of others. My sometimes lame drafts served as “generative devices” to get their own prose going.
“Generative Devices,” wrote my Stanford professor Gil Sorrentino, “are consciously selected, preconceived structures, forms, limitations, constraints, developed by the writer before the act of writing. The writing is then made according to the ‘laws’ set in place by the chosen constraint. Paradoxically, these constraints permit the writer a remarkable freedom. They also serve to destroy the much-cherished myth of ‘inspiration,’ and its idiot brother, ‘writer’s block.'”
I rather like knowing that I was the “preconceived limitation” that got my colleagues’ writing engines humming.
Photo by Miles Basil