March 2009

Barbara J. King

features

Seeking Eric Chinski, or How to Swim with Your Editor

From the pages of the March/April issue of Poets & Writers magazine come words that stopped my eyes in their flying-across-the-page tracks. Eric Chinski, editor-in-chief at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, was one of four “young editors” (demography data courtesy of P&W) to participate in a dialogue about the editing process. “I think an editor’s job,” said Chinski, “is basically to fall in love with a book and then to help it be more of what it already is.”

Chinski edits fiction. For all I know, many young editors of fiction, maybe many older editors of all genres, feel as he does. But it was Chinski and Chinski alone who uttered those magic words and so it’s on Chinski that I’ve found myself imprinted, just like those cute little ducklings became imprinted on the great ethologist Konrad Lorenz.

I’m new at this: only five years ago did I start to write creative nonfiction, both trade books and freelance articles. (Academic anthropology I’ve written for years, but to say that’s a different enterprise makes for an understatement.) Perhaps my greenhorn state explains why I was beset by small swells of tension as I began to read the P&W article, especially when Ecco’s Lee Boudreaux described how she recognizes stellar writing: “The gears just click into place and you realize you’re reading something that is an order of magnitude different than the seventy-five other things that have crossed your desk lately, many of which were perfectly good and perfectly competent.”

My heart sank. Never have I aspired to “perfectly competent,” yet how far above “perfectly good” can a writer consistently hope to soar?

Only with Chinski’s comment did my tension ebb. Best not to be too hyped on hope of becoming Boudreaux’s 76th writer, his words said to me. By easing instead into a flow with the current of one’s thoughts, the joy of writing can be unlocked, just like an embodied joy is unleashed when one swims for the love of it and not to win a race.

I grew up in New Jersey during the heyday of the beach club: modest resorts perched on sea-facing strip of lands that offered to middle-class families swimming pools, cabanas, restaurants, sporty activities, and of course, the ocean.

Pre-teen summers brought a routine that was never routine enough to bore: Grab a radio and something to read, and ride in the family car from hometown Shrewsbury through upscale Rumson and on into Beach Club World. Tote a beach umbrella from the locker out onto the sand, and claim a patch of sea-view. This was the mid-60s: Vietnam weighed on the adults but not yet us kids. At the beach, we lived inside the intense passions of same-sex friendships. We read a lot, and dwelled on the far edge of rock and roll; with ears tuned to AM radio, we kept one eye on the sun–blonded teenagers dancing to the Beach Boys. We pined for our futures. Just miles away, Springsteen incubated; soon he would put neighboring Asbury Park on the map and gift us a decade of our own.

And we swam. The salt water pool meant safety. Warmed water, kind coaches, kickboard devices, and the salted buoyancy itself kept us afloat. Gradually, we came to believe we could swim.

The fresh water pool meant challenge. No gentling here, only the chill certainty of a fast lane where grace and speed prevailed. Yet if we wished to perfect a stroke or learn how to high dive into the deep end, we found mentoring for the asking. With strengths assessed and weaknesses exposed, we sharpened our skills.

And the ocean! The ocean meant calm at times, turbulence at other times. Its mercurial nature neutralized its brininess, so we felt it had nothing at all in common with the salt-water pool. What defined a sea swim for us was the ocean’s vast and dominating surety: the sea is what it is, so much so that in its embrace we felt submerged, taken over, not quite wholly ourselves.

Forty years later, those two pools and the sea help me think about the different styles that editors may bring to their craft. Salt-water editors lift up novice writers. By praise-and-coax, they refuse to let us sink beneath the weight of our own expectations. The praise gives confidence; the coax, via a series of clarifying queries, elicits that one last pass through the text to make it better.

Without editors like this, I never would have tossed out my words into the wider world. With small success came new opportunities. When a cutting-edge science magazine invited an article, I rejoiced, until the editor began a frantic and failing rewrite that so torqued my text, I no longer saw myself in it. Working with her, I felt at sea; at publication, I felt strangely indifferent. Here is the anti-Chinski editor, one who so wills an idée fixe onto the page that the piece becomes not more of what it was, but something other than what it was; the editors engulfs the writer.

It’s the fresh-water editor I seek now. At Random House, it’s the man who somehow grasps better than I do just how to make my academic background work for my trade writing, and moves me off the either-or sensibility that I first brought to the text. At a British publication, it’s a woman who excises extraneous paragraphs with precision, and so forces my core ideas into the reader’s central consciousness. At an American magazine, it’s the editor, a man who writes books too, who choreographs my sentences in a new way, allowing my examples to more elegantly shore up my thesis.

It’s a welcome freedom, this new sense of when to say “no thanks” to an editor whose style swamps me. I have the sense, too, to want to thank the editors who teach me so much. So to them, and to the unmet but imprinted-upon Eric Chinski too, I send gratitude and a wish: May you fall in love this month, many times over.

-- Barbara J. King, anthropologist at the College of William & Mary, can be contacted at bjking09@gmail.com