Being a great editor is an invisible talent. You slide in and make surgical repairs, tiny cuts and ligatures, reduce the bloat, wipe the crystal clear. Sometimes you might have to tear the engine down and rebuild it, but once you close the hood no one sees what you've done. They just hear the machine purr and see the writer's marque.
Great editors are often undervalued even by the writers whose butts they regularly save, much less those they regularly rebuff. (Some of whom see editors as objections to overcome or as obstacles to glory.) Karen might not agree with me on this point, because most of the time she's quite happy to operate in stealth mode. She's a lot like that Ford Focus SVT she drove for a little more than a decade. If you didn't know what it was, you might tend to underestimate its power. She didn't mind that. Her ego is not fragile.
She is always my first, and often my last, editor. I mean no disrespect to anyone who has ever sorted through my copy, but she's also the best editor I have ever known.
And the best advice I have for any aspiring writer is once you find a great editor you should marry them.
Karen and I have worked together since before we were married. I'm used to being around her when she's writing, editing or trying to smooth-talk other editors at other publications into allowing us to rerun one of their pieces in our Sunday Perspective section. I have seen her in action, and gee, do I admire her.
She walks what other people in this business usually talk--she's all about serving the reader, defending their interest against the capricious self-indulgence of creatures like myself, writers who figure the frickin' reader can look out for himself.
She serves the writer too, often in ways that aren't immediately apparent. I have learned not to object overmuch when she murders my darlings in front of me. It hurts but it's for the best. While I suspect she would, if it came down to it, allow me final cut, I usually trust her more than I do my own instincts.
Which is odd, in that I have very specific ideas about word choice and rhythm and am always trying to square what's on the page with what sounds good in my head. I work slow and ponder every comma.
She works fast and ruthlessly and almost never misses.
We have always worked closely. But not as physically close as we have since covid-19 imposed this lockdown. Downtown at the newspaper, she occupies an office on the other side of the room. There are at least six desks between us. Sometimes I would go four or five hours without catching a glimpse of her. Now she is right over there, about a free throw away from me, typing or scrolling or touching her fingers to tablet glass.
Until a couple of weeks ago, she continued to go to the office, riding off on her bike about 10 a.m., leaving me home with the dogs and my devices to mutter and fret and stare vacantly at the screen I need to fill up with New Times Roman characters.
I understand part of it was purely practical. Her office desktop is more powerful and has a larger screen than either her laptop or the iPad she favors for some tasks. And she is like me in that she feeds off the bustle and creative energy of a newsroom. While I've always written most of what I write either at home or at odd hours, I almost superstitiously believed that if I didn't remove myself from my books and my guitars and my little dogs for a certain period of time every day I would fall seriously behind. (In my working life, I am motivated primarily by fear of being found out as an imposter.)
She also wanted to maintain a sense of structure, for there is a part of her that demands order. Before the pandemic forced our gym to close, she was up and out the door with the dogs most mornings before 5:30 a.m., on her bike heading to the gym at 6:40 a.m., in the pool at 7 a.m. She'd show up at the office in mid-morning.
During our self-imposed lockdown, she has substituted a bike ride for the swimming and jiggled things about a bit. Now she takes the dogs out about 6 a.m., is back by 8 a.m., then goes for a ride before settling down to work.
A couple of weeks ago, she decided to try working from home. We took the dogs to our sparsely populated office, let them seek out the few souls who are still going in--maybe three or five on the newsroom floor, all properly distanced--for an ear rub, and packed up Karen's computer rig from the office, brought it home and set it up in the kitchen.
We trade fewer emails than before; mostly now I just tell her my column is ready and she takes it from there. A couple of times a day we'll take a break and walk the girls across the street to the neighborhood dog park (that Karen was instrumental, if not determinative, in founding). I usually go out on my bike in the afternoon, when most of my work consists of waiting anyway.
Once or twice a week we'll harness the girls into the back of the car and fetch take-out. I miss the restaurant experience, but don't want to force it. We can wait until we can go back without masks and anxiety.
It's working fine, well enough that I wonder if we'll ever go back to the way it was. A centralized newsroom might be obsolete now in this digital age when reporters can post from anywhere and city editors hold forth on Zoom. There's no news in the newsroom anyway.
I can lurk on the company Slack channels, a kind of virtual burble of distraction, something I can look at when the flow dries up, which it does every few minutes. It's not the same, but it helps. People post photos of their pets; people grouse about the weather and their bandwidth and Wi-Fi connections, often someone even chimes in with honest-to-goodness breaking news.
Karen pays more attention to the actual news filtering out. She often breaks it to me: "Portland's mayor tear-gassed by federal officers, more covid-19 cases the past two weeks than in all of June ...."
Somehow it doesn't seem to matter much in our bubble, where our edited lives are fine, just fine, and we beat on as a family, as the Disney character she likes to quote says, "Little and broken, but still good, still good."
And I am so proud of her. There's no one I rather be in this foxhole with.
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