Editing for the Humanities
Recently, in quick succession, I edited a book written by an Israeli couples therapist, a paper on educating children who live in conflict zones that teachers can't safely reach, and a book proposal on how devotional love in India helped in the fight against British colonialism.
I felt as if I were moving from one theater to another in one of those multiscreen cinemas.
The couples therapist pointed out that although men think women don't manage their feelings well, if men had any idea just how deep the reservoir of women's feelings is, they would realize that women manage them really well—far better than men (whose emotional repertoire is pitifully small by comparison) deal with their emotions. The problem, he pointed out tactfully, is that men can't manage women's feelings. Of course, these are very broad generalizations, but I found the book's perspective personally helpful, and immediately put some of its strategies to work in my own life.
It was a little more difficult to apply the other two books to my current life situation, but each of them expanded my world in its own way. The paper on children in conflict zones awakened filled me with admiration for the courageous people who are trying to circumvent the harsh facts of war on the ground by using wireless, digital technology to support child refugees.
The manuscript on bhakti, devotional love in the Indian tradition, opened up a new way of looking at struggles for emancipation, and how strong feelings of love pierce through barriers of "otherness," enabling people to free themselves from self-limiting ideas about who they are and how much freedom they deserve.
Each of these works had its own unique editorial problems. The therapist's book was originally written in Hebrew and needed some coaxing into English syntax. It also presented dozens of instances where I deeply wished English had a gender-neutral pronoun besides "one," so I could avoid constructions like "Everyone wants their relationship to succeed." I know it's become acceptable, but my ninth-grade English teacher, Miss Hirschoff, is still whispering in my ear that I should look for a workaround. The paper on education in conflict zones presented some challenges involving the endnotes, so that, along with the immediacy and urgency of the topic, I was grounded by the prosaic discipline of the scholarly form in which it was contained–like ballast for a ship on a stormy voyage.
Finally, the work on bhakti was so full of erudition and esoteric concepts about language and meaning that I was continually needing to educate myself in order to understand what I was editing to preserve the book's subtle shades of meaning.
It's always personally interesting to me to see how editorial skills are brought to bear on such different kinds of writing—both editorial skills and thinking skills, for while as an editor I may not be an expert on Lacanian epistemology, I do know from long experience when an argument is being presented logically and clearly, when it's being weakened by internal contradictions, and when awkwardness in the writing style is getting in the way. Then there are the simple mechanics of grammar and punctuation, those universal rules of the road. Editorial tools, like tools in the workshop, are never used quite the same way twice. Yet it's almost always clear when you need a hammer or when you just need a few turns of a Philips screwdriver to solve the problem—or when what's really required is a good saw.
The New Age and Spiritual Marketplace
As someone who was an early adopter of meditation, organic food, and yoga postures I didn't know it was possible for a human being to do, I have an enduring interest in this field of writing and publishing. I use the word marketplace somewhat ironically, since the intention behind New Age spirituality seems so far from the impulse to sell anything, let alone oneself or one's book. To avoid mistakes and set the right tone in this market, direct experience really matters.
For ten years, I was editor and then managing editor of a monthly magazine focused on esoteric spiritual traditions, both Eastern and Western. Around our small conference table, my colleagues and I would discuss the theme of each month's issue—The Self, Beauty, The Realm of the Heart, Rumi, Good Company, Speaking the Truth, Selfless Service, and dozens of other great themes of spirituality. We grounded ourselves in all the nuances of these topics. That experience has served me well as an editor in this field, whether I'm editing a book about dreams or one on how to use the principles of Zen in project management. My own personal practice also helped me avoid some of the pitfalls of writing in this genre. For example, while it's obvious that we create our own universe, a favorite New Age tenet, it's also obvious that we don't! How you handle a paradox like this is important, and affects the credibility of a work. There are other challenges. How do you write about secularized teachings and practices, once rooted firmly in religious traditions, in a way that preserves their vitality? When mindfulness becomes another a tool to increase productivity, what, if anything, is lost?
I welcome the penetration of New Age ideas and spirituality into the larger culture. As an editor who is familiar with the fields from which these teachings emerged, I'm deeply interested in how to present them with what the Buddhists call "skillful means."
The Beauty of Scholarship
In a time when people are communicating important information via Twitter and the very existence of facts is being questioned, the traditions of academic scholarship, built on the bedrock of logic and reason, are going to be more vital than ever. There is just no substitute for the careful, persistent pursuit of truth, certainly not in the hyperbolic stories and half-truths that come out of a lot of our media and "corporate-sponsored" research. Although many people find the tested traditions of academia tedious, even dull, they don't have to be. Following a well-written work of scholarship as it moves persuasively toward its conclusion can be an enlivening, even exciting experience. I remember how I felt when I first began to comprehend Hegel's Philosophy of History as an undergraduate. It was as if doors were literally opening in my mind.
Not every work has to be as monumental as Hegel's to succeed. A work with far more modest aims can, and should, engage readers deeply. To do that, it needs to take a step beyond the basics—beyond even sound scholarship, valid arguments, and evidence-based claims. Those are necessary but not sufficient qualities of good academic writing. A big part of the success in communicating ideas depends on how well they are organized and, of course, on the quality of the writing. Well-formed sentences, a precise choice of words, and a structure that holds the information well sustain a reader's interest. They can do more than that: they can make even a work of scholarship a page-turner. When I edit a piece of writing, I always try to ensure these qualities are there.
A lot is at stake on our planet right now, and academic writing may seem irrelevant to these pressing concerns. To some, the whole academic enterprise may feel like an antiquated, slow-moving dinosaur. Nothing could be further from the truth. Through scholarship that is strong, persuasive, interesting, and rooted in integrity, we can make America think again.