The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist
March 2000, No. 1, Sect. 2
The Stress Doc documents and bemoans early fighting with his editor over the essence
and essentials of his (no, make that their) upcoming book. While some literary
turf is being reclaimed, the following caveat holds: "Establishing a
beachhead doesn't mean you've conquered the island!"
Word to Word Combat at the Book Publishing Battlefront
With a Cheshire Cat grin my neighbor purred, "It's so nice to see the
Stress Doc stressed." And why was I being so entertaining- Because the war
had begun, the battle for structure and style, really for the soul of Practice
Safe Stress with the Stress Doc. My book, my baby. Some version had been
wandering with me in the visionary (okay, maybe hallucinatory) desert for
thirteen years in search of a publisher. The pain and passion of romantic ISO
pursuits paled in comparison. Now that I had a signed book contract, it should
be smooth sailing, right? Ha!
A couple of months ago, there was a false start. The first editor had to
abandon ship shortly after tearing up my "Preface." The publisher
needed her for cyber "house" startup projects. My ex, the new Senior
Editor assures me that, "You're in great hands." F. has
"shepherded" other successful stress books to publication, including
those impressive tomes for the Dummies series.
Why do I have this uncomfortable feeling about this new
"S"-word" -- "Shepherded." Probably because it's so
apt: a meek novice lamb following it's higher species leader to where? To
slaughter, of course!
It took about twenty-four hours to screw up my courage and open her first
editorial software file. There was more blood than in a "Friday the
13th" movie: the omnipresent red delete lines, red underlining signifying
her textual passages and bold red explanations for why entire segments of my
text have been moved, removed or will be repositioned as side bars. This isn't
just a slaughter- It's a PRIMAL SCREEN, and my blood is boiling!!!
Suddenly, I feel this book has two authors and two story lines. What made me
think an editor tightened up an author's writing, improved grammar, pointed out
redundancies or logical inconsistencies, and the like? Apparently, an earlier
statement, "I basically don't want to rewrite this book," was taken to
heart. So F. goes and rewrites the book. Okay, not the whole book. But from the
start she has inserted her own introduction, decides we need more foundational
concepts and has instigated a mass migration. For example, my stress statistics
refugees from Chapter Two have now been forced to resettle in Chapter One.
As for writing styles, well if styles were like Chinese food preparations,
hers is Cantonese and mine is Szechwan. Okay, her Cantonese has some spice or
attitude, though it isn't on the same edge as yours truly. (Remember,
"Vanity thy name is Gorkin!")
For a brief moment I can consider her foundational argument. And yes, her
wanting to strengthen the stress-burnout-depression links for the reader makes
sense. (Of course, in our preliminary conversation, Miss Editor wanted to get
rid of the depression material entirely. At that time, I agreed to forego the
"Teen Depression" material. It was a subspecialty topic, perhaps out
of place in a general, first book of The Art of Practicing Safe Stress series.
But I fairly yelled, "NO," into the phone at leaving out the
"Adult Depression" section. (She's in New York City; unless I added
some volume she might think I wasn't serious.)
However, this is still far from a rational process. Frankly, I'm mood
swinging between author shock and rage. With a quivering declaration, I express
fairly unequivocal surprise and concern about the amount of new material she has
added. Her edits are crowding out content and muting my writer's voice. Again,
F. believes I'm assuming more foundational understanding about stress by the
readership than likely exists. And it's disorienting that she's not getting
overly defensive, nor is she playing the editorial heavy. At least, not yet.
In reality, there is a subtle inequality of power in this relationship: an
experienced "old pro" is breaking in the authorial virgin. F. has a
doctorate in anthropology from Yale University; clearly she's no "Dummie."
And, in this anxious awkward startup, I may be reverting to an old family
pattern -- putting the intellectually daunting female on a pedestal. Yet, enough
of my controlled outrage is still simmering to set limits on obsequious or
naively trusting behavior. When raising concerns again about blunting my wit and
edginess along with displacement of personal stories, she plays her trump card.
F. provides a behind the scenes tour of, "How things work at Oz."
In this type of series book (of which Practice Safe Stress is one of three or
four to be generated by me, along with other house series books) a fairly
standard format and structure are key. Authors writing for the
"Dummies" or "Idiot's Guide" collection often have to tone
down their individual expression, passion and personal style. (And the muting of
my author's voice is starting to reawaken old lying in wait voices. More
My reply: "If I had known this was the expectation, I'm not sure I would
have signed the contract." And, I'm already thinking of suing to get out of
the publisher's "right of first refusal" for the second book.
With my suspicions spiraling, I manage to pose the vital question: Is this
the true party line? I surmise that my first editor/new Senior Editor, also a
Dummies graduate (as an author) would back F. Where will the publisher draw the
Fortunately, before constructing a complete conspiracy theory, we have one
encouraging exchange. As previously mentioned, F. was pushing the
interrelationship amongst stress, burnout and depression. She referred to them
as "The Terrible Trio" or spoke of stress and its two buddies. Banal!
With a little mental gymnastics, by linking Distress-Burnout-Depression we
have a new category label. Drum roll please (and no groaning) -- "The Three
Moroseketeers." (And later, I envision each one's body image/armor to be
shaped like a computer mouse.) And to my surprise, F. blurts out, "Hey.
That's good!" She also acknowledges that it's very difficult, if not
impossible, for an editor to clone an author's wit and humor.
We agree on my examining and editing the next chapter. And, of course, once
the irony is transparent, the smoldering fire starts smoking: I'm having to edit
F.'s text, not just rechecking the fine tuning to the author's text.
This insult to injury has me calling the publisher. I need to know what's the
author-editor boundary-bottom line. No answer. Leave a voice message. Recall
that the Senior Editor does not field business calls on Friday. Shoot. Brace
myself for the next chapter. Once again the angst wells up, but this time
turning into a passive-aggressive apathy: "Let her have her way; go along.
At least there's a book with my name on the cover. Be practical, Mark."
There's little motivation for working on the material; my frustration
tolerance is weakening. Not enough strength, guts or whatever to keep battling
these editorial masters-monsters. It's the old "poor me" once again, a
victim of people who "just don't understand," "I can't be my real
self," blah, blah, blah!
I need a nap. And eventually, in a somewhat rejuvenated, aggressively
restless altered state the inevitable question drifts into consciousness: why am
I so enraged by this process? First, I feel like a momma lion seeing her baby
cub under attack. (Consider, I'm the guy who dubbed twice weekly radio essays my
"scriptlets.") So not just a voice but my offspring is being
threatened. And, of course, there's historical precedent: a compulsive, immature
and, ultimately, self-defeating attempt to turn a mystical-like experience into
a doctoral dissertation. A Mandala map of creative evolution-personality
integration was a bit too off the traditional academic wall. (Mandala, derived
from the Sanskrit for "magic circle," are geometric, often Indian
rug-like patterns used to induce meditative states.) I now refer to those
defiant days, "when academic flashdancing whirled to a burnout tango."
Then there's my former "good child" role in a Jewish Tennessee
Williams family. (To call my family dysfunctional, now that's really too
boring.) As my mother declared years later, after reflecting on all the physical
and mental family illness during my childhood, "You were not going to give
me any trouble." And I didn't, but the price was high: first, the
ratcheting down of an ability to concentrate on reading and academic matters;
second, deep-seated shame regarding my inferior academic status compared to
high-achieving peers; finally, a loss of self-respect from an inability to
express anger and cope with my anxiety in the midst of interpersonal conflict.
(And not surprisingly, I was ripe for being emotionally bullied and tormented.)
I had lost my real voice, lost an ability to set boundaries on others'
aggression. What mostly remained, or what was visible, was a very false persona.
And what's worse, I didn't realize how limited and limiting this survival mask
Is there is any connection between those who have not grown beyond a pseudo
identity and a propensity for excessively inhabiting virtual reality? Perhaps
these days it's just easy to slip back into the familiar "safety" of a
cybermask -- a screen name or imaginary character -- even for those of us who
have been trying to reclaim or build an authentic voice.
And fast on the heels of the mask image is the ever-stalking academic ghost.
My on the edge writings are being diluted if not drowned out by standard stress
text 101. In fact, one friend, an academic professor likens the process to a
dissertation trial, to paying your first book dues. Once you get a book
published and have a track record, then you have more authorial clout. (Not
surprisingly, for years I've had recurring dreams about not being successful,
some specifically related to not completing a dissertation degree. For example,
one is an inability to surmount an ever-lengthening mountain with an academic
altar at the peak. Another "eleventh hour" nightmare involves the
realization that I don't have sufficient course credit to graduate. And I
invariably awake angst-ridden, with dream dilemma unresolved. I just realize,
it's been awhile since this psychic sequence.)
It's good to have a small group of friends with whom I can vent and rant.
Most listen sympathetically yet basically advise, "Discretion as the better
part of valor." Of course, there's always one contrary voice. A freelance
writer, who teaches editorial work in a university journalism program, declares
that the editor usually expands the author's self-absorbed or self-referential
perspective. She wonders if I'm being defensive and hardheaded. "Moi!"
As the philosopher Georges Santayana proclaimed; "Those who refuse to
learn from history are condemned to repeat it." I don't want to
self-destruct again by being anxiously compliant or irrationally defiant.
During the third Saturday night conversation, I read to F. my changes in her
revisions to the manuscript. (Her computer system is down and can't receive
email.) Again, a mostly positive reception evokes a glimmer of hope.
My sequence of reaction to reading the next two chapters is predictable, thus
a bit less paralyzing: rage, an inability to read her text carefully, take a
break, sleep or nap on it, go to the Tea House or the George Washington
University library and do my editing and rewriting. Now I'm more comfortable
taking a stand. This nurse-doctor conflict story is to be in the main text, not
relegated to a sidebar. I want my original opening to the Stress Smoke Signals
chapter, not F.'s.
After three days of major battling, two critical calls basically decide the
outcome of this contest. Reaching the publisher by phone, he reaffirms that P
ractice Safe Stress is not a glorified Dummies or Idiot's Guide. I then suggest
he have the Senior Editor remind F. of this working reality.
The real epiphany is how supportive it is to have the publisher (male
authority figure) in my corner to counterbalance the two editors (female
authority figures). This battlefield scenario definitely echoes past family
triangle conflicts: a depressed/withdrawn father not able to set limits on a
mother who needed to stifle my anger and was uncomfortable with my emotional
sensitivity; a family that couldn't see my depression while trying to survive
their own real demands and fearful demons.
Fortified psychologically, I'm ready to take on F. To my relief and
satisfaction, the adversary has actually become an ally. She's "really
comfortable" with the changes I've made to the text; there's synergy in the
making. And, in fact, F. has let the Senior Editor know how we are deviating
from the traditional series mold. Apparently, the Senior Editor was even more
locked into the "series format" than F., having fairly recently
authored one of the Dummies books.
So there's one for the Stress Doc. The "Three Day War" is over, for
now. Blood pressure is returning to normal-hyperactive levels. Now I just have
to wait for F. to recover from a virus-induced computer meltdown before the next
round of the author-editor chess match. Wasn't it Gilda Radner, the ex-Saturday
Night Live star, who said something to the effect: "It's always
something!"? And, hopefully, also honest confrontation, timely support and
a back and forth negotiation process that allows you toPractice Safe Stress!
Update: Not surprisingly, a recent in-person meeting initially reignited the
old battle issues. But face-to-face confrontation also allowed for greater
clarification of methods and madness. Her mantra: "Writing for a website is
not writing a book!" So despite an early editorial riposte to my
generalized aggravation, "Maybe you need to find another publisher,"
we still were on the same (albeit, shaky) page. (I swallowed some injured pride
and didn't throw back the obvious rejoinder. Hello, there is more than one
editor in "The Big Apple.") As Dylan noted decades ago, the answer
still is, "Blowin' in the Wind."
Mark Gorkin, LICSW, known as "The Stress Doc," is the Internet's
and America Online's "Online Psychohumorist". An experienced
psychotherapist, The Doc is a nationally recognized speaker and training and OD
consultant specializing in Stress, Anger Management, Reorganizational Change,
Team Building and HUMOR! His writings are syndicated by iSyndicate.com and
appear in a wide variety of online and offline forums and publications,
including AOL's Online Psych and Business Know How, WorkforceOnline, Mental
Health Net, Financial Services Journal Online, Paradigm Magazine and Counseling
Today. Check out his USA Today Online "Hotsite" Website --
www.stressdoc.com . For info on his workshops or for his free newsletter, email
firstname.lastname@example.org or call 202-232-8662. Spring 2000, look for Practice Safe
Stress with The Stress Doc, published by AdviceZone.com.
(c) Mark Gorkin 2000 Shrink Rapā¢ Productions
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