Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Don't confront me with my failures; I have not forgotten them."

The Song: "These Days," Jackson Browne. Words and music by Jackson Browne. Track 5 of For Everyman, 1973.
How/when acquired: I have no idea. I can't remember not owning some version of this song, in some format. I currently own eight different versions, including two by Jackson Browne and covers by Nico, Gregg Allman, and Fountains of Wayne, among others.
Listen/watch here. (That's an acoustic version; Nico's original cover is here, and Gregg Allman's version is here.)

Yes, I own eight versions of this song. It's important to me, and this line in particular surfaces in my consciousness once a day or more. Jackson Browne was only 16 when he wrote it. When he was 19, he sold it to Nico, who recorded it for her album Chelsea Girl (that's Browne on guitar accompanying her). The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Tom Rush, Kenny Rogers' band Gator Creek and Iain Matthews also covered the song before Browne recorded it himself. The version on For Everyman credits Gregg Allman for the arrangement; Allman recorded it around the same time for his first solo album, Laid Back, which changed this line to "Please don't confront me with my failures; I'm aware of them." I like the original lyrics better.

As an editor, I spend a lot of time pointing out other people's mistakes — not failures, exactly, but things that could be improved by adjustments large and small. It's a big responsibility and can be a stressful one, as what everyone really wants to hear is that their work is good, that I love it, and that they don't need to fix a thing. Clients ask "Do you like it?" and "Is it good?" Those are questions I usually can't answer until the very end of the process. While I'm editing I'm often almost hostile to the work, because if I let myself get sucked into the story I might miss an error or a plot hole. It's best if I don't talk to clients while I'm editing their work; I'm scary in editing mode, sometimes even to myself.

But recommendations for improvement and correction, and queries about plot holes and inconsistencies, are not — and should not be — a confrontation with failure. Writing is less like target practice than like mountain-climbing; you didn't miss the goal, you just haven't gotten there yet.

Anyway, I've never seen a book published without flaws. If you're a reader and have ever been tempted to write an author about a mistake you've found in a novel, I can only say: Please don't. It makes them crazy, as I know from close observation of clients in the wild. An author's ability to correct errors is limited once a book goes into print. If a book doesn't go into multiple printings (and most don't), all your helpful feedback does is remind the author of a failure he or she will never be able to remedy. If you must tell someone, send the publisher a letter. If you really can't let it go, stop a minute to think about how you feel when a stranger approaches you in the middle of the working day to say, "You did that wrong." Chances are, they already know, and have not forgotten.


Anonymous said...

Almost all my thoughts exactly. The one thing I'd add as a professional editor is that the only thing worse than an author's mistake going undetected is inadvertently inserting a mistake in the text while editing. It happens, and it sucks.

-- Ed

Laura Benedict said...

Hostile? I've never thought of it that way. When it comes to my own writing, I'm always falling--one way or the other--off the line between useful self-editing and crisis of confidence.

Wish you were here to sit on my shoulder as I type!

AnswerGirl said...

"Hostile" may be my own idiosyncrasy. But as Ibsen put it, "To live is to battle with trolls . . . to write is to sit in judgment over oneself." To which I'd add, "to edit is to sit in judgment over other people." Which is not always a comfortable place to be.

Jessica said...

Your writing is lyrical. i love it..

Thought you might be interested in my blog. I run a collaborative blog - Literary works about growing up, family, and beginnings in general (expressed in a variety of mediums!) Submissions go to
Let me know what you think!
Thanks for your support...

Anonymous said...

Thanks Answer Girl,
I have been trying to identify this song for a week. I can't get the lyrics out of my head, even though I have said them many times to my loved ones.