Thursday, April 23, 2009

Careers in Writing, Editing, and Publishing (I)

I've been doing a lot of panels for students recently (grads, undergrads, and, most desperately, soon-to-be grads) on the ever-popular topic of "Careers in Writing, Editing, and Publishing," and I've been saying some of the same things often enough that distilling them into a blog post makes for a worthwhile pursuit. In order to keep my day job (in publishing) I'll lay this out in a few posts, tentatively to be:

  • Why "writing, editing, and publishing"?
  • What jobs are there in writing, editing, and publishing?
  • How to get the skills I need for writing, editing, and publishing jobs?
If anyone has any suggestions or questions for topics to explore, leave 'em in the comments and I'll try to answer them.

Why would I want to work in writing, editing, and/or publishing?

  • You like words.
  • You like ideas.
  • You like people.
  • You like to tinker.
  • You like books.

I've put these in the order in which they occur to me, but I think that's a pretty good indicator of their importance. Do you like to play with words, making puns, anagrams, or spoonerisms? That's a plus; it shows an appreciation for language and a sense of precision about word usage. You have to know the proper meaning of a word, after all, to be able to make a joke on it. You'll be dealing with words all day long, in one context or another. You'll be writing emails, reading manuscripts, editing on a line-by-line basis, or on a more global level. You'll be explaining how things work to authors; you'll be explaining the content of a book to others.

Liking ideas ("content" in the argot of the businessmen of the Information Age) is equally important. Do you get excited about your classes? Have you ever said, "This book changed my life!"? If your heart gets sped up by novels, history books, or biochem--or, better, yet, all of the above--then you can take a genuine interest in a field, or an approach to a field. Any job in publishing requires, to one level or another, an investment in the content of a book, and the more naturally you get invested in ideas, the easier your job will be.

Creating books (and magazines, and web sites, and anything else that one might read) is a social activity. Yes, sure, there have been some recluse fiction writers, but before you set your heart on a cabin in the woods with a typewriter and a cocker spaniel for company, note that J.D. Salinger hasn't published since 1965, and his biography is parallelled by others' (Djuna Barnes, for example, or, from another realm of artistic pursuit, Terrence Malick). Writing requires human contact; you bounce ideas off others, you say things aloud to see how they sound, you observe others' emotions and try to capture the rhythms of their speech. I'm reminded of the scene in Norman MacLean's story, "Logging and Pimping" (if I recall correctly), where the narrator realizes that the couple in the next thin-walled room (hooker and john) are enjoying each others' company in iambic pentameter. A true event? More or less, probably--but a probable one, one which was based on being in the company of others. I needn't even start in on scholarly or non-fiction writing as a social pursuit. Any ideas you're going to publish need to be battered into shape in a group of smart people who know the topic and the evidence before they're anywhere close to being ready for print.

Tinkering, bricolage, improvement--the process of editing, in particular, is one of taking a good thing and making it better. But so is book design, for example--you're taking something and making it presentable, giving it a handsome, useful, and also socially meaningful form. Writing just as much so--and it's even harder, since you have to be able to see the flaws in your own work, and flex your imagination to find patches for them.

I've put books last on the list of things you enjoy because, while books are pleasurable things, items of great utility and beauty, with virtues too numerous to list, they are historically contingent, and if what you're interested in is writing, editing, and publishing (and you're at the beginning of a thirty or forty year career) then you'll do well to think of formats other than the 100-1,000 page bound book. If you're passionate about books, then you can think strictly in terms of bookmaking (if you're passionate about anything, then go for it!). You can follow the model of Crumpled Press and make beautiful books by hand and for the love of it. Be aware, though, that you will be in the artist-to-artisan pay scale. You will work your tale (I meant that) off for the love of it, and the rewards will not necessarily be exchangeable for many goods and services. Ponder whether you love books...or reading. Look at your shelf of books: is it a collection...or a library? And decide whether you're interested in a career in books...or in words.

I knew I wouldn't be able to resist adding one more thing. Do you like systems and rules? Did you read the drivers' manual for fun when you were in high school? How about the Rules of Baseball? When you eat ice cream out of the carton, do you take careful scrapes off the top so that it stays level as you eat? OK, that last one may be a personal thing. But the sort of mindset that you need in order to take pleasure in many of the tasks of W, E, and P, is one that is aware of (and takes pleasure in) rules and consistency and the like. Yes, you can take pleasure in breaking those rules, but ignorance of them is by no means bliss. What is more, you can take pleasure in the creating of those rules, whether it's in the form of rewriting The Manual of Style or in creating a house style for an animal-behavior blog.

Tomorrow: What in the hell do you people do all day?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

In order to keep my bike-blogging credentials intact

You ain't part of the blogosphere unless you posted this video:

Seriously, this is one of the coolest things I've ever seen. The opening is great, with just a hint of the failures and falls on the way to doing such awesome stuff. This type of bike riding is called "Trials" riding, and there's a circuit, with competitions--you have a course that you either have to complete in a certain time, with time penalties for "dabbing" (putting a foot down) or maybe there's a subjective judging element; I forget. The point is, if you ever see a poster up for "Bicycle Trials" at your local minor-league hockey arena (or similar venue), go! It will be awesome. I saw a TV segment on this once as a kid, and ever since, it's been something I've aspired to.

So far, all I've succeeded in doing is learning how to bike really slowly.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


I was thinking last week, as I got dressed in the dark--wait, I should explain. I was dressing in the dark, in the locker room at work. It's not as weird as it sounds, well, not as publicly weird: we have a single-shower locker room, one user at a time, so no one knows that I take off my coat, gloves, and sweater(s), and change my shoes in the dark (until now). I thought to myself, "I do this for the energy savings, but it's great preparation for sailing and camping and the like." And it's true; I can dress very efficiently in the dark, now.

That sort of thought--A (what I'm doing now) is excellent preparation for B (what I'd like to do)--is one that comes easily to me. And it helps get through a boring task, like changing one's shoes, if one can think of it in terms of future adventues. And, yes, there's a downside: you can fall into the habit of thinking of things in the future and missind the present.

But I'm writing now about the upside. The habits I form (keeping the lights off, for example) create not just skills but an approach to life: efficiency with energy and materials (not so much efficiency with time, as all who know me well will attest), for example. Camping, biking, sailing, working, living: it's all the same thing. What's the most efficient way to get from here to there? What's the best habit to be in to use the least energy, in as many circumstances as possible?

In the vivid past tense, as opposed to the generalizing present, here' a quick summary of the weekend's camping expedition (Full details, with pics, may be forthcoming. I won't promise, however). In short, it was fantastic. Fifteen of us (Bat Jr., Dr. Fledermaus, twelve students, and I) piled into cars and headed off to the Dunes for some hiking, beach football, hanging out around the campfire, and general relaxation. Oh, and wrestling (I won, if I may brag just a wee bit).

To continue the philosophizing, actions form habits, and habits form character, as Aristotle teaches in the Ethics. But you also have to remember the Poetics and that character and action must fit together. And sometimes you find yourself in situations for which you're unprepared. And if you're me, as I sometimes find that I am, those situations for which you feel completely unprepared often involve your interaction with automobiles.

It's not that I'm entirely opposed to them; it's just that I've become less and less comfortable with cars.

And, they are probably uncomfortable around me. Or they should be, if they know what's good for them. As we were packing up to head home, I needed to give the clamshell trunk of the Element a hip-bump to shut it. There was only one problem: the top half of the Element's trunk is at belly-button height, not hip height. So, I did what any normal red-blooded American male would do. Actually, I didn't. Rather that shoving it with the hands, I stood behind the car, jumped up and bumped it with my butt. And shattered the back window.

Let me repeat that, because I hardly believed it with my own eyes when I did it. I put my own ass through the back window of our car. Brilliant. Oh, and did I mention it was raining?

Anyhow, after we drove back to town (I was sensibly banished to riding shotgun in a student's car), I had to drive to Logan Square to have the window replaced (by the good people at Fernandez Used Auto Glass). It was terrifying, like a scary movie where bad things keep happening but they're never quite bad enough that you know that's what the movie's been bulding up to. A car accident happened in front of me, for example. I saw two bikers riding down the same street as me and wanted to offer them a ride, just to protect them from my karma--when I changed my route to get away from one of them and he turned up in front of me three blocks later, I thought to myself, "God damn it, man! You're doomed! Get away!" I felt like a self-aware Oedipus, and accepted our joint fate.

It turned out that fate had other things in store for me. I got the window repaired, and, under strict admonition to avoid highway speeds until the glue set--I visited the new REI store in town (I was very impressed by the huge bike selection, and hugely lucky that today was the quarterly garage sale, so I came away with a big ol' bag of goodies--shoes, gloves, a random set of kayak deck bungee hardware, and a 16" BMX wheel--for about twelve bucks), as well as Sam's Wine (getting a thank-you gift for BatDog's weekend walkers), and Zaleski and Horvath, a place I'd been desiring to visit since it opened.

The delivery of a fresh hot latte to Dr. F, and the delivery of a thank-you note within hours of the incurrence of the debt of gratitude, have, I think, set karma aright in the Dingbat household. An evening of hockey certainly helped, too.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Weekend plans

We're (along with 15 of our closest friends) going camping this weekend. Just a quick little jaunt to the dunes, more than an S24O (that's "sub-24 hour overnight"), less than an expedition. It's fun to exercise the camping skills and knowledge--left maturing for some years. True, we've had two- and three-person trips, even a two-family campout in Michigan last summer. But nothing so, well, Boy-Scoutly: a mix of experienced and inexperienced campers, all very eager (and honestly I've very little confidence in my ideas of what they're eager for).

It will be fun. And we will so our best to prepare and then forget that we are in charge; that is, to release the responsibility for each person's having a good time to the campers themselves.

In other news, our camera tells us that we are about to shoot its ten thousandth picture. A sunset on the beach, perhaps?