Editorial License

I used to be a writer.

Now I only write in my head on the way home from work in the car, in the shower, or just before I fall asleep. Sometimes I think of great stories when the dog and I walk through the woods.  My thoughts rarely make it to paper or the computer—or even to a napkin.

Writing used to be my career. I called myself a journalist. I worked for newspapers. Small weekly papers. Then magazines. I made a living as a freelance writer for a while. That’s quite difficult and without my editing skills, I  probably could not have paid the rent.

Editing is rewarding—and often requires writing. But there my writing is invisible, seamlessly stitched into someone else’s. Authors seem pleased with my efforts. They praise me for improving their sentences, for grasping the mysteries of the comma, for politely pointing out sentences that lack clarity or pronouns that have lost their antecedents. I help to make their syntax sing, or so I am told. I thrive on these compliments, yet it is not the same as seeing my words in print with my name floating over them: by Eleanor K. Sommer.

A byline is an ego trip. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

My byline has been through some rough patches over the decades. In college it was simple: “Ellie Sommer.” I decided more sophistication was in order when I accepted my first post-college reporting position, so it morphed into “Eleanor K. Sommer.” Marriage offered the opportunity for hyphenation—the modern woman thing to do, while simultaneously acknowledging my change in status. That proved to be nauseating play on words as my name is pronounced like the season “summer.” My husband’s name was Springer, so my byline was a melodic “Eleanor K. Sommer-Springer.” Really.

The editor of the small weekly that I worked for in Southwest Florida was not pleased. My byline took up two lines in a single column, two precious lines of ink for every story that I wrote. We tried Ellie Sommer-Springer for a while but the typographer squished it on the line and the editor did not like that either. Finally, it just became Ellie Springer and stayed that way until I was divorced two years later. I promptly dumped the extra season and went back to plain old Sommer. I vowed never again to change my name. Postscript: The cyberage has necessitated a modicum of privacy, shrinking the byline to initials and last name.

There is no definitive geological boundary for when I made the transformation from writer to editor. Nothing punctuated—just a slow transition as editing assignments overtook writing assignments.

I once spent three years editing a book, a technical book on colored diamonds. It was 800 pages. I edited it three times, working closely with the author even though there were more than 1000 miles between us.

Another job found me heavily revising a book for someone I have never to this day met. We exchanged photographs. I would glance at her picture once in a while, trying to capture some meaningful glimpse into her psyche as I worked on her prose. She had a story, a really unique story written as an allegory about the workplace. But it was all dialogue. Endless conversation. Not a break or a breath. I suggested some narrative. She said fine, and asked if she could pay me to write it? I said, “Sure, why not.” I animated her characters, added descriptions of them and places where they could meet and talk besides the one scene she had repeated over and over as a location for their conversations. I enjoyed the work. She liked the result. I made some money. But, of course, there was no byline.

It is an interesting craft, shaping other people’s work. It is like sculpting. You begin with a surface—something concrete to work with. Someone else has figured out the beginning and there is a vision of the end. I do the in-between part. I tweak and snip and smooth, maybe like a piano tuner. Such work brings pleasure. Well, most of the time.

There are those manuscripts that make me feel as if I have slogged through a jungle swamp for ten hours tracking down endless nests of wordy phrases, swarms of infinitives stuck to verbs that end in “ing,” dark caves of sentences that tunnel through a mountain pass and come out the other side with no hint of the original meanings. These are exhausting experiences made worse by an author’s total failure at recognizing that the vast improvement in his or her work can directly be attributed to the editor. I have lost count of how many clever phrases I have given away. I’ll probably be accused of plagiarism some day, and it will turn out that I have stolen back my own work.

I’d like to write more. But often my eyes are too tired by the end of the day to spend even an extra hour in front of the word processor. Not an excuse, I realize. I could write the old-fashioned way, by hand with a pen and some paper. I could keep my journal more faithfully instead of saving it for those devastating lows, or whining after a fight with my husband, or for recording a bizarre dream. I could keep a daily journal, plying the most from the minute details of life like so many writers have done for centuries.

I have dozens of unfinished essays, short stories, even a couple of fledgling novels. I always say I just need a little time, and when that time arrives, I spend it out in the sunshine in my garden listening to the birds, instead of inside under the glare of the screen and the hum of the hard drive. Or a friend invites me to lunch or a meeting. Extraverts, someone once told me, do not make serious writers. But then Jung said we should strive for balance. I need to discover my inner Introvert.

My stories are neatly filed in boxes under my bed. My father even made a scrapbook of all my articles from college, from my first newspaper beats, from my stint as editor of a city magazine and publisher of a business magazine. I normally simply dust over these personal heirlooms. But I had the occasion to search for something recently, which is what precipitated this trip down byline lane.

As I sifted through the boxes, I paused to read bits and pieces of the yellowing collection.  As I read, I realized that these stories and articles about other people actually record my history. Each story has a subtext and a backstory not revealed to the casual reader. But the assignment, the interview, the days spent in the office writing, the criticisms of the editor, the interaction with fellow reporters, even the time of year are all there nestled around an otherwise innocent meeting of the county commission or an interview with a Gulf-side developer.

I can smell the ocean when I read the story I wrote when I went aboard the Calypso. Jacques was not there and the boat was docked, but for a 19-year-old college reporter, it was the story of a lifetime. There were adventure stories like looking for oil in the Everglades, sailing on a tall ship, and wading through Fakahatchee Swamp. I thrived on writing movie reviews, theater reviews, and the occasional coverage of live band performances. These memories though are tempered by recollection of years of sleep-inducing coverage of county commission meetings and stints writing real estate news, which consisted mostly of attending grand openings and ribbon cuttings, and regurgitating press releases.

All these stories–the inispid and the extraordinary–are under my bed. They are more than faded clippings; they compose my life story. They are reminders of a life that I may never again experience. Proof that I was a writer. Or, just maybe, a dare to be one again.

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