In my career on staff I edited hundreds of books and was involved in every step, from picking the cover scene to handling last-minute mistakes made by the printer. Once when I was at Dell Publishing, a signature (meaning 16 pages) from a book called The Happy Hooker was bound by mistake into a big printing of The Helen Keller Story, another book Dell was publishing. What a nightmare! We laughed . . . and then we got to work. Imagine the apology letter we had to write to parents, teachers, and librarians around the country. I was working in my first job at the time, in the promotion and publicity department at Dell, and from my boss and mentor, M.J. Jossel, I learned what a good publisher needs to be: smart, resilient, and gracious, with a very, very good sense of humor.
While at NYU film school I served as informal joke tester for Mel Brooks. Well, that’s how I describe it. I doubt Mel Brooks would describe it at all, or even remember this important moment in my education. He and Anne Bancroft lived at 1 Fifth Avenue, which at the time was also an NYU dorm. Often when Mel would see me he’d tell me a joke. If I laughed, even in spite of myself, he’d look happy and I imagined he was earmarking the joke for use in conversation or in a film. If I didn’t react or clearly didn’t like it, I could almost hear him throw it out. This is a true story.
I don’t know why Mel picked me, but he was always holding the elevator door open on the seventh floor to finish a joke while a whole elevator-full of people waited patiently and Anne Bancroft would say, “Mel, let the door go. I’m sure she has things to do.”
I learned a great lesson from Mel Brooks. I learned that it’s important to write carefully but not to overthink things. It’s important to let ideas flow, and I encourage my clients to do the same. Even if the ideas seem silly, I know they’ll lead to something useful. They’ll lead to newly drawn boundaries and new horizons.
The goal of good writing is to change the reader or listener just a little bit, so that you’re not the same person leaving the elevator as you were when you entered it.
In a recent blog post I talked about taking daydream breaks when working on a tough project. This is how I expand my boundaries. When I work with you, that’s what we do. We start off by just talking. I tickle you with questions . . . and then maybe in the middle of our conversation I’ll say, “That’s your story” or “Try that idea,” whether we’re talking about your one-page bio, a book, or a blog entry. I guarantee you that when our meeting or phone conversation is over you’ll be stimulated to write or explore a completely new direction. Writer’s block is never an issue.
With creative juices flowing your writing will be lively, inventive, appropriate for your audience and, most important, true to who you are. It’s never good to write what you think people will want to hear. Write what you want to write; just keep your audience in mind. I’ll help you craft what you’re writing in such a way that people will get your message and get you.
When you work with me this is what will happen: You’ll feel good about your writing. You will feel confident.
You will be part of my posse henceforth.
You will feel comfortable using words like henceforth and you will feel confident knowing when not to use words like henceforth.
I’ll keep you in mind and send you articles and interesting, pertinent info. I will also be available for quick questions via e-mail or phone.
You will know what the word penultimate means. Why? Because I’m passionate about the proper use of language. If we’re talking and I start to squirm, there’s a chance that you’ve used the word penultimate to mean the best, really terrific. This is a flaw I have. I admit it. Copyediting road signs and menus is an occupational hazard, especially for someone who took Latin throughout high school. Penultimate is one of those words that has one very specific meaning: second to last.
In this respect, I have another flaw that you should know about. If you say to me, “Between you and I,” I will look like I want to tell you something, and I will: “It’s between you and me.”
I’m taking a huge risk in telling you all this. I don’t want you to think I’m a word snob. I am not. In the end, whether or not you use a word correctly doesn’t matter. What does matter is that what you say, what you write, has impact. Changes people. Comes across clearly. If you want to work with me on grammar and all that stuff, great. If you want simply to focus on packing a punch, I’ll gladly handle everything else.
I have a talent I’ve cultivated over the years that doesn’t exactly fit on a resumé: I’ve always been a good daydreamer. As I child I clocked many hours lying on my bed . . . thinking. At the time it was called “goofing off,” but I knew it was leading somewhere. As an adult I think I’ve brought daydreaming to the level of high art, something I’m proud to earn a living doing.
I was on the High Line the other day, taking a break from a tricky letter I was drafting for a client, and gazing out at the Hudson. I needed to figure out the tone of the letter. I started imagining that I had a country house in a town up the Hudson. I imagined that I commuted to my apartment on 23 Street by kayaking or canoeing downstream. (I looked that up . . . which way does the Hudson River flow on its way to New York? Down.) It was a great daydream, inspired by Stuart Little. Stuart’s a mouse, as you know, who is born into a human family in New York City. Stuart builds a canoe made out of birch bark. Because of Stuart Little I’ve always loved to canoe.
Stuart taught me a lot about independence when I was a kid and I still summon him as a reminder that anything is possible.
After that refreshing walk in the breeze and that refreshing daydream I sat down on a bench on the High Line and wrote the whole letter. My first draft was my final draft and the client liked it just the way it was.
I might as well start with my biggest secret: most of writing is NOT writing. Most of writing is about intention and focus—inward at first to reach the depth of your material and then outward to think about your reader. In my first editorial job we were allowed to take reading days at home, usually one day a week, to catch up with submissions or to write catalog copy. I loved reading days. They felt like weekend days but with work. The first thing I’d do? Laundry. Then grocery shopping. Then a walk. A swim. Lunch. Nap. Dinner. Then, after dinner I’d sit down and do the day’s work in a few hours. All that laundry and swimming and walking had gotten me to the right tone of what I needed to do. After that the content would just flow.
I loved reading days. I always had good work to show for it . . . and lots of clean laundry.