For several years in the ’90s I wrote nature book reviews for The Washington Times–Washington DC’s other newspaper and purported to be the only media Clarence Thomas reads. Our friend Colin Waters was the book pages editor there; he recruited and mentored me through the sometimes excruciating process of becoming a critic which I was never more than mediocre at. I loved receiving parcels of new books–like having Christmas several times a week–(I gave all but the few I reviewed away, most to the Grant High School Library); I liked reading and writing about the select few; but agonized through the editing process.
I learned to edit from writing and having someone edit my work. School teachers begin this process but rarely have the time, skill, or energy to carry it far enough and didn’t for me. College was a bust in the editing department, also–it never occurred to me during these developmental years to work on school newspapers; though I was co-sports editor for our high school’s annual my senior year and relished the layout and photography opportunities. Growing up in small town, east of the Cascades Oregon with ever-present spectacular views of the Columbia River, the Klickatats, and Mountains Hood and Adams insured the natural history facet of my nature until OSU’s science education could hone it but I still wasn’t much of a writer, much less an editor. Gervais was my first real editor and a hard task master he was, too. He helped me learn to write what I wanted to say in my divorce communications. My first experience with professional editing came about working with Meldon Kraxberger–past editor of The Rhododendron Society of America Journal. Meldon was a self effacing 80 years old if she was a day who was a childless widow recently moved to a small apartment from her and her husband’s rhodie nursery next to the Unitarian church out in SW Portland–the one where Ely, Lea, and I went to see a Russian artist one Easter and Lea asked on the way if we had to pay money; I explained about the tithing basket to which she responded: “If they want to make money, they should bring in a bear.” This was also the church where Ken and Pam got married. They used Meldon’s phone to call the church people when they arrived to find everything locked up. Meldon was a gentle lady in every sense of the word except when it came to editing when she turned into a dragon. We had some knock down drag outs over commas, semicolons, parenthesis, the ethics of rewriting whole passages or, better yet, just deleting them, etc. while editing The Berry Botanic Garden’s Newletter.
I took my new found editing skills and applied them to Ely’s and Lea’s papers; I preached the rule that nothing should be submitted without at least a good once over and better yet twice or thrice over. Lea, years later, when applying her editing skills told her victims that her papers used to look like someone had been stabbed and bled all over after given them the once over. Working under Colin’s tutelage, though, was a whole other kettle of fish (I’m liking trite metaphors these days, especially malapprop ones).
I have some notes from Colin’s and my phone conferences. One says: “remember semantics,” another: “think pithy.” I still have to look up “semantics” in the dictionary, only these days I google it. One recent example occurred in my ovarian cancer surgeon’s office when I asked her if the difference between “persistent disease” (which I have at this point in the process) and “recurrence” is just a matter of semantics. She paused, because these are medical appellations and do have specific, inherent medical science meanings, then said: Yes. Pithy is harder to do than one would think.
After a year or so of nature reviews, Colin thought it time for me to branch out, become a true critic and do a novel. He sent along a translation of The General by an Albanian author whose name escapes my memory–I know it is not Milan Kadera, who I’ve been confusing him with. In my review I alluded to Albert Camus’s The Plague. Colin was scathing in his edits especially to, in his opinion, my misapplied Camus point. Colin said The Plague was one great metaphor for WWII. I was amazed because I didn’t see that at all. I read The Plague in my young adulthood as a story about an epidemic of plague truamatizing a city in Northern Africa–it was a good story but I think Camus loses a lot in translation. I didn’t let Colin’s interpretation change my opinion–he lived through The Blitz, I didn’t–but I did see how important works could be completely different for different readers and retained confidence that whatever I read, or didn’t read, in a work was as relevant as anyone else’s take. Several years later when our retired UV English professor friend Michael Stanton, who authored Hobbits, Elves, and Wizards: Exploring the Wonders and Worlds of JRR Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, said that it was not a WWII metaphor, I heartily disagreed and cited Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That (I know it is about WWI) and Doing Battle by Paul Fussel. My novel review didn’t get published. I tried one more novel, missed the important metaphors in it also, plus I thought it was stupid and said so and that the author, another Vermonter should find some other life work. I came to realize that I didn’t want to read books that I didn’t like and I didn’t want to say piddling negative things about other people’s creations. I quit. Colin and I remained great friends until his death in 2003. He was my first email buddy even as he failed as a literary mentor and majorly succeeded in propelling my writing down its esoteric path.