Jonathan Goldstein on the brutal editing that made him a writer
The host of CBC Radio's WireTap and the author of I'll Seize the Day Tomorrow pays tribute to the editor who saw promise in him when the esteemed publication "Dorkenspiel" didn't.
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Our 16-part series, "Writers/Editors," looks into the symbiotic relationship between writers and their editors. Read essays by Canadian editors and writers on the highs—and, sometimes, the lows—of this unique coexistence.
The "X" Factor
By Jonathan Goldstein
When I first started writing, I told myself it didn't matter if anyone thought I was any good. And it certainly seemed as though no one did. I had not yet been published—and I don't mean published in the big magazines, either. Somewhere, stored in my parents' basement, I've got a whole box of rejection letters from little mimeographed 'zines with names like Crotch Monster and Dorkenspiel.
Ken Sparling was the first published writer to take me seriously. Until coming into contact with him, the only published adult who'd read my work was a Concordia professor to whom I'd submitted a writing sample. I was trying to get into the school's writing program and the portfolio included, among other gems, a four-page play about a man who wore a fedora filled with mustard and lived in a urinal.
Ken was the fiction editor at Broken Pencil Magazine. He also worked in a Toronto library, which, to me, seemed mythic—like Herman Melville working at the customs house. Based on reading a "prose poem" in my self-published chap book, Bowhard Pomes, he solicited my work and I started sending him pages from the novel I was working on, the novel that would one day be my first published book, Lenny Bruce is Dead. His own novel, Dad Says He Saw You At the Mall, was unlike any book I'd ever read. It was completely novel, which, to my mind, was what a novel should be. And as a young writer, it made me feel like maybe I could write a novel, too.
Ken's book had been edited by Gordon Lish, the old Esquire editor known as "Captain Fiction," famous for editing, among others, Raymond Carver and Richard Ford. Having Ken offer to edit my writing made me feel like I was being invited into some secret society. There were validating moments that came afterwards in my writing life, but perhaps none quite as exciting as this one.
Ken would send back the pages I'd send him with pretty much a huge "X" through each page. Seeing a big "X" through my most sincere and, what I thought, most beautiful thoughts, was one of the greatest learning experiences ever bestowed on me. It was a lesson in what Hemingway spoke of as "killing your babies."
After about a dozen pages of these large, corner to corner "X"'s, his hand probably having grown tired from the effort, he'd begin making a small "x" in the margin symbolizing the larger through-the-page "X." But then sometimes he'd "X" out almost a whole page and that was thrilling, because the sentence or two he left behind would shine. Sometimes there would be little scrawled words in the margins that I couldn't read; but often, just based on what I considered "angry handwriting," I'd trash everything within a ten-sentence radius.
As a young writer, there's no greater thing than having someone whose work you love read your work. Seeing those "X"'s meant I was reaching someone, and for a long time that was more than enough.
Jonathan Goldstein is the host and producer of WireTap. He's the author of I'll Seize the Day Tomorrow, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bible!, and Lenny Bruce Is Dead. Goldstein is a frequent contributor to public radio's This American Life and a columnist for The National Post.
Read Ken Sparling's feature on editing Jonathan Goldstein.