Not easy to discover what you're meant to do

Having achieved a degree of notoriety as an editor, I find myself in the uncomfortable role of mentor.

A while back, I spent a year as a mentor to a younger newspaper editor in a program set up by the Maynard Institute, and there were a number of young editors whom I hired, when newspapers still hired people, whose careers I was able to foster. Now I find myself about to advise a would-be editor in a different program.

It's a little awkward because of the circuitous route by which I found my own path. As an undergraduate in the English department at Michigan State, I aspired to be a writer of fiction. There is somewhere in the garage the partial draft of a novel which I have never been able to bring myself to give decent burial.

When I applied to the master's program in creative writing at Syracuse, the English department turned me down flat. Then, a week or so later, a call came from Walter Sutton, the chairman, the burden of which was that I seemed like a bright young man and would I be interested in the academic master's prgram and a university fellowship that paid tuition and an annual stipend of $10,000? Not being a fool, I said yes immediately.

Six years later. I left Syracuse and, needing to find employment, I took a job on the copy desk of The Cincinnati Enquirer,* with every expectation that I would complete my dissertation on the theme of friendship in the poetry of the Earl of Rochester and Jonathan Swift. There are somewhere in the garage an approved dissertation proposal, extensive notes, and a partial draft of a dissertation that I have never been able to bring myself to give decent burial.

It took me a long time to bring myself to the realization that, much as I enjoy reading and talking about books, and much as I love to teach, I am no better suited for the scholarship than prose fiction. I lack the imagination for producing either sort of work.

What I discovered is that I do have a knack for improving the prose of other people, cleaning it up, sharpening it, clarifying it. And the collaborative atmosphere of a newsroom copy desk, working and talking with colleagues, is far more congenial than spending solitary hours at desk or in carrel.

Now, of course, that the Worldwide War on Editing has decimated the ranks of copy editors, assuming a mentorship feels a little like taking on an apprentice in the production of illuminated manuscripts. Lot of empty desks in the scriptorium.

Not that editing is less desperately needed than previously. In fact, more so.

That being the case, I will advise on what I know of this obscure craft, and I will encourage anyone who has this rare gift and temperament to find ways to employ it. But, as has been my case, I predict that it is not an easy road to follow, and the path is not well marked.


*As a minority candidate (!).


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