Last year, I wrote a blog post about the High Line in Manhattan, in which I used my walk through the urban park as a structure on which to hang some musings on the ‘art of editing’. It was one of the most widely read and shared of any of the posts I’ve written, and I was also asked to present a lightning talk on it at the 2018 SfEP Conference.
At the time I had no idea it would be one of the last blog posts I would write for a while. Life intervened, in that way it sometimes does, and although I was able to keep editorial work going through an extremely challenging time, that was as much as I could manage, and extra-curricular activities such as blogging had to take a back seat.
Nor did I have any idea that within nine months I would be back on the High Line. As I write this post I am still in Manhattan, in a slightly strange Airbnb in East Harlem. Outside the temperature is sub-zero (last time I felt overdressed in a summer frock and sandals). Prior to last year’s visit, I hadn’t been to New York in twenty years. Now I feel like I should be taking out membership at MoMA. Things don’t always turn out the way you expect, and they don’t always follow a pattern – or at least, not one you can necessarily discern at close quarters.
I have a thing about lines. If I’m being hard on myself I joke that it’s because I can’t deal with complexity. As a writer and a reader, definitely as an editor, I like nothing more than a story that quite simply goes from A to B. The more I write and read and edit, though, the more I realise that this is perhaps the hardest thing to pull off. Why that A and why that B, and how do you decide what to leave out from all that happens between them? How do you open yourself onto the page with absolute clarity, losing nothing in translation, when there is no complicated structure behind which to hide? How can you make the reader drink in your words like fresh water? I could spend the rest of my life wondering, I expect, and still never figure it out. I’m slowly making peace with that.
The High Line is a particularly liney kind of line, which is probably why I like it so much and will always want to return. I wrote last year about the way all the details support this linear concept, and they were looking great in the snow, even if parts were roped off to prevent us all from falling over.
Any line that we walk is like life in general, and it’s also like a freelance career. You go along and perhaps that’s all you can do. All at once it stays the same, and yet it changes every time. I’ve been editing now for twenty years, and with every one of the books I have worked on in that time (hundreds? thousands? no idea) I see the same patterns emerging, the same mistakes that seem to happen, the same things that go wrong and need fixing (and thank goodness they do; they’re funding this trip). But with every book there is also something new and surprising, a way of putting words one after another on a page to spark a thought that has never been had before, or a feeling, or an idea.
Sometimes, though, despite all the good things it entails, and the privilege, I get bored of being an editor. Last year, before everything in my life went weird, I was a bit fatigued by editing, if I’m brutally honest. I thought I’d seen it all, done it all, reached a logical end. The line was nothing more than a straight mark on the paper: it had no depth, no meaning. All the while I was writing about editing as an art, I wasn’t totally feeling it; I was going through the motions. But looking back I see that in the last twelve months my editing work has been one of the things that has kept me going and kept me nourished (spiritually and literally), as it has done now for two decades. Through relationship breakdowns, house moves, relocations, children, times of lassitude and distraction, times of upheaval and extreme joy it’s been there, sustaining me, a line that runs through everything and holds it together.
Work evolves, and part of successful freelancing is acceptance of that. Going with, rather than against. Clients come and go like strangers on a subway train that runs alongside the one you are riding for a while. Sometimes looming large and close until you can almost touch them. Other times receding. Sometimes they disappear completely, but then there will be others who approach through the darkness. (You’ve been doing your marketing, right?)
Getting better at anything could be about learning to embrace change while relishing what stays the same. Every time you do a thing, you can do it slightly differently than you did it before. Learn and apply. You can do this with a book, with a relationship, with anything in life. You don’t know when a thing will come back to you, looking at first like the same experience you already had. But it won’t be the same. You can do it better this time.
Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998. Before that she trained as an architect, and still likes working on architectural book projects. She likes the High Line a lot.