Lore Segal: A (Complicated) Love Letter to Editors
On Syntax, Rewrites, Second-Guesses, and Grace
My day begins by re-reading what I wrote the day before; when I finish the last sentence of the last chapter, I will have another go at the first sentence of the first. There is not, in my experience, a moment when I know a piece of writing is finished, but there will come a morning when I have not changed a word and neither added nor eliminated another comma.
There are writers, we know, who sit down and type up what they have composed in their heads. One might have imagined Henry James dictating his fully formed complexities to his amanuensis if he had not written a story in which the old master is observed sitting at the seaside, his novel in its new dustjacket on his lap. He is editing it.
In a novel published in 1985, I described the woman in the employment office as having a “useless bosom.” It is 2018 and walking home along 100th Street, I think, “not a ‘useless’—an ‘unused’ bosom.” I had not been thinking about the novel, nor about the agency woman. Had the inefficient word been worrying the back of my mind for more than 30 years?
I still come down the elevator with the neighbor whom I paid to type my stories in the 50s and 60s. I would put the clean copy into an envelope enclosing the stamped and self-addressed envelope in which it would be returned to be put into a new envelope with a fresh SASE and sent to the next on the list of magazines. All of us, I think, always tried The New Yorker first. I remember giving a party at which I tossed my collection of rejection slips into the air to watch them descend, a shower of monster snowflakes. By that time I had published three stories in three journals, one for a payment of two free copies, one for $15.00, and a story in Commentary which, paying by the word, sent me—I remember it was $138.00.
That same spring, I sent The New Yorker my ur-story about the Children’s Transport that had brought me and some five hundred children from Nazi-occupied Vienna to England. I enclosed, along with the SASE, a note saying, “Is there any anybody there, beside the pencil which writes ‘Sorry’ at the bottom of the rejections?” Then I left for my first residence at Yaddo, the artist colony in Saratoga Springs.As soon as I returned from Yaddo, I phoned The New Yorker and was summoned to Rachel McKenzie’s office.
One evening I was called from dinner in the baronial dining hall. My mother was on the phone. The letter from The New Yorker was not the size that could contain a returned manuscript. Should she open and read it to me? Yes, please: The New Yorker would like to publish “Children’s Transport.” Noting my recent story in Commentary about the child living with a Liverpool foster family, would I be interested in writing a series on my immigration for the magazine?
It’s only recently that I captured this moment in an (unpublished) story about a massacre in a creative writers’ colony in which a student is killed by an exploding acceptance letter from The New Yorker.
As soon as I returned from Yaddo, I phoned The New Yorker and was summoned to Rachel McKenzie’s office. Rachel, a woman—a lady—in her forties, hair nicely coiffed, wore something dark and quiet that insisted on drawing no attention to itself. She was smiling at me. The office was a narrow room. We sat on the two chairs by the desk under the window that gave onto West 43rd Street. Why does the sofa smelling of mold continue to turn up in my stories? That needs editing: It gave off the gentle breath of something that has always been there that nobody would think of sitting on.
I deduce my own behavior on that first occasion by Rachel’s suggestion that I go home and come back when I was ready to work. “Am I talking too much?” I asked her. Rachel smiled (I wrote “benevolently” and edited to “benignly”).
If Rachel met or walked me back to the elevator, William Shawn and I might find ourselves face to face. Both of us turned red. Each time Rachel said, “Mr. Shawn, you have met Lore?” he and I would embark on a conversation which neither of us knew how to conclude so that I have a sense of our standing there still—Mr. Shawn, Rachel Mackenzie, and I—in that hallway long after The New Yorker relocated.
Shawn’s questions were to the point and they were moral. Once, something in a story I wrote about my parents worried him. My father and mother had come to England on a domestic service visa and were working as “a married couple”—that is, a cook and butler—in a country house near Sevenoaks in the south of England. After Hitler’s annexation of Austria, my Jewish father was fired from his post as chief accountant of the Vienna bank, Kux, Bloch & Co.; he was never going to learn to be a proper butler. My mother, on the other hand—a housewife who had studied piano at the Wiener Musik Akademie—was a good and a very willing cook. On one of the Sundays they had off work, the lady of the house might have thought she was doing something nice for the foreigners in her kitchen by inviting the vicar’s cook for a visit. My mother baked a Viennese cake which the visitor was understood to find too rich. She asked for paper and pencil to write down for my mother how to make a good plain sponge. After that, I wrote in my story, my parents made sure to be always out of the house on their free afternoons.
It troubled Mr. Shawn: Had my parents, he wrote in the margin, perhaps been a little superior? In my answer, I wrote, that yes, they had, and there was nothing more said on the subject.
In the 80s, the New Yorker published a chapter of Her First American in which the black protagonist, Carter Bayoux, jokes that he knows how to put the race question to rest: Make it known to white folks, “We don’t fuck so good either.” To Mr. Shawn, known for insisting on the magazine’s purity of language, this was a problem. “We don’t have such good sex either,” would not do. “We don’t make love so well,” wouldn’t do. Rachel McKenzie negotiated for “screw,“ which would do, though it wasn’t what my character said.
The New Yorker is famous for its fact checking. An apologetic voice on my phone said that no town called “Allchester” could be identified on any ordnance map of England. “I made it up,” I told the fact checker. “Ah!” he said, very much relieved, thanked me, and rang off.
The proof reading was a matter, sometimes, of style: ‘“You are right,’ Carter Bayoux said,” is right. ‘“You are right,’ said Carter Bayoux,” is wrong.
My late husband, David Segal, was an editor at Knopf. He believed that his business was to understand where his writers wanted to go and to get them there a little sooner, perhaps. I wish I had him here at my elbow to help organize my ideas for this essay and tell me which is one too many. It was I who asked David to ask William Gass why he did not tell the reader which of his characters was speaking. Gass, grinning—benignly—said, “To put road-blocks in your way,” and would not remove—no, not one of them.
I propose to address you, the numerous editors of my writing life, in the second person singular, grammar’s awkward way around grammar’s awkwardness with gender, for you were male and you were female, my friend and bestie: I have been moved by your caring as much as I care about my clarity, my taste, and my facts. You say that the final decision must be the writer’s, but I teach my students the wisdom of agreeing with the editor whenever possible so as to lay away reserves of good will against the day when we must have our way. Fortune, we know, turns on a dime, and yesterday’s soulmate has become the adversary with whom I wrestle through the sleepless night.
I understand that you want to make it easier for my reader to know the who, when, and where of my story but you have changed my opening sentence and messed with the rhythm, and I hollered! Disagree with my argument, beliefs, and my politics, but hands off my syntax! Noli me tangere, I argued.
I write “stet” where I agree with your good changes and deletions, but how do I delete those little words that you have added, which are the words I edit out of my students’ writing: “then” though one thing following another is not in question; “suddenly” when the suddenness of an event is not the point and is of no interest; a “just” that does not really mean “merely,” the “really” that does not address a prior doubt, and every “all” that does not mean “every”? If you change “the” to “a” you turn my particular to a universal and when you add “exactly’’ to “we don’t know” you rewrite my suspicion that we haven’t the least idea, which changes my politics. When you explain my paratactic “and, and, and,” with “although,” “but,” and “yet,” you are saying that we know how one thing leads to another. You would ask Caesar to “unpack” I came, I saw, I conquered. Should he have said, As soon as I arrived, I took a look around in order to make a mental inventory of the available forces so that their optimum deployment enabled me to take the entire territory?
True that the familiar “all,” “just,” and “really” relax the sentence. Using the expected forms makes reading easier and is what Microsoft Word’s automatic editor wants me to do. Where I wrote, “The child stood, waiting and wanting for nothing,” the algorithm, programmed to expect “waiting and waiting,” blue-underlined and changed “wanting” to a second “waiting” and persists in correcting my correction of its correction.
So thank you for killing several self-congratulatory references, the feeblest of my jokes, and more: for our shared passion—yes, it is a passion—to find the right word to replace the approximate; to preserve a nuance; to unclutter a thought; to add the optional comma that makes the sentence breathe right.
If there is someone thinking these are “just” cosmetic, mandarin matters, it is not so! For us—for me and my good editor—this is what matters. The word that matches what we see and feel explains us to ourselves and does what Robert Frost says of poetry: It stays our confusion.