Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Day 14 (Round IV) "In the trenches": ahead-of-the-curve edition

Dunno why, but some days you can just feel that the catching-up is actually working, and that you are, at least in comparison to past days, if not ahead, then at least much less far behind.

For me, this semester the MWF days tend to be "get shit done" days--days when, because there is no in-the-classroom obligation, I can do a lot of all the other stuff that we're supposed to make happen once we hit tenure: committee work, running-the-division work (today brought the monthly division meeting, among others), brainstorming-with-colleagues-in-other-divisions work, and perhaps most intensively but also most rewardingly, the one-on-one meetings with students who are in one or another part of the writing stage: independent studies, Master's theses, and doctoral dissertations.

I've blogged extensively about writing and editing, and the fact that I myself learned to write by (a) reading great writing, of many sorts, virtually since toddlerhood, which was simply the luck of the family-culture draw: everybody in my family read voraciously; and (b) being critiqued by great editors: I was fortunate to hit Indiana University when there were at least a half-dozen fantastic writing coaches on the staff of various departments who saw some value in the work I was stumbling to articulate--and who could provide some solace and protection against the dysfunctional assholes who just wanted me to go away, because the work I wanted to do was evidently, for them, so fundamental a threat to what they believed musicology should be.

So I kind of saw it all: people mired in the past and in their own Ivory Tower privilege to define (impose) the terms of the discipline, versus people rooted in the past but who had the brains, guts, imagination, and pure-D simple human empathy to understand that the mark of a living intellectual tradition is that it can change, and admit of new paradigms. Peter Burkholder, Austin Caswell, Jeff Magee, Tom Mathiesen, George Buelow, Dick Bauman--these were people who were profoundly important and empowering in my life.

The least I can do is pass it on.

That means taking the time, concentration and effort--and manifesting the non-domineering mentoring and guidance--to help young scholars and writers get better at what they do. That means lots of attention to detail, style, and clarity; to organization and precise articulation; to methodology, analysis, and philosophical perspective. It means marking-up drafts with maybe 20 extended comments (thank the Universe for MS Word's "comment" function, as I can type about six times fast as I can write, though still slower than I can speak) per page; it means prefacing every editing session with the disclaimer "Now, look. I'm a very heavy-handed editor. Don't let all the red type freak you out--you can adopt, adapt, employ, ignore, or contest any or every one of these comments." And then adding the dictum, "But I really insist that you articulate a response, if only to yourself, to each of these."

And then it also means taking the time, one-on-one in the office, to sit with these developing authors and work through the prose, page after page. In doing contract writing, and journal articles, and book drafts, I've usually worked with editors at a distance, in which situation really the only practical way of receiving feedback is the medium of those marked-up pages. And that is a cold and (potentially) brutal medium. Where possible, it's far more efficacious for a learning writer to be sitting in the room with the editor, so that the prose becomes the foundation for a conversation, Socratic or otherwise, about where and why and how the writing is working or not.

And then it also means to understand that the craft of writing, the pure day-to-day slog through the words, most of which you know even as you write them are going to have to be discarded, the sense that there is a mountain of dirt to move and you're only shifting a few shovels a day, is an almost insurmountable burden. Particularly if, as a scholarly (as opposed to "creative") writer, you're not even going to get the same kind of ego-gratification as the novelists and poets and memoirists. As a matter of fact, as a musicological writer you're trying to create the clearest, most generous, most articulate, and most transparent prose you can, so that the beauty of the musical phenomena you're describing can come through. You have to be pretty damned generous, and pretty damned dedicated, and pretty damned disciplined, and pretty damned mentally tough--for years--to write good scholarly prose. And you've got to be sufficiently thick-skinned to take 20 editorial corrections (or more) per page. Meeting after meeting after meeting.

So it also means a hell of a lot of dedication: from the writer but also for the mentoring editor. It means recognizing the potentially fraught level of commitment a scholarly writer has to maintain, draft after draft and month after month and year. So the editor damned better keep in mind how hard it is to be edited, and how much an author cares about trying to convey, with beauty, the truth of what s/he is seeing. It helps if you as the editor remember how hard it is to be the writer.

So: one editorial/feedback session, by phone, 8am. Another at 10. Another at 1pm; and 2pm; and 3pm.

Pretty hard work. But pretty rewarding, too.

Makes you feel you're making a positive difference. Maybe even helping people

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