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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 shortly.)

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 line?

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 was.

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 stressdoc@aol.com 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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