Oct 28 2018

Scribblings and Droppings no. 02: On Editing, Empathy, Words, and Wars

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

Scribblings and Droppings no. 02:
On Editing, Empathy, Words, and Wars

Some more thoughts on editing the thoughts of others in order to understand one’s own:

Do you remember the corny, WASPy nostalgia that is Dead Poets Society (1989)?

Do you remember how its exordium and dénouement are constructed around the act of standing on classroom desks while literally invocating Whitman’s “barbaric yawp,” to gain a new perspective on things?

No, the movie hasn’t aged well. Nonetheless, that’s what editing and proofreading the works of others is: getting, imagining a new perspective on things.

All editing (and self-editing) requires empathy. Editing is empathy.

But self-editing doesn’t mean empathizing with yourself. It means the level of quality you reach in editing your own words is measured in your capacity to empathize with your potential readership.

In other words, how well can you the writer put yourself in the shoes of a would-be reader you have never met?

This discussion of empathy reminds me of its importance in a different context: Errol Morris’s The Fog of War (2003), a documentary about Robert McNamara (1916–2009), who was Secretary of Defense for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

In discussing the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, McNamara says (I can’t find a clip of it):

 In [former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Llewellyn E.] Thompson’s mind was this thought: Khrushchev’s gotten himself in a hell of a fix. He would then think to himself, “My God, if I can get out of this with a deal that I can say to the Russian people: ‘Kennedy was going to destroy Castro and I prevented it.'” Thompson, knowing Khrushchev as he did, thought Khrushchev will accept that. And Thompson was right. That’s what I call empathy. We must try to put ourselves inside their skin and look at us through their eyes, just to understand the thoughts that lie behind their decisions and their actions.

This clip follows up on the above quotation:

Empathy can prevent nuclear war. (If only editing could be so powerful!)

 
 
 
 
 
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