Phone Call from an Editor
Brooklyn to Manhattan, NY
A friend of mine asked me to write a short bit of catalogue copy on catcalling. His organization is doing an exhibition attempting to stimulate the experience of walking down the street and having men yell at you. Men will have the opportunity to walk through the catcalling exhibition and perhaps have a momentary understanding of what it’s like for women. I asked him: what type of writing do you want. He said: anything you want to do is cool. I said: do you have some copy that you like that you can email me to show me what you’re looking for. He said: no, whatever you want is fine.
I sent him the copy last week, two days ago he called me and said: ummm, I need to talk to you about your copy.
It just so happens that I’m writing a full-fledged essay on catcalling. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t want to be all lyrical with my copy. Perhaps because catcalling in and of itself is such a hurting thing. As I wrote a few hundred words for his exhibition, my language kept getting barer and more concise. In the end, I settled on a listing of what catcalling is:
1. Catcalling is an intrusion.
2. Catcalling is presumptuous.
3. Catcalling is sexual harassment.
4. Catcalling is veiled aggression.
5. Catcalling is disempowering.
6. Catcalling hurts.
Under each of those numbers I wrote a brief description detailing exactly how catcalling intrudes, presumes, harasses, etc. “It’s so bam, bam, bam,” he said. Because we’re friends, I didn’t have to keep up a professional façade. “Why do people do this to me?” I said raising my voice. “It’s not just you, you know.”
Of course he isn’t the only one who does this, and of course I’m not the only one who experiences it. This type of interaction has been going on between editors and writers forever. It’s the nature of commissioning work. Any artistic work that is commissioned has some expectations attached. You may try to get the commissioner to articulate their desires. Sometimes they will, sometimes they won’t. They might know your work and think, “I love everything you do, I’ll love whatever you make for me.” Well, I’m here to testify that that just isn’t the case. The longer I write, the more I’m learning to accept the push and pull between editor and writer as the nature of the business. Where you draw the line depends on the situation.
The first time this happened to me, an editor asked me to write a journalistic piece on the floods in Mozambique. This was way after the floods and she was paying me less than .25 cents a word, so I was certain she wasn’t expecting no major investigative journalism. I turned in the piece, she said she liked it and I thought I was done. A few weeks later, she called and said, “Well Kiini, this doesn’t really break any new ground. All of this was published in newspapers already, what I’d like you to do is write a story on the relief efforts. I have the names and numbers of two women in Chicago who are donating clothing for the flood victims. Can you reposition the piece from that perspective?” I said, “Are you recommissioning the piece?” She said, “No, your job is to work on the piece until I’m satisfied with it.” Now I’m not a journalist, so I don’t know exactly how writers and editors operate in the profession, but I do have enough experience with the job of an editor to know there is a world of difference between asking for a piece on “the floods in Mozambique” and asking for a piece on “two women who are doing relief efforts for the victims on the floods of Mozambique.” I wrote a letter to the editor telling her so. I agreed to do the new piece for the same price, but I told her it is my job to deliver the piece she commissioned in satisfactory condition, but it is her job to commission exactly what she wants. And if, after I’ve written the piece, she changes her mind about what she wants, then she should bear the financial brunt of that decision. Now someone who is a journalist may be able to email me and tell me who stepped over what line in this situation, but she and I never had that issue again.
I’ve also had this type of confusion happen with fiction. (Those of you who read the report from the When Butterflies Kiss New York promotional weekend know this story.) The editor of When Butterflies Kiss (WBK) invited me to participate in the collaborative novel. Again, he said “write whatever you want.” Now, I write speculative fiction among other things. I meditated on what I wanted to write about and decided to recast this experience I had in Cuba [as well as recast the issue of catcalling (that keeps coming up in my life)] in the life of Dante, the main character of WBK. In WBK I wrote about Dante being attacked by a pack of dogs. In the actual experience, I saw a female dog in heat attacked (basically gang raped) by a pack of dogs. In WBK, I drew it as this bizarre supernatural experience; I didn’t define whether it was real or not. After I turned in my chapter, I got a call from the editor. He said the dogs were a little intense, and he wondered exactly when Dante fell asleep to start dreaming about the dogs. It wasn’t a dream, I told him. But the next writer picked up where I left off and made it a dream. After going back and forth with the editor, I changed the scene to a dream and cut the dogs down from 20 to 10 to five, till I finally boiled them down to two. In the moment, I was not happy about these changes. I felt I was given freedom to do what I wanted, but then I was limited when my choice turned out to be too weird. As it turns out, even though I translated the experience from some mysterious bizarre event into an actual dream, many readers are still getting a mystical feel from the chapter. Some readers are questioning whether Treasure, the female character is “real.” I wrote her as real, but it pleases me that the question exists.
It turned out to be a great lesson to me that even though I didn’t “get my way,” my vision was in no way compromised. I think that is the area that the give and take of a writer and an editor should revolve around. Any changes an editor asks for or suggests should not compromise the writer’s vision. Magazine editors are by far the most involved editorially in the work. Sometimes, an editor can approve an idea, then once it’s executed, she sees a better way to go about the piece. Is this frustrating? Hell, yeah. But in the end, the editor wants to get the most powerful piece possible for her magazine.
I pitched a piece entitled “No” looking at how I learned to say “no” to men on the street who wanted my number and/or my attention (again, catcalling asserts itself into this conversation). The editor approved it, I wrote it and turned it in. She called me and said, well, the editorial staff really likes the mood and tone of the piece but we really think it would be stronger if it incorporated a range of moments where women have to learn how to say no. Was she right? Certainly. If I expanded the theme, the piece would be more universal and relate to a wider range of women. Was I happy about this? No way. “Hey,” I’m thinking, “but this is the piece you approved!” Tough titties (as we would say in elementary school), I had to suck it up and get to writing, my deadline was a few days away.
That was one of the most traumatic writing experiences of my life. I spent the next few days moving things around, adding, cutting, I couldn’t make it work. “Hey,” the editor said, trying to make me feel better, “Just write what you need to write, don’t worry about the word count (magazines commission articles by the number of words. You are paid a rate multiplied by the number of words). We’re really good at cutting.” “That’s not consolation to a writer,” I told her. I don’t want nobody cutting my words for me. But in the end, a piece in a magazine does not belong solely to a writer, it belongs to the magazine. It represents the magazine’s vision, mission, and perspective.
When I turned in my rewrite, they liked it. They made some minor changes and we were done. But I felt like they had dragged me through the mill over the last few days, when really I was dragging myself through the mill because I didn’t want to give them the raw material and let them cut.
I still don’t know what the “right” answer is when writing a magazine article. (Of course, there is no “right” answer.) It feels really bizarre to know that the piece wouldn’t exist in the form it’s in without the input of the editor. Editors have everything to do with the way a piece turns out. The writer certainly creates and powers the work, but the editor (to borrow a metaphor from a friend) puts little stones along the edges (as one would to build a riverbank) to guide the work along the path she envisions. Editors and writers are collaborators. Writers like to think they are individuals, standing on their own two, but in many cases it can be more of a dance, a call and response (I have to shout out my mother Tayari kwa Salaam for that terminology. She is a Ph.D. student in Curriculum Development and she often calls me to discuss her theories. She works with the concept of call and response as an individual’s interactions with their community to develop self… also as a writer’s interaction with their community to develop art.)
In the end it is impossible to split the originators of the ideas from the editors of the ideas. I made up the concept, the editor pointed me in another direction, I jumped off from that direction into a whole new territory and she pruned the edges. It’s an interesting exercise in surrender and I’m still deciding how I feel about it. For the WBK chapter, I told myself I can use the attack of 20 dogs later in another piece, I still own that idea and can use it in its “pure” form whenever I want, but in this case, in this collaborative novel, this is how it’s going down.
In my most recent magazine article (which I found out was cut out of the magazine by eagerly opening the just-released November issue and discovering that I wasn’t on the contributors page… That’s a whole nother conversation: how you get cut from magazines after they already commissioned and bought the work. How your piece may be cut or trimmed from 12 pages to 3 to accommodate a name writer or a stronger piece.) my editor told me the topic she wanted me to write about. I told her I didn’t know where to begin. She is a writer too, so she said, sometimes I think we try to come up with the “best,” most polished thing immediately, why don’t you just write what you can off the top of your head and send it to me unedited. I looked at her like she was crazy. “I know you feel strange, but I think the first draft holds a power and I think if you gave that to me, I could tell you what I’m looking for.” In the end, it was a pretty peaceful experience. I wrote something off the top of my head, lopped off the first half (because it was random thoughts just getting me to where I wanted to be) and sent it to her. She replied with suggestions of what to develop, I developed it and sent it back, she sent back some more suggestions. (I think I might have had a brief fit somewhere at that point. In addition to wanting it to be done, I proposed a dramatic departure and tried to slip some listing in, but she wasn’t feeling it… The essay format is so much more beautiful and lyrical, she told me. Why do people keep dissing the lists?)
Which brings me back to my editor friend. I know what he wants. He wants something beautiful, something well written, he doesn’t want a dictionary entry. After I raged and was irritated and displaced my anger on the thirty million messages in my email box, I took a deep breath and said, I understand exactly what he wants. I believe in this project and I want him to be happy, so I’ll see what I can do. How do you know when to stand your ground and say “Nope, I’m not changing it!”? I guess when your meaning gets pimped or when you think the format is intrinsic to the message. In this case, it’s not. It’s just what I felt like doing. For him, I don’t mind trying to flip it in a different direction. Who knows, I might come up with something more profound.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam
==KIINI’S REJECTION/ACCEPTANCE O’METER==
: : : August 2001 – present : : :
==KIINI’S REJECTION/ACCEPTANCE O’METER==