The Cultural Ethics of Editing

Three times in the last week I’ve been moved by the underlying mechanics of editing and how they are influenced by culture.  Last week I read Death by Critique – 6 Tips on How To Avoid It on Roni Loren’s blog Pantsing My Way Through Debut Authorhood (You are forewarned about the image at the bottom of the entry). The blog gives solid, down-to-earth advice I haven’t heard since my stint in academia and its version of creative writing. Loren brings out points gleaned from an editor at the RWA Con earlier in the month, who expressed that a good, raw story wins over swank editing any day.  She goes on to list five great points along that line–things to avoid so that you your editing process doesn’t diminish the passion of your words. While my heart sang to read this and my inner editor headed for the beach, I wondered how many editors really feel that way. I read too much bad fiction to believe that it’s anywhere close to the majority. However, one can hope, and I choose to boost the signal.

Again, I was struck by this theme when I watched Lisa Factora-Borchers video Editing as an Act of Love. Factora-Borchers mentions specifically that to be a good editor s/he with the red ink needs to have a relationship with the writer, to really be in touch with who that person is and where s/he comes from. Again, I paused and questioned just how many editors can even spell their authors’ names correctly, let alone recall their heritage. But I’m a believer. It’s a good message.

Bloods by Wallace Terry
Bloods by Wallace Terry
The Multiverse reiterated the theme to me in another Aha! moment just this morning.  Celebrating its 25th anniversary, NPR’s The Story featured the voices of Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans by Wallace Terry.  I haven’t read the book, though it’s now at the top of my reading list.  The stories of the men in the interview are what stood out.  They shared extremely candid, if not somewhat graphic memories of their time in Vietnam, things like how they weren’t as afraid to go out into the jungle as they were to come back to their own squadrons, how they killed people–literally howthey killed them, how they felt about killing them.  They also spoke unfettered truth about the acts of their fellow soldiers penchants for torture, mutilation, desecration of bodies, rape.  The men readily admitted to subscribing to the mindset of young Marines who are trained and want to kill.  They also told of the inhumane treatment black soldiers received from white soldiers, and how their treatment when they returned to the U.S. held extra, special hate.

As I listened to the men talk, details from the book seemed so primitive they could have been describing some frontier skirmish between the cowboys and the indians, scalping, pillaging. It sounded like something from a long time ago that we don’t do anymore.  But the Vietnam War wasn’t long ago at all, and war is in our faces everyday, now.  Nobody says things like this, and when they do it’s dismissed as an anomaly. The frankness of these vets only reiterated just how sanitized literature, thus our perspectives on war have become.

As an author I can read articles on how to keep it real and write my heart’s desire, but what strikes me is that by and large, as a culture we don’t talk, or write straight, about very obvious, everyday things–like war. Listening to these men further reinforced Loren and Factora-Borcher’s points and made me wonder if our voices are poised to be hushed in ways so ingrained that we don’t notice they’re quiet.  By virtue of conditioning does the internal editor censor what we’re willing to write about before our manuscript ever reaches the desk of the pros?  The whole reason Terry wrote this book was to tell a story that hadn’t been told–the unedited story of the black Vietnam War Veteran.  These are fringe voices, what Clarissa Pinkola-Estes in her series Mother Night called “medial,” the marginal being between two worlds, not just holding unseen truths but truths most are unwilling to see.  The stories of these men are not what we are usually told about war.  They are the very specific details we suspect then damn, forgetting that at the root of it all are real people.  From all of these scenarios on storytelling and editing a question emerged: “Why was Wallace able to publish twenty-five years ago a searing, passionate voice we now have to be reminded is wanted in literature?” Have we stripped that much from our creative pallets? Yes, the ethnicity of these men makes their war experience different (medial?) if only because the voices of African American men are not heard in our culture in many arenas, but does that fact make them also more likely to tell the truth, particularly about things many of us don’t want to hear?  What led them to tell a story that more privileged vets did not? How does culture factor into not just how we write, but what we are willing to write?  Better yet, how does culture and privilege present in what we are willing to read?

2 thoughts on “The Cultural Ethics of Editing

  1. “…voices poised to be hushed…”

    Great post leaves my brain churning even before I’ve had my coffee!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.