I just had an epiphany today about how so often we fall into the trap of internalizing other people’s craziness, taking it into our hearts and bodies and making ourselves miserable because of it. After 25 years of doing free-lance editing, I just got fired from a job today for the first time ever. The individual, who is not a stranger but part of a larger community of healers with which I am involved, sent me a blunt and castigating email about how I was not following her directions about how to edit her book and that she felt we had come to “a parting of the ways.” I was a little shocked because this person is a therapist who works with abused children and writes very lovingly about her clients and the kind guardians who take these troubled children into their homes. I would have expected more sensitivity, tact, and kindness—or at least a phone discussion to see if we could work things out.
She used the word “you” a lot in the email. “You still do not understand the intention of my book” and “You want to change the children’s words and seem to want everything to be geared toward ‘thinking’ rather than ‘feeling.’”
If I had been given the opportunity to speak with her, I would have told her that an editor’s words are only suggestions to be accepted or rejected at will. And I would have said that my intention after receiving her initial “instructions” about how to edit her book had been to proceed with the very lightest of hands.
Being a “Book Midwife”
It takes a lot of skill to be a book editor. Writing is precious to people. When anyone undertakes the immense and arduous task of writing a book, that book is usually either about their life’s work or about something they have learned and put into practice after decades of learning and suffering and healing. A book is like one’s child. To share that “child” with another human being, an editor, is a huge act of faith and vulnerability. Most of the time I work with people writing their first book, which is how I earned the nickname “the Book Midwife.” I’ve brought over seventy of these “children” into the light over the last 25 years and have treated each one and its parent tenderly, offering them all the support I could.
A writer’s greatest fear is that what they have written is not good. This is almost never the case. For some reason I always end up editing books by people who have amazing stories to tell, stories that just break my heart right open, change my life, fill me with awe and admiration. I do everything in my power to help those people understand the importance of what they have written and to help them find a home for it. Over the last eight years, in fact, I’ve seen a 100 percent publication rate of the books that have passed through my hands. In this economy that’s a testament to my skill.
The woman who told me we’ve come to a parting of the ways is writing a book to give her young clients, terribly abused children, a voice. I should have picked up on the fact that these children have been silenced for so long that this author unconsciously interprets any attempt to edit the children’s words almost as if it were an attempt to silence them a second time, to misinterpret their feelings to the world. In other words, it all has to be verbatim or it’s not recording their emotional truth. I missed that piece of information unfortunately. I can’t do anything about it now.
I had also, unfortunately, been honest with this woman about how excruciatingly busy my academic schedule will be for the next 2 ½ week until the end of the term. That pushes some people’s buttons because there’s sometimes a weird kind of undercurrent that when you are editing someone’s book, this book and the author’s need to finish it is more important than anything else in your life.
A Bad Email Can Feel Like a Drive-By Shooting
I really hate email communication of things that should only be said in person. These sorts of emails feel like a drive-by shooting where someone flies by at sixty miles per hour and leaves you lying on the sidewalk bleeding. You can’t say anything in your own defense, not in an email. I know because the one or two times I’ve tried to email back, it just made the situation worse because it put the “shooter” on the defensive.
Since being a book editor is a calling rather than a job to me, because it’s one of my ways of hopefully making the world a better place, because I care, because I always give it everything I’ve got, because it’s something I love, it hurts to have someone castigate me for not understanding their intentions. This emailer wrote, “I hired you because I thought I needed someone to check my grammar, punctuation and check for sentence structure.” Since I’m a line and content editor and a book developer, I thought I was being hired to help this person’s writing to shine and to help her make sure that her intentions and her message were clearly delivered to her audience. It seems to me that if you are writing a book to be read by other child therapists and the parents/guardians of troubled children that clarity would be a priority.
When I calmed down, however, I realized that this had a lot to do with the therapist’s own personal issues. When I had burned some sage, had a cup of tea, and gotten really quiet inside, I realized that money was an issue with this writer. If I did too much editing, especially the long sections containing the children’s words, it was going to cost her more. I certainly can understand a fear like that in today’s economy. Also, as I said above, the children she is writing about have always been silenced and mistreated and misunderstood in every way possible. So, in her book, no one was ever going to silence them, not even an editor. Lastly, I realized that this writer probably felt very sensitive about her writing. I always try to compliment writers to build their self-esteem, to make them feel confident. But sometimes people are extra-sensitive about their writing and feel every edit. I realize this in retrospect as well. While this writer thanked me for “challenging her” in an earlier email, I could feel that the editing process was a bit uncomfortable for her.
Learn the Difference Between Your Own Stuff and Other People’s Stuff
Maybe there was more I could have done for this writer. The lesson I’m getting from this is to be extra kind and attentive to my current editing clients, to make sure that they know how much I value and respect their work and their message.
But this experience, and my over-reaction to it, has also taught me that it is important that we not internalize other people’s craziness, their own quirks and unconscious defense mechanisms and rationalizations. We all have these experiences now and again because we’re all imperfect human beings. We get on each other’s nerves, we inadvertently hurt each other’s feelings. We respond to a situation in a less-than-mature fashion. Somebody steps on us and makes us feel small. Suddenly, it’s like our parents or teachers just told us to shut up and go to our rooms. Children can’t talk back. And as an adult, you can’t talk back to an email.
We take all these nutty feelings, these human failings that others dump onto us, and we pull them right into our bodies where they turn into stress or illness, sadness and shame. And we carry that shit around for far too long. It makes us unhappy and sick. The truth is, a lot of the stuff that others put on us is THEIR stuff, not our stuff, and it’s a good idea to have enough self-love to recognize that and just let it go.
I am sorry to lose this job because I need the money and I think it was a fairly decent book and I wouldn’t have minded being a part of the process of birthing it into the world. But the universe always provides and I’ll get another editing job.
In the meantime, I’m going to practice the art of self-love and self-respect. And while I’m going to make sure I take responsibility for the way I treat others, I’m going to start learning how to not accept other people’s craziness and, when I can find the strength, to even forgive them for it. It’s their energy, not mine. But, hey, we’re all just human.
Yesterday I received a check from this individual with a card thanking me for the work I had done on her book. I honestly hadn’t expected to be paid. I can’t express how healing this simple gesture was. One of the things that is disorienting about these sorts of experiences is the disillusionment that sets in when someone we trusted and liked turns out to be so different than we thought they were. The brain has trouble wrapping itself around that shift. I feel now as if my image of this person’s essential goodness and integrity has been restored, and that means a lot to me. For me, integrity is one of the most important of all human qualities. As a child, I lived with a lot of “injustice.” As an adult I know the world is not just, but I want my actions, as far as possible, to be kind and compassionate. So I am deeply grateful that this individual said, “Thank you,” and honored my hard work. That is a gift.