Friday, March 25, 2011

Editing Letters: Editing Lives

From the 1897 promotional brochure of the Ladies' Home Journal. Six types of American woman: in the home, in religion, in business, in society, in summer, in the beauty motherhood. In summer???

Magazines have always loved to reduce people to stereotypes. The six types of, or five types of, or four types of is a cliche feature of journalism even today. Along with 10 tips to fix everything. When I was writing for magazines, I was always asked to write a sidebar with ten easy tips, for those readers who couldn't be bothered to read the article itself.

I had to write SHOW, not TELL and start with an anecdote of sorts, an illustration.

I doubt that I wrote anything of any use to anybody. But it sold the products between the pages.

The one time I wrote a really important article, about shiftwork, where I interviewed young parents and experts about the new 24/7 society, and revealed that it was the young families who suffered most from this new paradigm, the article was killed. And this was the only time an article was killed. No explanation, although I could guess. The major advertiser for the magazine had just gone over to 24/7 shifts at its factories.

(Sort of like writing about cancer and smoking for a magazine in the 60's, which was all cigarette advertising. A real no no.)

Anyway, I'm beyond all that now. I'm doing something really important. I'm editing the Nicholson letters for 1912, to show HOW IT REALLY WAS, to dispel myths and to reveal what has changed and what has stayed the same.

I've spent over five years researching the background to these letters, so you'd think it would be easy. But it isn't. Today, I have printed out the April 1912 letters, when the poop has hit the air circulation device, with deaths and fights over wills and Herbert's debts, and I understand exactly what's going on, but I have to put them in a readable form. An enticing form.

Most of the letters have a standard form.. a conventional form of writing these people all understand instinctively. They start out with a remark about receiving other letters and a thank you for these same letters.. then some news about who was home with respect to family members, then some local gossip and then, only then, the MEAT, of the issue. The big problems at hand.

Sometimes, the letters end the PS has all the meat, as if it couldn't come out before, but suddenly pours out.

And occasionally there's a jaw dropping line, or an insightful line, or a historically relevant line.

All very interesting.

In short, the letters are LONG, because it was understood that in the days before radio, and when only a few homes had a victrola or talking machine, letters were a form of entertainment.

It seems people liked to read them much more than they liked to write them.

It was a social time, too. Despite social media, we live very privatized lives today. At least I do, and I do not believe I am alone in this. Almost all socializing happens at work, and occasionally at a party on the weekend.

Yes, there is a lot going on, but it mostly costs money. FREE socializing hardly exists, except for young people.

Anyway, as I edit these letters, my main goal is for people to see What has changed and what has stayed the same.

While maintaining dramatic tension (already in the letters).