Friday, 12 July 2013

Thoughts on Writers and Editors and the Ego Collisions Thereof

[Note: This was originally a post I made on a writers' forum a couple of years. It's far enough removed in time that I can approach it as an editor instead of as a writer, which is kinda cool, considering the subject matter.]

Q: How many editors does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Only one, but he has to rewire the whole house.

Q: How many writers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: "But why do we have to CHANGE it?"

     I've worked as a writer and an editor at various times, and so both of these jokes ring true for me. 
The apparent conflict between writers and editors is maybe not inevitable, but it's highly likely considering the nature of the roles, and in particular I think it's often a result of the mindset of the writer. We writers  are in the business of expressing ourselves, of crafting an insightful piece of prose to delight and enlighten our awestruck audience. In the natural order of things, we expect to have people read our stuff and be better for it. However, this also tends to attract personality types to writing who are motivated by this sort of adulation: writers have voracious egos. This makes us naturally resistant and resentful to criticism, even (perhaps especially) when it is well-founded. It also makes us especially sensitive to editorial feedback, and likely to focus on personality issues. "Why can't editors understand what it's like to be a writer?"
     But it's not an editor's job to understand what it's like to be a writer. In fact, it's very much the editor's job not to understand the writer. As a writer, I'm much too close to my own work; I know exactly what I'm trying to say, so I have no trouble reading and understanding it. But I am not my audience, and that's why I absolutely need a set of fresh eyes, the eyes of someone who does not understand me, to read my work and see what understanding comes off the page. Ultimately, as writers, our job is not to be understood and empathized with and admired as human beings, but to be understood through our writing alone. The text is all there is, and complaining that we aren't understood is really just an admission of failure as writers.
     Since editors must also be skilled writers to some extent (i.e. they have a high degree of competence in structuring clearer sentences), they too are subject to the very same sorts of ego issues with respect to text. And all writers have their own approaches to grammatical issues and so on, so there will inevitably be conflicts between writers (including editors) over the best way to express a particular idea. There's just no getting around that; it will always happen. In many professional contexts, it's the editors who have the final say, so they have the power, and naturally we poor writers will lament about how unfair that is.  But in my view, it's a very few people who get into editing because they crave power, or their egos need to be stroked by showing everyone how much better they are at writing than writers are. Yes, it does happen, but for the most part, we writers are already predisposed to see it that way, whether it is so or not.

     And we editors need to take that into account. As editors, our job is to help the writer be as brilliant and articulate as she thinks she already is. The goal is to preserve the author's own voice, not to impose the editor's own. My greatest successes in editing have been those moments when I've been able to take the text, rearrange things a bit to improve clarity and flow and reduce the length by 20%, and have the author look at it in dismay and say, "But you didn't change anything!" Even when I've rewired the whole house.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Does God Matter?

     A visitor commented in my last thread, preferring that I talk more about God than ways to reform our child support regime, claiming that at least it matters whether or not God exists. Well, does it matter?
     I would argue that it doesn't, or rather, that it shouldn't matter to us in how we live our lives. That is, we may care very much whether or not God exists, and we may very much want Him to exist (or not to), but our behaviour should not be affected one way or the other. I approach this question from a moral perspective, and then an aesthetic one.

     I have always been deeply troubled by the idea that God or the promise of an afterlife should be a factor in one's moral deliberations at all. Ultimately, it subverts morality in a profoundly diabolical way. I mean that very seriously: the form of "Christianity" (or Islam or any afterlife-oriented consequentialism) that emphasizes eternal reward or punishment as a reason for moral conduct is genuinely satanic.
     Consider: Suppose Satan were to appear and offer you a similar deal. Everlasting pleasure, in exchange for some earthly act. Perhaps some horribly evil genocidal deed, or perhaps some simple, benign consideration. (Wearing a t-shirt praising Satan for an hour? And you could even say you were wearing it ironically. Doesn't matter.)
     Obviously, if you consider yourself a Christian, you'd say no. After all, Satan's supposed to be the Deceiver, the Prince of Lies, the bad guy, so either he'd be tricking you into doing something much worse than you expected, or he'd not deliver on the reward, or both. No way could you trust such an offer.
     But the same problem applies to promises that purport to be from God. Remember, this Satan fellow is not just a trickster, but the trickster; if anyone can fool you about something, he's the one. And his greatest trick, according to Baudelaire (and The Usual Suspects), is convincing you he doesn't exist, or more generally that he's not the one you're making your deal with. Why could he not, for example, dress himself up as a holy man, pretending to preach the Word of God? Lots of mortals, without divine superpowers, have done so and successfully led people astray; why would this be difficult for Satan himself?
     So, disguised as piety, Satan makes an offer: "Buy into this worldview, ignoring its logical inconsistencies and moral perils, and receive everlasting life." And of course, when you buy into a worldview, you take everything that comes with it, such as (for example) the idea that you'll be rewarded in Heaven for carrying out this or that mission in the name of the church/temple/mosque/etc. You will go along willingly, since you have accepted the premises and believe you're doing the right thing because God commands it, and after all, isn't everlasting reward worth it, even if you've got some apprehension about it?
     I've argued this point with truebelievers before, and the usual claim is that Satan is somehow prevented from uttering certain magic words, so he could never pretend to be God or misrepresent God's truth. Really? That sounds to me like the Greatest Trick. The possibility of Satan posing as true religion doesn't exist, so pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
     The problem isn't with the identity of the person making the deal. It's the deal itself. When you base your actions on consideration of reward or punishment, rather than the good or evil nature of the act itself, you're making what is morally equivalent to a deal with the devil, regardless of who you're actually bargaining with, including if you think you're bargaining with God. A promise of eternal life, and all you have to do is believe? No thanks. The only reason you should need to believe something is that it's likely to be true, and no bribe or threat can or should change that.

     The aesthetic argument is inspired by my thinking about fiction and drama. If God exists and is our Creator, it seems reasonable to think of Him as the author of the novel or play in which we are all characters. The setting He's created appears to have been painstakingly crafted to make obvious evidence of His involvement ambiguous at best. As an actor on this stage, I feel obliged to work with the scene I've been given, and it seems to me tremendously tacky for me to break the fourth wall by addressing or even acknowledging the Author while the play is going on. I'm here, I'm in costume, I'm on this magnificently believable set. I'm not going to second-guess the role I've been given; I'm going to play it. I will follow my conscience, I will engage in dialogue (inner and outer), I will strive to be worthy of treading these boards, but for me, even if the Author does exist,  I would not be paying my role authentically if I were to seek a "personal relationship" with Him while the curtain's still up.