San Francisco writer Penny Skillman often writes about the marginalized citizens among us. Her fiction, essays and poems have appeared in diverse publications, among them the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, AVA, and California Poetry Quarterly. Her novella, The Cats' Journal, was a Small Press Review Book-of-the-Month and was excerpted for a Berkeley KPFA radio show reading, as was a section of her novella, What Happened to Easter. She's completing a travel memoir about Spain and Florida.
Once after I’d put together a rough draft, an outline really, of a planned travel manuscript, I asked a very good friend who’d worked as a professional editor to read it. She did. “I can’t imagine anyone wanting to read any single bit of this,” she said. Embarrassed at having jumped the gun putting a raw forty-page draft out, I replied “Well, that’s a beginning.” The humiliated writing self puts up a defense instinctively, maybe because, what else is there to a writer’s life if nothing, not even a draft plan, can be make to work?. With much more experience I came to value totally frank criticism. Such experiences offer growth as a writer, if you stick with it you learn to see each piece of your own work more objectively, to put it “out there,” to not get emotionally attached to it, at least not until a work is done or published in any case..
I’ve also lost a friendship or two through being too harsh reading someone else’s work. It taught me to find out first what precisely the writer wanted out of any editorial read. And I’ve even been forgiven now and again. So I’ve wondered about the relationship between consultation reads of writing and the writers. Recently I came across a copy of Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. In it is a story that I think displays Ben Franklin’s pragmatic genius. It took place at the 1776 Continental Congress, the gang of activist thinkers who voted for American Independence from Britain.
Thomas Jefferson was 33 then, and he was considered an eloquent writer by his peers, so he was enlisted to write up a Declaration of Independence. The Continental Congress formed itself into a committee to read and consider his draft. First Ben Franklin did a light edit of it. Then the committee had at it, and large sections were removed. They cut by more than half the draft’s final five paragraphs. Jefferson, who’d worked so hard on it, was, understandably, distraught. Later on, he told of his experience there.
“ I was sitting by Dr. Franklin,” Jefferson related, “who perceived that I was not insensible to these mutilations.” Franklin, a much older man, sought to console Jefferson, and, while taking Jefferson’s attention from his dismay told Jefferson a story of his own experience when as a young printer he put together a shop sign for a friend who was starting out in the hat making business. Franklin said of the hat maker’s sign, “He composed it in these words, ‘John Thompson, hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money,’ with a figure of a hat subjoined. But he (Franklin) thought he would submit it to his friends for their amendments. The first he showed it to thought the word ‘Hatter’ tautologous, because followed by the words ‘makes hats,’ which showed he was a hatter. It was struck out. The next observed that the word ‘makes’ might as well be omitted, because his customers would not care who made the hats. He struck it out. A third said he thought the words ‘for ready money’ were useless, as it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. Everyone who purchased expected to pay. They were parted with; and the inscription now stood, ‘John Thompson sells hats.’ ‘Sells hats!’ says his next friend, ‘Why, nobody will expect you to give them away. What then is the use of that word?’ It was stricken out and ‘hats’ followed, the rather as there was one painted on the board. So his inscription was reduced ultimately to ‘John Thompson,’ with the figure of a hat subjoined.”
I can imagine that all newspaper editors are required to read this story as prerequisite for their jobs – and it shows how Ben Franklin was a steady-on personality in the midst of contentious and high-pressure affairs. I always liked the way he edited his own characteristics and behaviors, making lists, looking to improve himself with perseverance and discipline. Everyone can take something from Franklin’s lists of self-improvement goals, yet he was never rigidly self-severe, although he was often then and now criticized for his pragmatic approach. His effacing humor makes him the Founding Father I like to love because he took joy in his life and work, he was a social creature while dedicated to production. That’s exactly the way I’d like to live vis a vis my own writing, if possible.