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Of Friends and Editors

There are many stories in the editing world of friendships between editor and writer. Perhaps the most well known are chronicled in Editor of Genius. Max Perkins had intensely intimate connections to some of the greatest writers of the early 20th century, as also explored in the movie Genius. The writers he edited were fiction writing legends: most notably Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolff.

So, when I became friends with a woman I was working with—a writer of personal stories—it came as no surprise. At least to me. My colleague Mark Matousek voiced some concern, however. I’d taken on this new writer under the auspices of his company to both edit her work and provide one-on-one writing guidance. Mark and I have collaborated on other projects and he felt she and I might be a good fit. But in becoming friends with Susan, would I continue to push her hard enough to learn the craft so she would advance in her writing? Would my editing skills remain unblemished by the personal connection? His professional opinion comes from years of guiding other writers and I honor his input, but what I’ve gleaned from personal phone calls with Susan are stories she only tells girlfriends. These were not ones she was ready to write but I’m insisting she get them on the page. If I hadn’t heard them, how would I have known they were there?

Though not deeply educated in craft, what interested me was the upbeat maturity of Susan’s voice. She mobilized her courage to engage a sidelined dream: classical ballet. At 62 years old, she now spends hours of her life en pointe, at the barre. She’s written about it’s effect on her life and weaves this nascent love of dance into her seemingly unrelated pieces. Insight into relationships, how they went and where they’re going also weave a clear subtheme throughout her work.

Our mutual urge towards chasing down passionate interests in later years and engaging in rule-breaking relationships spurred us on to become friends. When a writer and editor discuss the love of art in their lives, it’s stimulating. When they talk about men, professional boundaries quickly disintegrate.

On a recent call, she said, “Burbank Airport has become this membrane between my single life and ‘Loverville’.”

“Yes! Write about that.” I told her. “Give us every sensual detail of that transition.”

“When we get to the house in West Hollywood after not seeing each other for a month, he asks me if I want to take a nap.”

“Your 70 year old lover uses the word nap?” I said laughing. “Oh my God, you must write that scene. I assume he means otherwise.”

In The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan, she wrote about her editor and dear friend Faith Sale. Faith prodded her to go deeper with her work and be more generous in the story she had to tell (as I do with Susan). Faith also had an unerring sense of what mattered to her client and I try to bring that to bear in our relationship. The words that stuck with me however, are these: I guess the role of both an editor and a friend is to have that confidence in another person, to know that the person’s best is natural and always possible, forthcoming after an occasional kick in the butt.

What are editors (and friends) for, if not that? Sometimes the dual role is exactly what’s required.

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