In the beginning, they belong to us. They are our words on our pages—scribbled, straightened, colorized, uninterrogated, competing with no other words. Our first words on our private pages are inculpable words. We decide if they’re good words or they’re bad. We live inside their echo chambers. We are the ruler and the ruled.
We follow an impulse, an instinct, a song. We pursue poetic ambiguity or pristine transparency, the convoluted or the plain, the interior space, the panoramic view, the method and the means. We are the character or we create the characters, until we are done, or think we are, until we are ready for our words to be seen. We straighten our scribbles, key in our letters, settle on our typefaces and our margins.
We release the words we made.
On editors’ desks, they are passed over or seen. They are rejected or believed. Sometimes, not always, an editor speaks. “So,” she says, “I’ve been thinking. Would you like to work with me?”
She enters our world.
The writer says, “This is what I have made, see me.”
The editor says, “I see what you have made, I see you.”
It’s a matter of pronouns.
The editor sums and summarizes, suggests and occupies. She puts herself at the mercy of our writerly ambitions, setting aside whatever else she had to do that day so that she might take a good long look around at our oddness. Her insights and instincts bubble proximate to ours. She cracks open our lines. She multiplies.
Her thoughts appear in the margin balloons of Track Changes. Her perhapses tattoo our pages. She bolds sentences and phrases. She identifies the inadequate self-interrogations. She applies X-ray vision to accumulating themes. She wonders this, she wonders that. She calibrates what works and what might work better. She supposes in our name and for our sake. Her means are acuity. Her methods are cleverness and appeal. Her praise is a poignancy, a matter of persuasion.
When she is done—when she sends her words about our words back to us—we are, we realize, vulnerable. We are wanting to believe, afraid of believing, knowing better than to believe, having to believe. We understand that change is coming. That there will be deletions, reassertions, rearrangements, new colors, that in this intense exchange the stakes have been raised, and that the exchange, for now, will be ongoing. Our words are no longer just our words. Our writerly ambitions are no longer ours alone. Anything that happens next belongs also to her, our editor, who has (unlike so many others) chosen to believe, who has (in ways others have not) pored over, lived inside, our pages.
We don’t want to let her down. We don’t know if we can protect her. We can offer no guarantees—no perfect promise of starry reviews or prize attention or sales that surpass her advance investment or compensate for the time this whole editing thing has taken. We show our appreciation by giving her our next best drafts, our attention to her details.
We praise her for her praise.
We wonder if she hears us.
As a child, I folded hundreds of love knots out of origami paper, silver gum wrappers, any scrap I could find, each fold crisp with intent. I washed my hands before getting to work, not wanting smudges. You cannot undo a love knot, or at least that’s what the teacher told me.
The journey, as editor and author, begins on the page, just the two of us in conversation. My edits are love knots I fold for my authors. Exultations bloom in the margins alongside queries and suggestions. My notes of appreciation unpack the why behind acquisition. Each exclamation claims because. When I gush about the curl of a sentence or how a line of dialogue snaps, it means you have my heart.
Soon reviews will come. Readers will react. The story will be judged by outsiders. When I compliment my authors, I want my words to hold their shape through these next public steps.
But when writers return the compliments I cannot seem to keep a kind word for myself.
The writer says I’m insightful? I say, “Your words have led me to interesting places!”
The writer says I’m fast? I say, “That’s how my brain works.” (Shrug.)
The writer says I’m smart? I list mentors’ names and say, “These publishers taught me.”
The theme of praise avoidance reaches a fugue-like intensity. How quickly the meddlesome countermelody forms: You think I am good, but really—
The imbalance, then, persists. The inherent asymmetry. The editor putting herself at the mercy of our words and our words becoming more than we alone would ever make them and our gratitude going (sometimes) unheeded. Every new iteration preambles the next iteration. Every fresh draft becomes a record of the conversation, until a decision is made: no more talk about these pages, no more changes.
Then, another shift. That’s our picture on the jacket. That’s our name in the reviews. That’s our praise and our dispraise. That’s us standing there, among family and friends, sitting there, with our autograph pens, waiting there in our waiting rooms for someone out in the world to say, “I like the book you made.”
It remains a matter of pronouns.
Of course we have slipped our editor’s name into the acknowledgments. Of course we have sent her cards or something silly. Of course we have tied a ribbon around a necklace another made and sent it clear across the country and of course we will mention in the interviews (should there be interviews), our editor’s name.
Still the imbalance persists. The writer steps forward. The editor steps back.
My author, in her final days of cancer, sent me an autographed copy of her debut novel. Every day, for twenty-four days, I studied the sealed package and decided, Tomorrow. I didn’t feel ready to accept the message she wrote to me. And then she died.
It’s still there, on my bookshelf, unopened.
I knew it might come to this. At our first meeting, she set the word “terminal” on the tea table between us. Not a statement as much as a question: “Do you still want to work with me?”
I promised I did. I said, “If the timeline changes, I will do everything I can.”
Over the next months, we worked as writers and editors do. My queries measured the distance between her intent and what existed on the page. I begged for more: “Here, please, also here.” We met many times for tea, mapping her wishes and planning for the future. By the time we were done, she was ready. Ready to be an author.
Then her cancer advanced. I accelerated the production schedule. Local booksellers agreed to shelve copies early. My author visited those stores and signed autographs at the cash wraps. When the pandemic swept in, we replaced her splashy bookstore launch with a physically-distanced visit in her sunlit garden. As virus counts escalated, the cancer kept encroaching. Her book would soon be in the world without her standing behind it.
In our final phone call, I walked worried loops in the yard as I listened. After that, I texted. We postponed our next chat for a day when she felt better. Threaded between these points of contact, I sent handmade cards, pretty bakery cupcakes, and the latest reviews—praise, praise, praise. I urged her not to reply. I just wanted her to accept it.
Right before she died, she sent the gift that still sits on my shelf, unopened. Words from her that I have not read, yet.
Who doesn’t open a gift?
Why won’t I?
It is possible to miss the making of our books.
It is possible to wish to strip the jackets of our photographs, the reviews of our books, the binding of their glue so that we might begin again, might find ourselves back in that circle of conversation. The editor with her Track Changes tattoos. The editor with her countervailing views. The editor with her hopes, still (in that moment) unspooling. The editor with her praise, her words that hold their shape, while we, the writers, listen, while we, the writers, answer back with the best new words we can summon.
It is possible to miss this.
It is possible to leave a gift unopened.
It is possible to want nothing more than to keep the conversation going.
Beth Kephart is a National Book Award finalist and the author of more than thirty books in multiple genres, as well as the author of numerous essays that appear in places like Literary Hub, Catapult, New York Times Book Review, and The Millions.