“Do you do freelance editing?” Barbara asked as we sat together at a dinner, belatedly celebrating the publication of a book I’d worked on two years ago. Barbara was managing editor of the small religious press that had published it. I could tell she had another project in mind.
I hesitated. I have, in fact, been trying to give up editing. “Not really,” I said, but not too firmly. It had, after all, been a pleasure to work with Barbara.
She began describing the manuscript but in the noise of dinner conversation I couldn’t get a clear idea what it was about. Only that it was a crosscultural, rather challenging editing project and she was desperate to find someone who could handle it.
I am undaunted by difficult manuscripts. Piece of cake. Editing has been mindplay for me. Editing a garbled manuscript is like working a crossword puzzle, a mental challenge in which you must find the right words when the author has used the wrong approximations, the clear meaning hiding in the written clues. And then it morphs into a search-and-destroy mission for mistakes in which I can give free reign to my perfectionism.
Editing can be so much fun and weirdly soothing that it edges out the very different, much more abstract and less certain task of writing. That is why I’ve been trying to give it up, so I can concentrate entirely on writing. My last editing project was the book we were celebrating, The Jesus Tribe, a collection of first-person stories of the first hundred years of the Mennonite Church in Congo. I loved that project beginning to end—in fact, I had done it as a volunteer. So I didn’t want to say no outright. I told Barbara to email me the manuscript that she had in mind.
It came the other day and I began reading it. I realized that something has changed in the way I look at editing or any piece of work, even (especially) work for pay. Maybe it changed a long time ago. Maybe it has always been there but I didn’t realize how important it was.
What I realized is that, in order to do any kind of work right now, at this stage of my life, I have to care about it a great deal.
This manuscript was no more challenging than the one that became The Jesus Tribe, and it was a lot shorter. I could have knocked it off in a week. It even offered a goodly amount of intellectual challenge. But the only reason I might have done it would have been as a favor to Barbara. I was not even tempted to take it on because nothing about the project itself stirred my love. I did not care enough.
I cannot afford to spend a day, let alone a week, doing something I do not care about. (Say I am spoiled. No, say I am 69 and don’t have to work for money.)
The other side of this is that the intense love I feel for certain things—specifically now a number of things related to the Mennonite Church in Congo—is in itself very valuable and not to be squandered. I know that this willingness to be engaged does not happen consistently or continuously in a lifetime so when it does, it must be heeded.
In this light, my eagerness to take on The Jesus Tribe makes perfect sense. That editing job was a prelude to both travel to Congo and writing about it, which is what I am doing now, setting aside distractions like good work that I don’t care about.