When I wrote my first book in 1982 it was 500 or so pages of xeroxed, manually typed, hyperbolically affected, tortuous prose, swaddled in a “Manuscript Box” – an item now living with buggy whips and Dodo’s.
Unlike my previous efforts that were merely critiqued by professors, this tome was ripped to shreds by a young freelance editor living somewhere in Hell’s Kitchen. The mangled verbiage was left in its stress-positioned violation of the Geneva Convention, but it was aggressively filtered through a Feminist sieve.
While all my abstract pronouns are now all gender-free, the hangover of 4.5 years in Ivy Architecture School Land is yet with my wordsmithing. However the unpacking of that verbal baggage has had its entire sequence turned on its head. In all things written for public consumption, perspective used to be applied before publication: now expression in all forms, including writing, is trending towards “blurt first, think twice”.
Now regularly writing for about 5 venues there is no shortage of reader feedback. Most people seem to like most of what I launch at them, but almost inevitably, the feedback starts with a gush, and ends with a slightly pained caveat: “I love your writing, but sometimes….” – as the words awkwardly trail off I finish their thought with: – “but it gets a little freaky….” Clearly an accurate assessment as a relieved smile always follows my honest intercession.
The Commentariat is usually surprised at my stark acknowledgement of my awkwardness’s. The truth is, having slowly bootstrapped most of my writing’s affect out of the sludge of self-indulgence, like the funk of an old car interior, its smell lingers in everything I write. As Popeye so nobly proffered, “I yam wut I yam” and what I write would be even more uncomfortable if I aspired to a neutered voice.
That said, I am very lucky to have had almost 30 years of editors aggressively grinding upon my stilted overkill. But the last 5 years have loosed the dogs of spontaneous expression, not only for me, but every writer with a Yahoo Account. As recent epic fails of Newsweek and The New Republic scream: this ain’t your 20th century literary world no more.
I may be a pretentious, sloppy and overwrought writer, but every writer, good, bad or bland has become naked before the billions of readers that wordprocess their product. Where once a managing editor tasked, an article editor edited for style and content, and a fact-checker made sure spelling, names and details were reality based, now one human usually does all three tasks, and that means none of them are fully realized.
Unless I am writing for this wee blog where my lunacy runs the asylum, now I pitch almost all my article ideas to overwhelmed editors: receiving assignments from editors is now the exception, not the rule. If the idea I pitch is approved, what I submit gets some editing for length, but there is virtually zero back-and-forth after submission. Now I see the edit for the first time in print or online. I am now, sadly, my own fact-checker for almost everything I write.
The package-to-plate has gone from months to hours. Reader reaction has gone from letters to instantaneous combustive screaming rants in chat-room “comments” sections. Instant gratification is baited into embarrassing revelation beyond journalism. Incredibly unattractive words, images, ideas and yes, people, explode onto billions of glowing screens simply because they can. No one asked for, edited or reviewed these spontaneous emissions – until after the damage is done. Every typo and error is laid bare: but salvation has become clicking on a link masked by the word “Edit”.
The recent mea culpa’s for grotesque incompetencies of non-editing by Rolling Stone and Lena Dunham’s publishers are just corporate manifestations of a cultural cascade down to nursery school etiquette. Just like toddlers who act out now and regret later, we all seem to be trending towards asking forgiveness only after unfiltered stupidity has already done its damage.
It could be said that the “Edit” button has become a Cultural Icon. The act might have become a literary anachronism, but circumspection and perspective is a dying cultural concern. We are all feeling more empowered to express, react and assert: we project, respond and retort: we vent, flame and snark. The only filter is hitting the “Send” button. Blaming technology for the seductive Internet encouraging our baser blurt response is like blaming the cake for getting fat.
How we communicate just reveals what we value, and we seem to value self-expression far beyond thoughtfulness. The need to exult in our own righteousness turns spirituality into judgment, disagreement into violence and ignorance into assertion.
Writing has become the rambling drunk at the end of the bar: unfiltered, unfocused and only heard by those in close proximity. No thought is needed, no composition is required, only production.
“Edit” has been largely rendered retroactive by social impatience, buried by technological expediency, and fully forgotten by the profitability of indifference to content. “Expression Uber Alles” writes a code where immediacy is more important than truth, impact is valued above meaning and collateral damage can be mitigated by the push of the “Edit” button.
Pulping books used to be the DefConn4 response to unmitigated incompetence in writing and editing, as retractions left the printed error present on our desk, forever. the “Edit” button allows for infinite mulligans, make-up calls and do-overs – and error is an expected part of our cultural expression. We are becoming a do first, review later culture where wall-sticking and flag-pole lofting trump taking a breath.
This just follows a flow where sex is detaching more completely from love, love from marriage and marriage from having children. The bondage of social and moral contracts is being vaporized: we are trusting personal judgment over the protections of higher purpose as defined by any number of codes of behavior. These codes, commandments and laws are administered by educated believers in positions of power, and as we begin to see the inevitable corruptions of power, those edicts seem more power trips than windows to truth.
Editing was one of those protections of a higher purpose by educated believers in positions of power. Their sway was contractual and facilitated the writer’s mission to write for more than him or herself (thank you, Ms. 1982 Editor). Now most editing is afterthought, my words are inflicted with a hope I did not screw it up too painfully before I have a chance to mitigate the damage for future readers.
Fortunately my spontaneous blurting is not perpetrated solely in hubristic egomania. I was asked to write in this venue by an editor at the New Haven Register 4 1/2 years ago, as the paper was trying to broaden its marketing into the “new” publishing world – a decade behind the curve.
That editor is long gone, that paper has lost almost all layers of middle management and editing, its moved from its own huge, owned building to a rented office. And I write this knowing a rewrite will happen, naked, by me, writer and editor, in front of anyone who cares…