1979: I Become an Editor

My first full-time paid job with job title “editor” gave me a career path when I didn’t know what a career path was. I didn’t even know what an editor was. I did understand what editing was, but wasn’t it just something that writers did?

I landed in this job through a series of coincidences any one of which could have turned me in a different direction. The first was getting hired as a clerical at Red Cross national headquarters. The next was transferring into the Office of Personnel Training and Development.

I liked my colleagues in the training office, especially Betty O. and Thom, the work was interesting, but I had a strong hunch that I wouldn’t be there long. When an opening for Publications Editor appeared on the internal help-wanted list, Betty O. and, especially, Thom pushed me to apply. I did.

I aced the editing test and must have done OK in the interview, because I was offered the job. After I started, I was told by one of my new colleagues, somewhat breathlessly, that on the test I had “scored higher than a Harvard Ph.D.” Even then I knew better than to be impressed by this.

I also learned that my soon-to-be supervisors had had to go to bat for me, because the Personnel Office tried to block my promotion. I was jumping from grade 23, in the clerical ranks, to grade 28, which was considered professional: this apparently was not done. The staffing specialist in charge of professional positions demanded that I produce evidence that I had graduated from college, a requirement for grades 28 and up. I took the wind out of her sails by showing up with my diploma, which certified me a 1974 graduate in history of the University of Pennsylvania, magna cum laude.

Thom made me that orange EDITOR shirt to celebrate. He also gave me WHEN IN DOUBT TURN LEFT, which was something I said fairly often, having figured it out while hiking and hitchhiking around Great Britain and Ireland in 1975. Neither one of them has gone out of date.

The publications office, known as Publication Services, was located on the fringe of Alexandria’s Old Town, in the Red Cross’s Eastern Field Office building (which I was told had once been a brewery). In its big, high-ceilinged room, the editors had cubicles down one side and production was on the other. The director and deputy director had offices in opposite corners at one end; the art department was down the hall. I soon presstyped myself a sign for my cubicle: “Cubicle 4, OOPS: Making the Semiliterate Printable.” OOPS stood for Office of Publications Services, which wasn’t quite the official name but close enough.

The best thing about Cubicle 4 was that next door was Sylvia Abrams, editor extraordinaire. She had been an editor in New York before her second marriage brought her to D.C. I am not kidding when I say that working under her wing for two years made it possible for me to earn a living as a reasonably competent editor for 40 years and counting. She introduced me to the University of Chicago Press’s A Manual of Style, 12th edition, which shortly changed its name to what everyone called it anyway: the Chicago Manual of Style. It’s currently up to edition 17, and I’m still using it regularly and still complaining about the lousy index, though I do admit that it’s improved over the years.

Me in Cubicle 4, ca. 1980

Sylvia answered my questions. She looked my work over and made comments whenever I asked her to. She showed me interesting challenges from her own work. She passed on editorial nuggets from her extensive experience. I’m probably part of the last generation to learn editing the old way, by apprenticeship to a master, and till the day I die I’ll be grateful I had the opportunity to work alongside her.

The job was ideal for a fledgling editor in other ways as well. The stuff we edited ranged from bureaucratic forms that required minimal changes to brochures, training manuals, and textbooks for Red Cross courses. In general the authors were not professional writers. In some cases the task of producing a document fell to whoever hadn’t said “Not me!” fast enough. Each edited ms. had to be cleared face-to-face with the writer. This required tact as well as expertise; often it was the less experienced and least willing writers who were the most touchy.

In my more than two decades of freelancing mostly for publishers, I usually don’t have any direct contact with the authors whose manuscripts I work on. Nevertheless, I mentally explain my more substantive edits to those invisible authors and write my queries as if I were speaking them aloud. It’s a great habit for an editor to get into, and for me it started in the Red Cross publications office.

I must confess, though, that like many novice editors, I did suffer from “piss on fire hydrant syndrome”: making changes that didn’t need to be made mainly to prove that I was well versed in editorial esoterica. For several years after I learned the which/that distinction (that for restrictive clauses, which for nonrestrictive), I was a menace with a red pencil.

I was the office wiseass. On one wall of my cubicle I taped the before and after versions of especially challenging sentences. Some repeat writers scanned the wall to see if any of their prose had earned a place on it. Editors and artists all submitted biweekly reports of all the jobs we were in charge of. All that was required was each job’s title and status, and that was all that most of my colleagues delivered. Not me, however. I’ve still got copies of several of mine, and it’s a wonder I got away with that much wiseassery.

But I did. When I left the Publications Office after two years, my performance review was stellar. Wrote my immediate supervisor:

“Projects edited by Susanna Sturgis were frequently highly praised by both the sponsoring offices and Publications Services. She was successfully responsible for projects that involved extensive rewriting to minimize jargon and vagueness. Her sensitivity to logic was valuable.

“Miss Sturgis worked efficiently under time pressure and demonstrated ability to organize and carry out a variety of projects simultaneously.”

Was I really that good? I hope so.

Though I loved the work and my colleagues, I liked less and less what I saw of the way big bureaucracies — or at least this big bureaucracy — operated. The epitome of this was Frank, the deputy director of Publications. Frank was built like the Little King in the old comic strip, only taller. To call him incompetent is too polite. He’d been at National Headquarters for over 15 years, and it seems his spots hadn’t changed in the least. Rather than fire him or get him to shape up, one office would pass him on to the next via lateral transfer or promotion, always with a glowing performance review. At some point the glowing reviews made it impossible to fire him; he was gay, D.C. had a Human Rights Act, and he would have had a strong case for a discrimination suit if anyone had told the truth: he could have pointed to those reviews as evidence that the firing was not for cause.

None of us were sure what he did all day. He would occasionally call one of the editors from his corner office and ask us to look up a word: we had Webster’s Second International (Sylvia’s prized copy) on a lectern at one end of our little corridor and Webster’s Third at the other. Frank, like all the rest of us, had a standard-size dictionary in his office. He quickly learned not to call me, because I’d say I was busy and suggest he look it up himself.

Monday mornings he’d often come round to each cubicle and tell each of us in turn what he eaten at his several-course Sunday dinner. Of course the less reverent among us made fun of him behind his back, but after a while I got fed up. I went round to all my colleagues, asked what they’d had for supper the day before, typed it up, put it in a frame, and left it on Frank’s desk. Thus ended the Sunday-dinner recitations.

After trying unsuccessfully to get higher-ups to take the Frank problem seriously, I gave notice in the spring of 1981. I left the Red Cross a month or so before my 30th birthday, thinking I was going to take a little time off to write before finding another job. That’s not the way it worked out.

Still an editor after all these years, ca. 2014

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Reviewing Gyn/Ecology for off our backs

Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978) was bigger than a bombshell in the feminist world. It was more like an asteroid crashing into the ocean, creating a tsunami. I was a newcomer in the D.C. community, and not yet well grounded in feminist theory, never mind feminist theology, so it’s a bit of a wonder that I got to review Gyn/Ecology for off our backs.

off our backs, known to its friends as oob, was the hometown newspaper of D.C.’s feminist and lesbian communities, but it was also a national and even international publication. It was run by a collective, but every month the two-room walk-up office off Connecticut Ave. NW, opened up for layout weekend. By that point most of the writing and editing had been done and it was all hands on deck, supporters as well as collective members, to do the typing and paste-up necessary to produce the next issue. The rush to deadline made comrades and colleagues of us all. Everyone who helped out was listed among the Friends on the staff block for that issue.

My visual memory of the oob office is of a crowded, no-frills workspace whose walls were papered with posters from recent feminist history and covers from previous issues. I remember picking up the phone once — when the phone rang during layout, whoever was closest grabbed it — and it turned out to be someone I knew from Martha’s Vineyard who was involved in the women’s health movement. My worlds sometimes collided in interesting ways.

I did the typing and probably the layout for my Gyn/Ecology review, and for most of the articles I contributed to oob over the years, mostly interviews and book reviews. My typing ability came in handy, as did my facility with presstype. Here is what the layout looked like:

Apart from ads that came in camera-ready, all copy was produced on IBM Selectric typewriters. Veteran typists of the era will recognize the typeface as Letter Gothic, a popular Selectric sans serif option. Note that book titles are underscored, not italicized, even though we clearly had access to an italic typeball. Swapping typeballs in and out slowed you way down and often got ink on your fingers, so italics were only used for larger chunks of text — in this case quotes from the book being reviewed.

In those days, oob always put bylines at the end of stories, a characteristically feminist strategy to keep readers’ focus on the text instead of the author. I wasn’t the only one who would sometimes read the first few lines of a long story then skip to the end before deciding to continue.

Headings were done with presstype. This one is pretty good, but it’s hard not to notice that the baseline wobbles a little and that the space between “of” and “radical” is twice what it ought to be.

Typing was done on ordinary bond paper with margins set to the paper’s column width. If you caught a typo while you were typing, you fixed it with correction tape, which was preferable to correction fluid (like Liquid Paper or Wite-Out) because it didn’t have to dry. The newer Correcting Selectrics had a correction ribbon built in, parallel to the ink ribbon. I can’t remember if off our backs had any of them when I was involved.

Once completed, the typescript was sprayed with silicone to keep the ink from smearing, then cut with X-acto knives, waxed with a hand waxer, and pasted up on layout boards. The boards from the previous issue would have been stripped for reuse; they were reused until they wore out. Once in a while a page would go to print with the folio (running head) from the previous issue, meaning the date at the top of the page was wrong, but considering the intense, barely controlled chaos of layout weekend and the fact that most of us were amateurs, the gaffes were remarkably few.


Reading the first paragraph of my Gyn/Ecology review for the first time in at least 35 years confirms my memory: while writing it, I was terrified that I couldn’t do the book justice:

“I have been living with Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism for about four months now–reading, rereading, reflecting, rejoicing, growing impatient with my fear of taking on such a magnificent, vast and tightly-woven book. Gyn/Ecology is written to us, for us, from our experience, about us, the untamed, the Hags, the “women reluctant to yield to wooing”. It is a process that aims to transcend the limits of writing, to break down the walls between the writer and reader and the  usual distinction between the creating and the product. Gyn/Ecology is breath-taking in its reach, astonishing in its power–yet it is also intensely personal and has exacted from me an intensely personal response. I write, therefore, to review not the book alone but the part it has played on my own journey into woman-defined space.”

Gyn/Ecology is grim in its exploration of misogyny across cultures and across the centuries, but when it comes to language it’s also immensely playful. As its title suggests, it breaks words apart and prompts one to look at them in unexpected ways. Does “recover,” for instance, mean to regain or to cover up again? Or maybe both at the same time?

From my copy of Gyn/Ecology

In the last paragraph, I write that “Gyn/Ecology, this wonderful, brilliant amazing Hysterical book, spins itself beyond the words that Mary Daly wrote.” It spun me well beyond writing the review. Though then as now I was happier playing first lieutenant than instigator, I led an ad hoc group — we called ourselves, of course, the D.C. Hags — to bring Mary to town. The SRO event was held in a lecture hall at George Washington University on March 23, 1979, with a book signing at Lammas the next day (I know that because the dates appear at the end of the review).

Then, in early April, a friend and I took the Night Owl train from D.C. to Boston to attend “We Have Done with Your Education,” a rally supporting Mary in one of her frequent battles with Boston College. Since BC, like Georgetown U., is Jesuit-run, I found it borderline miraculous that she got tenure and thrived there as long as she did. Not till 1999 was she forced to take early retirement because she insisted on keeping her advanced women’s studies courses women-only. (She would tutor privately any men who wanted to take the course.) The rally, held at Boston University, was held on April 8, 1979 — I know that because it’s on the T-shirt. Its title was based on a quote from Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas (Daly embraced Woolf as a foremother):

“And let the daughters of educated men dance round the fire and heap armful upon armful of dead leaves upon the flames. And let their mothers lean from the upper windows and cry, ‘Let it blaze! Let it blaze! For we have done with this “education”!’”

As a daughter of educated men, I might well have been dancing round the fire. The less predictable part is that my mother, Chiquita Mitchell Sturgis, might actually have been leaning from the upper windows. At the time, she was a clerical at Beacon Press, Unitarian Universalist–affiliated publisher of Mary Daly and many other essential feminist, liberal, and progressive writers, so requesting a Beacon book or contacting a Beacon author often meant working with my mother. What she made of Mary’s books I’ll never know, but she liked Mary and we both liked having something in common that had nothing to do with family or hometown.

Mary died on January 3, 2010. My obituary for her was published in the May/June 2010 Women’s Review of Books. Unfortunately it’s not available online, but fortunately (wonder of wonders) I still have the print version. Rather than focus on (obsess about?) Mary’s forced retirement from Boston College, which the mainstream media were covering ad nauseam, I started off by summarizing the “far more intriguing . . . story of how a nice Catholic girl from Schenectady, New York . . . transformed herself into a ‘revolting hag’ whose advice to posterity is ‘sin big.’”[1]

“Daly’s searchings were wild, exhilarating, infuriating, inspiring,” I wrote. “But I didn’t become a Daly groupie. As a reader, a writer, and a thinker, I’ve always been a pick-and-choose synthesizer. A few of Daly’s protégées, including Janice Raymond,[2] took her insights and tools and created powerful work with them. In less able hands, though, those insights and tools became little more than parlor tricks.”

My mother worked at Beacon Press, publisher of Mary Daly and other essential feminist writers, from the mid-1970s to the late ’80s.

When I wrote that obit for Mary Daly, I’d been an editor for more than 30 years, so it’s not all that surprising that I contributed to the Women’s Review of Books blog a post titled “Beyond God the Style Guide: Me? Edit Mary Daly?” Could I have done it? The mere thought was daunting, “even though,” I noted, “I’m the kind of copyeditor who argues with the dictionary, cheerfully makes exceptions to Chicago, and lets my authors do pretty much what they want as long as it makes sense and will (probably) pass muster with the publisher.”

Being a writer and a feminist as well as an editor, I went on: “From Church and the Second Sex onward, Mary Daly was continually improvising words and imagery to convey what hadn’t been conveyed before, and to examine ideas taken for granted for so long that they actively resisted exploration. Breaking trail is demanding and exhausting work. Being among the first to follow in a freshly broken trail isn’t exactly like traveling a paved road either.”

And that’s what editing Mary Daly would have been like: “following in a freshly broken trail.” Would I have been up to it? At the time Gyn/Ecology came out, almost certainly not. A few years later, fully fledged as an editor and more flexible than I’d been as an apprentice, I think I could have done it, though not without the terror that gripped me while I was writing that review.

notes

[1] Sources were Mary’s Outercourse: The Be-Dazzling Voyage (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992) and “Sin Big,” in The New Yorker, February 26, 1996. To explore, or revisit, Mary’s work, check out The Mary Daly Reader, edited by Jennifer Rycenga and Linda Barufaldi (New York University Press, 2017).

[2] My interview with Jan Raymond appeared in off our backs for October 1979.

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This is the photo that appeared with my obituary for Mary. No credit was given, but if you know who the photographer was, please let me know and I’ll add it in. I can’t tell you how much I love this picture.

1976: Vote Yes On #1

This version is unusual for its blue edging at sleeves and neckline. I have no other Ts of this style.

In late spring or early summer of 1976 I started volunteering for the campaign to ratify the Massachusetts Equal Rights Amendment. I’ve got three T-shirts from it. The one with the white background didn’t circulate widely; it was an early draft, and the limited stock probably got handed out free to volunteers. The other two are the final version, with the text of the amendment on the front and “Vote Yes on #1” on the back. The text, now part of the state constitution, part 1, article 1: “Equality under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of sex, race, color, creed or national origin.”

Bus and trolley drivers often leaned in to read the text.

The green and the black ones got worn a lot. The paint splatters on the black one came from helping paint a friend’s guest bedroom in West Tisbury more than 10 years later. The only downside was that the large number of words in relatively small type gave bus and trolley drivers an excuse to stare at your boobs and pretend to be reading the text.

Although I’d encountered blatant sexism as a Georgetown University undergrad, I was still shocked by how controversial the ERA was, and how blatant the fear-mongering against it. A New York Times story from November 1, 1976, noted “rumors and feelings, vociferously denied by the supporters of the measure but nevertheless in wide currency, that the amendment will result in things like unisex public toilets, homosexual marriages and female draftees.”

Massachusetts did lead the country in legalizing same-sex marriage, but that wasn’t till 2004, a full generation after the ERA was added to the state constitution.

Then, as now, the news media routinely fell back on phrases like “vociferously denied by supporters of the measure,” but rarely refuted the antis’ claims with expert legal or historical opinion.

Massachusetts ERA campaign headquarters was on the walk-up second floor of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union on Boylston Street, not far from the Public Garden and Boston Common. It was at least 75% workspace and at most 25% office: a desk for the campaign president and one for the one-woman clerical staff.

In memory, the workspace was dominated by a huge table (it might have been a humongous piece of plywood resting on several sawhorses), on which were spread out the raw materials for statewide mailings. These days massive mailing lists are saved out of sight on computers. Sorting by zip code -‑ necessary to qualify for the bulk-mail rate if you’re using the U.S. Postal Service — can be done in seconds. Not so in 1976. In 1976 the mailing list had to be typed on letter-size paper and formatted so it could be photocopied onto mailing labels. Each sheet of paper contained addresses from the same zip code, and the most common zip codes each had their own folder.

Think about it. New names coming in — and they were coming in all the time, especially after an event was held or an ad appeared in the paper — couldn’t be seamlessly added to the existing list. The only way to recognize duplicates, or obvious errors, was by eyeball.

By election day I knew most of the zip codes in Massachusetts by heart. If a label said “Boston, MA 01108” I knew at once that something was wrong. (01108 is in Springfield. 02108 is in Boston — Beacon Hill, to be precise.) Most often it was the zip.

I did most of my volunteering in the office, but I also ran occasional errands, like driving to New Hampshire to pick up a print job. Because my family had a summer place on Martha’s Vineyard, I helped out at an ERA fundraiser at the Field Gallery in West Tisbury; somewhere lost in my boxes of stuff may still be a photo I took of singer-songwriter James Taylor sitting on the stone step at the back of the gallery. On Election Day 1976 I was passing out “Vote Yes on Question #1” literature at a polling place in the Back Bay, where I got to meet both Elaine Noble, who was running for re-election as the first out lesbian or gay member of any state legislature in the country, and Barney Frank, who then represented a neighboring district in the state House of Representatives -‑ and was not yet out.[1]


That fall I started working part-time as a proofreader for the Town Crier Company: my first paid gig in the editorial field. The company, which published my hometown newspaper, the Town Crier, also did contract work. I was hired to work on a weekly newspaper they were publishing for Massachusetts law professionals.[2] This was an evening job. When I arrived for my shift, the newsroom and the offices in general were dark and deserted. It was just me; the typesetter, Jessie from Maynard; and Dave the production manager, who was occupied elsewhere in the building unless the hardware needed attention.

It’s the hardware that fascinates me most these days. (If you’re similarly intrigued, check out this site when you’ve got an hour or two to kill.) The technical side of publishing has evolved a lot in my lifetime, and I’ve had plenty of hands-on experience, especially with the shoestring-budget side of it. I’m old enough to have wrestled with mimeograph machines, been splattered with ink by a run-amok Gestetner, and laid out flyers with Formaline and presstype. So here’s what I remember of how I did my job in 1976–77.

Jessie the typesetter sat in the far corner of the large, utilitarian production room. I think the copy she relayed to me for proofreading was printed on plain paper. I fed the sheets into a phototypesetting computer. It had some OCR (optical character recognition — a term I learned later) capability, but it wasn’t hyper-precise so part of my job was to clean up the mess. My workstation had a video display screen, a QWERTY keyboard, and the characteristic IBM Selectric “golf ball” but one that produced what looked like an extended barcode under the letters. After I’d made my corrections, I hit a key, which produced a long tape with many holes punched in it. Each pattern represented a specific letter, punctuation mark, or other typographical instruction. Like this:

I then took the tape and threaded it through the CompuGraphic photocompositor, which was massive and gray and dominated its corner of the room. It produced film in a sealed container. This I took over to the developer, which looked like a big white washboard or sloping easel. What eventually came over the top of the easel/washboard was, voilà! a galley proof.

At this stage I sometimes spotted errors that had escaped my not-yet-eagle eye. I was learning, on the fly and without a supervisor, how to read like a proofreader: letter for letter, not word for word. As you might guess, the procedure just described was way too complicated and time-consuming to be repeated just to correct transposed words or letters, which is what nearly all of these errors were. So I’d go to the light table and with straight edge, X-acto knife, and Scotch tape correct the goof manually. I was pretty good at this, and the ability stood me in good stead through the coming years of laying out flyers with Formaline and presstype.

Correcting typos got much easier when I got my first PC in 1985, but CTRL-X,C,V and all the rest of it did not make my manual dexterity entirely obsolete. It wasn’t till the mid to late 1990s that desktop publishing technology made Formaline, presstype, and proportional scales largely obsolete (but as you can see, I’ve still got mine).

Notes

[1] Both were re-elected that year. In 1978, the house was shrunk from 240 members to 160, and the resulting redistricting threw them into the same district. Noble decided not to run again. She had taken a lot of heat not only as an out lesbian but as a staunch supporter of school desegregation, a very hot issue in Boston during the 1970s. By the way, the resizing of the Massachusetts House of Representatives cost both Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket their seats in the legislature. This prompted a “Secede Now” movement, and I have a T-shirt to prove it. I’m wearing it in my profile pic. More about it by and by.

[2] This might have been the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, which still exists but which was founded in 1972. My recollection is that this was a startup modeled on something similar being published in New York. The Weston Town Crier, along with its siblings in Wayland and Sudbury, still exists in some form, but it seems to be published in Framingham and owned by Gannett.


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