This is a special editor’s note edition of the inbox. I have a love-indifference-hate relationship with editor’s notes. I am indifferent to the ones that try to alert me to the fine content to be found in a turn of the pages. I can find it on my own, thanks, I’ve a lot of experience at this and I can take it from here. I don’t really hate the self-indulgent “news from inside my office” notes or the “let me add my praise” cheerleader notes or the “look at my new cat” notes, though they irritate me out of proportion to the sin and if I’m being honest I have to say I really like pictures of other people’s cats. The notes I love are the brief essays by those uncommon editors able to combine ruminative intelligence, acute powers of observation, and dexterity with the language. One could argue that they take advantage of their power to command a column or two of Bodoni for personal use, but I don’t care. Done right, the words on the page justify the commandeering of space.
Editor Jason Smith opens the fall edition of Endeavors, from UNC Chapel Hill, with a lovely reminiscence of his grandfather. If Smith’s five paragraphs about the old guy are any indication, he was worth knowing.
My grandfather used to make up stories abut a little red Volkswagern Beetle that outwitted a mean black Cadillac. He would pay for our McDonald’s Happy Meals with exact change: handing the cashier the coins, he’d say, “Here’s your cost,” and then—forking over the bills—”and here’s your profit.” He didn’t say hello when he answered the phone. He’d just announce his name, James, as if the caller should get down to business. He would say that his garden was doing pretty well, but the macaroni he planted still hadn’t come up.
A recent envelope contained a couple of issues of Portland, whose editor, Brian Doyle, does so well with Montaigne’s form I’ve decided he should pay for my drinks at every Editors Forum to palliate my envy. The spring issue of Portland has, on the inside front cover, “His Father,” Doyle’s telling of a story that he says he has harbored for 30 years, a story of witnessing a classmate’s, a friend’s, humiliation by a drunken father. The essay’s last sentences:
All the rest of my life I’ll remember my friend’s face as he carried his dad in his arms that night, though. I’ll never forget that. You think we have words for this sort of thing but we do not. All we can do is witness and report and hope that somehow stories turn into prayers. All we can do is drape words on experience, and hope the words give some hint of the shape of the moment, and pray that our attentiveness matters in a way we will never know. I believe, with all my heart, that it does. What do you believe?
What I believe is that contained in those seven sentences is as good a mission statement for writers and editors as you are ever likely to see.
(The photograph up top is Portland‘s cover image, by Jean-Paul Nacivet of Getty Images.)