In the movie Genius, while mulling over his comments on a manuscript by Thomas Wolfe, editor Maxwell Perkins (Max), ponders, “do my edits make his writing better or just different?” As we learn in the movie, Max, who worked closely with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, helped talented young author Thomas Wolfe shape his unruly manuscript into the wildly acclaimed book, “Look Homeward Angel”.
Did Max’s edits make Tom a genius author? Or did Tom’s manuscript make Max a genius editor?
Max’s question about “better or different” resonated with me since I was in the middle of writing “Managing Stage Fright” during the time I saw the movie, Genius. Inevitably as part of my writing process, I received detailed editorial comments. My reviews were constructive, thought- provoking, and encouraging. As a result, I ]reconsidered seriously how I presented my ideas, and I made many rewrites. When doing so, I formed an imaginary relationship with my editors and with my readers as part of my internal writing process.
In the past, I have been affected both by positive and negative editorial feedback. At times, I have received hurtful and insulting reviews that, had I not been convinced I had something important to share, I would have folded my notebook and shut down my computer. Not dissuaded by harsh criticism, I persevered, and my work was published. In every case, the road from creative idea to publication has been rigorous. Editors (and teachers and many others) have a profound effect on the development of a manuscript (or performance) as it evolves into a final publication (or product).
To put one’s thoughts and research into words and to submit a manuscript to editors (who are anonymous, unlike Max and Tom’s close and complex relationship) is a type of performance. Performing music, as with writing, is much more than playing notes or producing words. Writing, similar to a music performance, essentially is an expression of one’s self , and thus, one’s ego is placed on the line for praise and for criticism. The editor is a special kind of teacher and audience, offering detailed and influential feedback on one’s work from a new perspective, typically different from one’s own. Every review (musical and literary) is an invitation to the author/performer to engage in a personal Re View of one’s work and to Re Act to remarks by an outside evaluator. Publishing and performing easily can ignite performance anxiety since another pair of eyes and ears are fine-tuned onto the author and the musician.
Do comments from editors and teachers make performances and books “better or different”? I am not talking about teaching basics such as correct notes, rhythms, and stylistic treatment of the score or punctuation in the manuscript. How much does the student’s and author’s personality and originality shine through an editor’s remarks? Does the student or author incorporate a teacher’s instructions by rote and lose her own original voice? Are the student and writer encouraged by editors and teachers to think creatively and develop independent ideas? Does the student or author perceive the teacher’s remarks as critical or supportive? Do thoughtful editorial and pedagogical comments lead to a belief that two heads (or another set of eyes and ears) are better- or – different than one?
Do editorial and teacher reviews create geniuses?
I return to Max’s question: does his editorial review make Tom Wolfe’s work “better of different?” When the words “better or different” resonate in my mind, I find myself focusing on the two letter connecting word, “or” that links them. I would ask Max, “’why should there be a forced choice between “better or different”? Of course the influence of another person automatically will make things different. At times the result will be better, and at other times it will not.
Isn’t it is more productive to eliminate the word “or” from this discussion and substitute the word “and” in its place. This three letter connecting word defines a collaboration among musical instructors, book editors, authors, and performers. Editors and teachers can and do make a difference when they offer thoughtful, productive, and sensitive comments that invite authors and performers to think deeper and encourage them to develop the unique music and words inside themselves. When this occurs in collaboration, everyone becomes different AND better. Max did this with Tom. With teamwork as a goal toward achieving excellence, every editor, performer, and author has the potential to be a genius.

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Earlier version of this blog published in Clavier Companion