By Miriam Mandel Levi
Edited by Gittie Dorel
Michael would not send me the manuscript in its entirety. Instead, he sent me one chapter at a time in no particular order. As his editor, I was confounded. Without a sense of the scope or nature of the project, I couldn’t assess how long the work would take or the levels of editing involved. Michael had his reasons. A medical doctor and scientist, he was accustomed to safeguarding data from competitive rivals. But I sensed more than a professional wariness to his mistrust.
Michael was completing a project undertaken by his late wife, Anna, who had died two months before we began working together. The manuscript was a both a testament to her father’s life as well as an exploration of a chapter in the history of the Jewish people. Anna’s father had been a refusenik in the Soviet Union in the Seventies. A Hebrew teacher and Zionist, he had been fired from his job, arrested, and imprisoned for seeking permission to emigrate.
Anna researched and wrote the book as she died: in the oncologist’s waiting room, chemotherapy suite, in her hospital bed, and in the palliative care center. In her last days, she entrusted the unfinished manuscript to Michael to see it through to publication.
Throughout the four months we worked together, I never met Michael. All of our interactions were by email and phone. I imagined him a slight man in his seventies, wan, bespectacled. His voice sounded weary, often trailing off to a whisper, as if it were an effort to persevere to the end of a sentence.
My three children had grown and left home and I found myself, at 60, wondering who I might be.
For almost 40 years I had worked as a speech language pathologist in the field of geriatrics. But I had grown tired of my clinical work with patients who came to me with strokes, brain tumors, and neurodegenerative diseases. Many of them were in crisis when I met them— afraid, depressed, desperate. Expectations were high for a return to the life they had known, but progress was slow and, more often than not, intervention outcomes were disappointing. Frequently, I found myself helping patients adjust to their new limitations, rather than finding ways to overcome them.
My patients began to remind me of my elderly parents or what they might, in my worst fears, become. They even began to remind me of my own aging self. For the first time in my long career, I found myself unable to face my workday. The buffer I had painstakingly constructed over the years to protect me from absorbing too much of my patients’ pain, that had enabled me to be an effective practitioner, had crumbled. It was time to retire.
I considered teaching. I taught two courses in the Communication Disorders department at Hadassah College, but without a PhD and a research laboratory, my job applications were roundly rejected by every academic institution I applied to.
I had distant memories of being a good photographer, horseback rider, skier, dancer—activities which did not translate into career paths at my age. In my twenties, I had mastered French and sign language, but had learned Hebrew in the interim and largely lost my proficiency in the other languages. I read a lot and ran a book club in my hometown, but didn’t think anyone would pay me to read or talk about books. A regular practice of meditation and yoga stood me in good stead, but I was a novice at both.
I turned to editing. I had kept diaries my entire life, dabbled in journalism, and harbored a lifelong dream of becoming a writer. Over the past ten years, I had rediscovered creative writing and had a run of publications in literary journals and anthologies.
The decision to become an editor was not without its misgivings. I had never had much respect for editors. To my mind, they were a sorry group of wannabe writers who had taken refuge from the brave frontiers of creativity to the safety of gatekeeping the writings of others. I wondered if it was an admission of failure, on my part, that I was joining their ranks, or an active avoidance of the more noble but terrifying call to write, a sublimation of that true desire. On the other hand, many writers worked as editors; it was a natural pairing, after all.
After some deliberation, I enrolled in a year-long program in Editing and Editorial Analysis at David Yellin College in Jerusalem. It only took a few classes for me to realize that editing was a serious and demanding profession in its own right, involving high level language skill, and attention to detail. There were layers of text to pay attention to: voice, tone, register, organization, coherence; hundreds of rules of grammar, capitalization, punctuation, spelling; style guides – Chicago, MLA, APA, each with exacting requirements.
There were stages of editing: developmental, copy editing, proofreading. A text underwent a preliminary evaluation followed by a first pass and second pass. It had to be formatted on Word or Google Docs. Then there were the challenges of navigating the editor-author relationship with sensitivity, modesty, and respect. I was humbled. And delighted.
I loved spending hours on the page where, I realized, I belonged more than anywhere else. Living in peoples’ stories, in their words and turns of phrases brought me joy. But, there was a dark side to the trade. Editing also played to the perfectionist, controlling aspect of my personality. With one tap of the delete button, I could wipe out an entire paragraph and reconstruct the author’s text in my own (superior) voice. I am an editor; I know best.
Line Editing: Pass One
Although Anna was highly intelligent, literate, and articulate, she wrote the manuscript in English, her third language, after Hebrew and Russian. The text reflected her non-native tongue.
Errors of capitalization, use of the definite article, and past progressive abounded. A “homey room” was rendered “homely,” an “excursion” to a nearby town a “voyage.” Where the text said “emigrate,” it should have said “immigrate,” “alumni” should have read “alumnus,” two Temples were “respectfully” destroyed instead of “respectively” destroyed. Foreign words needed italics; numbers needed to be spelled out. I noted these meticulous edits in track changes, and they were accepted unquestioningly by Michael.
The felicitous changes were more challenging. Michael guarded Anna’s words with a fierce protectiveness. When in a comment on the border of the page I suggested more elegant phrasing, he balked. No matter how diplomatically or convincingly I made my case, he politely but firmly declined. Thank you, he would write, but we will leave it as it is.
When I indicated, for example, that “fateful” might be a better word than “momentous” to describe the day WWII broke out, he rejected the edit outright. In another passage, Jewish art was clumsily described as “expressing itself through the language of its symbolic values and not through figures.” I suggested “as opposed to human forms” since the word “figures” might be misunderstood by the reader to refer to digits. He disagreed. Time and again, I encountered resistance.
I felt thwarted, unable to do my job. I had to settle for awkward word choices and cumbersome phrasing when there were vastly better alternatives. The passages I had been prevented from editing began to look like glaring imperfections on the page. I worried that the unvarnished text would reflect poorly on the quality of my work.
Michael and I were caught in a standoff. A palpable tension settled over our working relationship.
Line Editing: Pass Two
I should have had more insight into Michael’s conflict. As I worked on his book, a colleague and I were simultaneously editing “Of Rivers and Roads,” an anthology of short stories written by a close friend, Janet, who’d passed away a year earlier from ovarian cancer. Janet was my writing partner—the first person to whom I sent my stories. We attended writing workshops together, edited each other’s pieces, shared our publication successes, and commiserated over the rejections. We didn’t just share the stories on the page, we shared the stories of our lives.
Editing Janet’s work after her death was like sitting in Aroma Café with her over a cup of coffee; I could hear her wisdom, compassion, and wit in the stories. She lived and breathed in the words on the page, and I read them again and again. A part of me wanted to preserve her stories exactly as she’d penned them. Even moving a comma felt like a violation of her memory. The stories were, in a way, all I had left of her. At the same time, many of them were incomplete or unpolished and I knew change was unavoidable.
This was true, all the more so, for Michael who had lost, not only his best friend, but his wife. Every word altered meant letting a part of Anna go; the stages of editing embodied the painful transition from the certainty and fullness of their lives together to the fallibility of memory. Editing the manuscript meant taking Anna’s pure voice, amending and corrupting it.
I decided to change my approach. Even if I believed I was right, even if I had to settle for a clumsy sentence, I would defer to Michael. The book, after all, was his and Anna’s creation, not mine. I knew that humility was the hallmark of a good editor. As a writer, I had worked with both respectful and aggressive editors and I knew which I wanted to be.
It wasn’t easy. The unpolished words and phrases howled at me from the page, like wounded animals. I felt ill at ease in their proximity. But I girded myself. If a particular phrasing was acceptable, albeit not lyrical, I left it alone. I also made it clear to Michael, in no uncertain terms, that he was the final arbiter and what he said went. I knew our editor-writer relationship had to be built on this foundational truth.
Over the subsequent days and weeks, I noticed a subtle shift in our dynamic. In one exchange, I suggested “places of employment” instead of “working places” and Michael approved the change. Then he was amenable to replacing “applications for services” with “requests for services” and “holiday” with “festival.” He began to respond to my editorial notes with yes, go ahead, whatever you think is best.
I am certain that Michael intuited that I had surrendered the battle for control over the manuscript. Once he sensed that I had laid down my machete, he felt less of a need to defend his and Anna’s work. Of course, I was glad it worked out the way it did; I was satisfied with the final draft. But, even if it hadn’t played out this way, even if Michael had asserted his control over the manuscript and rejected my felicitous edits, I hope I would have accepted the outcome with humility and grace.
Editing is satisfying in a way that speech therapy was not: The work is more technical, and the subject more fixable. Yet, I discovered that in an unexpected way, they are similar. In both fields, I cannot undo and redo what has been done; I can only enhance what is. In both careers, I am helping my client find self-expression. In the end, it all circles back to communication.
Working on the manuscript seemed to bring Michael equal measures of pain and solace. Reliving Anna’s words was a way to be with her but, at the same time, underscored her absence. In our many conversations, Michael extolled Anna’s intelligence and compassion. Then, the magnitude of his loss would engulf him, and he would sigh with a profound loneliness.
I believe that in the time we worked on the manuscript Michael was learning how to live without Anna. With each edit he was deciding which parts of her he would carry forward and which parts he would let go; finding a way to be faithful to their past yet, at the same time, oriented to a future without her, making her story, their story, a new story.
I had undergone a similar healing process as I edited Janet’s anthology. While the editing process was a way to keep her close, it was also a way to let her go. Writing was Janet’s great love and calling; she had so many more stories to tell. In editing the anthology, I could, at the very least, finish the ones she’d begun, thus bringing her voice to the people who knew and loved her and introducing her to those who did not. I could inch her closer to the dream she’d had of becoming a published author. This gave me comfort.
The editing wasn’t easy: finding the right balance between conserving Janet’s words and inserting my own. But I reminded myself that the act of remembering is, inevitably, a creative one. I was satisfied I had stayed true to her voice, even if I had added my own.
The months of editing had offered both Michael and me a tenuous way forward.
About the author:
Miriam Mandel Levi is a writer of fiction and creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Blue Lyra Review, Creative Nonfiction, Brain, Child, Literary Mama, Under the Sun, Poetica, Sleet, Tablet, bioStories, Random Sample, and Chautauqua.