Editorial Paranoia: I Know a Penis When I Read One
The role of the editor is an important one. A good editor is more facilitator than censor. When I am editing the precious work of other writers, I always try to cling to their clarity instead of embossing my prejudices and belief systems into the work. Editors must honor the author’s original intention while also respecting the sense of a universal perception that what has been written can easily be read and understood.
When I was a freshman in college, I wrote exactly three Op-Ed pieces for the school newspaper. The assignment was challenging and fulfilling until one day when the editor of the newspaper — a student a few years older than me — called me into his office.
That editor, the malformed and misbegotten son of a local pseudo-celebrity who lived to wield his blue pencil, held my latest article submission in his hands and slammed it on his carved desk. Actually, my article was only two pages, so it didn’t really “slam” on the desk — it merely fluttered in the air as his hand slapped the wood.
“What is the meaning of this?” he shouted so the entire office could hear him.
I had no sense of what he was talking about and I didn’t understand his anger.
“What’s wrong?” I took a step away from him.
“This!” — he said as he picked up my article again and punctured the surface with the sharpened tip of his blue pencil — “You don’t think I know what you’re talking about, but I know. Oh, I know!”
“What are you talking about?”
“This!” — he shook the paper in his hands — “This, THis, THIS!” he screamed as he wadded up the article in a white-knuckled fist and threw it back at me.
I let the paper wad hit me in the chest and fall to the ground.
He wasn’t finished. “You don’t think I know what you really were saying when you used the word ‘hot dog?’”
“Hot dog?” I had no idea what he was talking about as I tried to remember what I’d written.
“Penises! You’re talking about penises in a college newspaper!” His face was turning purple and his chest was heaving for breath.
I have this gift — some may call it a curse — that whenever I write something, I pretty much forget what I’ve written. Is that a coping mechanism for staving away possible failure, or is it more a unique ability to let things go as soon as they are finished without any intellectual or emotional attachment?
As I thought back to the article on the floor in a punctured wad, I realized I might have mentioned someone eating a hot dog, but there wasn’t anything sexually intended. “Sometimes a hot dog is just a hot dog,” I finally replied.
“Oh, no you don’t!” He shook his head at me. “I know! I know what you’re doing. You’re trying to put one over on me and get me in trouble. That won’t happen. I’m not running your article. I know a penis when I read one.”
In slow motion, I picked up the my crumpled article from the floor and tossed it into a wire wastebasket. I turned around and walked out of the newspaper office. I never returned.
To this day, I still wonder why that editor so violently reacted to something I wrote — but never intended. There was no sense in even trying to reason with such an illogical reaction. His editorial eye spied a penis in a hot dog and there was no moving him from the prejudice of his fatal misinterpretation.
I suppose I should have been honored that a few words on a page I tossed together caused such a caustic reaction in someone — but even today I still can’t quite get rid of the bitter aftertaste of that stabbing blue pencil.