The King and I


For just over four years, I have written the Asturias Days column for The American Scholar’s website. Robert Wilson hired me for the job, and he has also been my editor for the column, making him a collaborator as well as my boss. We live on different continents and have never met, but I often pictured the two of us seated at a table, each holding a pencil, a typed manuscript before us, and he sliding it back towards me. “Now your turn,” he says in my imagination, as if the paper were a board and the writing a game, and we were playing, more pals than associates in this matter of writing. Board game is juego de mesa in Spanish, table game, and this comparison works because, like a game, the editing process was fun. Unlike in a game, however, there was no winner and loser, only playing well.

To play well meant, among other things, playing nicely. Wilson always did. No criticism, no griping, no reminders that I’d again committed my common fault of running on too long. Just his move and then the return to me. His touch, though direct and effective, was light. He never made me feel foolish and so I never felt much need to defend my words, either the ones I wanted to keep or the ones I let go. “Push back,” he’d invited at the outset, but no pushing was necessary because he was flexible and, should I disagree, yielded gracefully, never demanding that I see a passage his way, just asking that, for a moment, I see it anew.

Sometimes Wilson simply wrote, “I don’t understand,” or “You’ve lost me.” He read my prose, in other words, not just for the surface, but looked deeper in order to help me say what I wanted. His editing was not a paint job to cover up irregularities; it was a scrape job, clearing away what was extraneous. I gradually understood that he did not think his phrasing was more correct than mine, or that mine might not say something further that couldn’t be said with simpler wording, but that the benefit of extra meaning, whether concrete or hinted at, had to be weighed against the benefit of ease in reading and understanding, and a complex argument was not necessarily a better argument. The matter to consider, in other words, wasn’t always how to say a thing, but whether to say it at all. I learned to ask, “Is this passage worth the effort, not to write it, but to appreciate it?” Never underestimate your readers but don’t over-tax them either.

Through all this, Wilson never took over, not even over a sentence, or phrase. He didn’t change the color scheme of my piece or rearrange the furniture. He simply saw a slightly better angle for the armchair or the superfluity of the decoration. He straightened it up. Or so I see it, as if my writing is the rooms of my house I invite guests into.

Occasionally, however, the writing is more intimate, and it’s me on offer, not just my surroundings. Make what you will of me, I might as well say as I throw myself to the reader. This is when I felt my editor’s influence at its gentlest, as if he were pointing out a smudge on my cheek or suggesting I tuck in my shirt. The concern was at two levels—for my writing (let’s make sure you say what you want to) and for my reputation (let’s make sure your writing reflects well on you).

The boss side came out only in the few comments about arrangements, nothing about my writing. “I’ll see to it you are paid,” for example, and “Have it back by Monday is fine.” The whole process—business and creative—was easy and enjoyable. Months, then years, flew by. Until one day came the email telling me of his intended retirement. As long as I’m here, he said, I hope you keep writing the column. He hoped whoever replaced him appreciated me too. It was then, in the light of its coming absence, that I felt the power he wielded, and remembered I had my column due to his invitation and possibly protection. I was a court writer, and he was the king. A gentle and kind king. Beneficent, noble. A kingly king. Anna’s king was “fierce, mercurial, dangerous,” but not mine. Through all the corrections and suggestions, never did I feel required to admire my editor’s dexterity. He was always so polite. “Thank you for this,” he said. “I’m sorry,” too, if he was slow getting to my pieces. He was generous with his praise. The excellence of his editing was cushioned in kindly comments about his life or questions about mine. He has been a fine correspondent about the deep and the mundane.

Robert Wilson is now retired from the magazine, and this post is the first of mine to appear without his scrutiny and seal of approval. I’d be inclined to beg your indulgence, dear reader, for any slips you might see from here on out—be it a clumsy phrase, a wrong word, a metaphor you have to ponder to understand—except my new editor is a very astute editor too. Besides, over these four years I have learned to write better, due in part to seeing my editor pass his hand across the prose, smoothing it. I have even edited myself à la Wilson before sending the document to him, rewording to eliminate a stray there is or to shorten a long sentence, to add a that to clarify or deleting one that doesn’t. So, though there will be no more editing by Wilson, his mark is on my prose. Make that, rather, though Wilson will edit me no more, his mark is on my prose. Editing is not a game of winners and losers, but I have come out ahead. There is a lot to be grateful for. I mean, rather, I have a lot to be grateful for. But wait, even better: Wilson has given me so much to be grateful for. Thanks, he wrote after each set of posts he edited. No, thank you!

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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