I breathed deeply. If you have a spouse or partner, you know that breathing-in. It accompanies a prayer for patience, sometimes. Other times, it’s a quiet act of passive-aggressiveness. Likely the latter, in the instance I’m thinking of. My editorial client, you see, as we walked through my edit of her first go at fiction, had just uttered these words: But God told me to put that semicolon there.
Had I not moved to the American South, I’d have had no words to say about this. Southerners, however, have taught me a magnificently apt expression: Bless her heart.
Writers Christian, theist, atheist and agnostic will often respond to a critique or edit with something like this (whining optional): How can you critique this—it’s my heart, it’s part of me…I’ve heard it from teens, from little old ladies, from businessmen in power suits, and once from a 275-pound ex-Navy Seal.
The person whose defensiveness comes in the form of It’s my heart is simply feeling delicate. Who hasn’t?
The writer whose defensiveness comes in the form of But God told me, is similarly delicate, but is also hiding behind a shield of their own manufacture.
God, I’m convinced, doesn’t do semicolons. Semicolons are why He made editors.
I do believe God participates—often—in the arts. He surely helped Da Vinci with Mona’s smile. You can see Him, I swear, in Edward Hopper’s astonishing canvas The Nighthawks. He helped, smilingly, with Dali’s surrealism. Helped Dante with the Inferno, Milton with Paradise Lost. The Lord showed up several times for T.S. Eliot, a bunch for Shakespeare. He was surely present when Benny Goodman cut that magnificent 1939 recording of Sing Sing Sing, with Gene Krupa’s stunning drum work, and He was there, in Joe Pass’s solo jazz guitar. It’s less than clear that He ever dictated any of these.
About two years ago, a guy came to me with a “religious book.” That’s all I can say. It was eighty or ninety pages of over-the-top exhortatory preacherly text—the kind with ENDLESS CAPITAL LETTERS and a truly stunning number of multiplied EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!!!! Was I a godly man? he asked. No, I explained. I pretty much suck at that. But I am a Christian, however deeply unworthy. He thought a moment, decided he liked that answer. I could therefore be permitted to see and handle his manuscript. Were I not Christian, he explained, I’d be “of the Enemy” with a capital ‘E.’ And in such instance I couldn’t be allowed to touch it, lest it become—his word—“infected.”
I was to “help” him, he said, as an editor. But I was not to change or mark anything. I asked why. “This has been dictated by God.” Straight face. I wasn’t even to mark a copy of his text.
“I’m an editor,” I said. I fix things. Mark things. Question things. Critique things. Suggest better ways to put ideas.
“Oh, no…” he said vaguely.
“What were you thinking I’d do with your text?” I asked.
Even more vaguely: “I’m not sure…”
The gentleman did not become my client. I suspect he’s no one’s client.
Language of the form
- God told me…
- These words came from the Lord…
- I wrote this in the Spirit…
- This text has been anointed by God…
Consciously, writers who say these things are quite sincere, and doubtless expressing a kind of humility. It’s hubris, however, that comes across. The claim that my text—unlike all those others out there—has been perfected, pronounced immaculate by God Himself, rendered unassailable, is hard to receive as anything but misplaced pride, closely behind which stands a certain fear.
Your sacred text is not sacred. It is, however, worth working on.
A word from Londa:
This is the last of our series on From the Editor's POV. I hope you've enjoyed it and received lots of useful information. Just a quick note on Bradley Harris. He recently suffered a life threatening infection and was hospitalized for several days. From what I understand, he is doing much better now. Your prayers for his complete recovery are much appreciated.
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