Photo by Mike Kepka, San Francisco Chronicle

An Editor Like Bernard

I wrote this appreciation some years ago for a now-defunct blog (thank you, Wayback Machine!), and read from it at a memorial service last spring for Bernard, who died at the age of 98. I’m resuming teaching this summer—a good time to once again reflect on a great teacher and editor. I miss him still.

“Come in, you poor thing. Would you like a cup of tea? A bath? A nap?”

It was my first visit to Bernard Taper’s home, a sunny tree house of a place up a steep hill in Berkeley. He stood in the doorway with his wife, the poet Gwen Head, assuring me, it seemed, that there was no disaster they could not fix. The year was 1991 and I was 23, a graduate student in journalism at UC Berekely. Bernard was one of my professors, and he’d agreed to help me with an outside assignment I’d taken on, a major profile for the local alternative weekly. His graciousness brought tears I had until that moment denied.

How hard could it be to write a profile? That question — its confident disregard for something about which I knew very little — typified my approach to writing then. Usually the damage was minimal since most of what I wrote was read by an audience of one — my professor. But this was serious and I was, for once, at a total loss.

The work was a mess, but Bernard saw promise. He set aside his own stacks of uncorrected student papers and unfinished writing projects to focus on mine. Pacing his dining room, the San Franciso Bay framed in the picture window behind him, Bernard offered suggestions and insights, and counseled me not to sucumb to impatient editors inclined to push the work where I did not want it to go.

What Bernard did not do, and what a lesser editor surely would have, was rewrite the piece. I can’t say I succeeded in creating something good and coherent and true, but working with Bernard made me realize just how hard this business of writing really is, and how much I need a teacher — an editor — like him.

Joan Didion put it this way, in “After Henry”:

What editors do for writers is mysterious, and does not, contrary to general belief, have much to do with titles and sentences and ‘changes.’ … The relationship between an editor and a writer is much subtler and deeper than that, at once so elusive and so radical that it seems almost parental: the editor … was the person who gave the writer the idea about himself, the idea of herself, the image of self that enabled the writer to sit down alone and do it.

This is a tricky undertaking, and requires the editor not only to maintain a faith the writer shares only in intermittent flashes but also to like the writer, which is hard to do. Writers are only rarely likable. They bring nothing to the party, leave their game at the typewriter. They fear their contribution to the general welfare to be evanescent, even doubtful.

In order to be like Bernard, I reasoned, it was a good idea to be around people like Bernard.

Bernard’s motivating interests were good ideas and good, clear writing, which weren’t as commonly the focus then as one might have wished in a journalism program. They seemed to be the only things worth his time. Early on in his career he’d worked as a daily newspaper reporter. After World War II the government sent him to Europe to track down and retrieve art stolen by the Nazis. While on staff at the New Yorker he’d written a profile of Hitler’s photographer. He’d written several books, including the definitive biography of Balanchine. He treated his students with the same respect some of his colleagues reserved for “real” writers. He seemed to enjoy our company — he played tennis regularly with some of my classmates. This was the kind of person I wanted to become. In order to be like Bernard, I reasoned, it was a good idea to be around people like Bernard.

The problem, as I soon learned, is that people like Bernard — and especially editors like Bernard — are rare as rain in Los Angeles. Great editors don’t seem to do well inside the confines of corporate-controlled media. Or inside the confines of anybody-controlled media. They focus on the writers and the work and have little or no interest in the politics of the place.

When I left grad school early to take an intership at the LA Times, Bernard agreed to stay on as my thesis advisor, permitting me to use a series I’d written for the Times as my thesis. It was a plodding, three-part description of the modes of transportation in Ventura County. I was proud. Not of the content, which mattered little, but of the accomplishment itself: my thesis was published.

I got my stories right and I got them quick. Bernard expected more. He expected me to think and to write.

Bernard was not so easily wowed. He critiqued the work with the rigor of an editor who expected insight, not just information. The editors at the Times were teaching me to report and write in that dutiful, daily journalism way that in any but the most deft of hands drains the juice right out of the story. My hands were far from deft. I got my stories right and I got them quick. Bernard expected more. He expected me to think and to write.

Over the years I’ve returned to the house on the hill many times, visiting with Bernard and Gwen in their yellow living room or out on their shaded brick patio. I’ve gone alone, with my husband, and with our two young children, who are never scolded for their energetic explorations of the house and the yard. Not too long ago my then-four-year-old son (who could not swim) plunged into the pool, prompting my husband, fully clothed, to dive in after him. The incident was treated with amusement. Bernard produced a fluffy white bathrobe for my husband and Gwen collected the wet clothes and tossed them in the dryer. If any of us had required a bath, a nap or a cup of tea, we would certainly have been accommodated. Instead, we all sat down to one of Bernard’s Crab Louis salads, a bottle of Prosecco and a fruit tart from the local bakery that was better, Bernard assured us, than any he’d had in Paris.

Bernard’s words made me realize that what I’d been seeking was not advice but affirmation.

A year or so ago, when I was on the verge of signing a contract to write a book, I sought counsel from others who’d been through it. There was envy, there was praise, there was practical advice. Bernard, alone among those with whom I spoke, offered words of caution. “Well,” he said gravely. “Writing books is a hard way to live. I suppose if you’re planning on teaching it’s a helpful thing to do.” Bernard’s words made me realize that what I’d been seeking was not advice but affirmation: you are free now to think I’m good at what I do, because an editor in New York who does really impressive books picked me.

Bernard was not impressed. He already liked me. He wanted to make sure I knew, as much as one can know, what I was getting myself into. Now, deep into the morass that might one day become a book, I understand what he was talking about.

Bernard had read the piece that started this process. It was an essay I wrote for Mother Jones about being “outed” as white in second grade by my black classmates at an inner-city Catholic school on the near South Side of Chicago in the mid-1970’s. I hadn’t done much of that kind of writing before, so deep was my fear that I’d devolve into self-indulgent plaint.

This moment of empathy, Bernard told me, deepened the piece.

Bernard’s favorite part of the piece was a description of my puzzlement at the giddy posture of the other children as they recounted the beatings they’d endured, and of how they tried to best one another with tales of switches and whippings. I suggest in the piece that perhaps an acknowledgement of the true pain of their experience would have been too hard for them. These are the same children who, throughout the rest of the piece, are my torturers. They tease, taunt and hurt. This moment of empathy, Bernard told me, deepened the piece.

I was surprised because that line seemed a little hokey to me, sentimental even, which I saw as a failure of expression. But recently I picked up “The Situation and the Story” by Vivian Gornick:

In all imaginative writing sympathy for the subject is necessary not because it is the politically correct or morally decent posture to adopt but because an absence of sympathy shuts down the mind; engagement fails, the flow of association dries up, and the work narrows. What I mean by sympathy is simply that level of empathic understanding that endows the subject with dimension. The empathy that allows us, the readers, to see the ‘other’ as the other might see him or herself is the empathy that provides movement in the writing.

When someone writes a Mommie Dearest memoir — where the narrator is presented as an innocent and the subject as a monster — the work fails because the situation remains static. For the drama to deepen, we must see the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent. Above all, it is the narrator who must complicate in order that the subject be given life.

It was in that one line that I attempted to see things from the perspective of those other kids. Bernard saw it.

Around the time the piece came out in Mother Jones, I was — unbeknownst to myself — embarking on a new chapter in my life. One of the life-changing events that occurred was an awful fight with my mother. I said mean and horrible things to her and she shut down, never to return to me (that was two and a half years and a mountain of shunned apologies ago). For months after the fight, distracted from writing as I tried to reconcile with my mother and then to come to terms with her unwillingness (inablity?) to forgive, I sought advice and comfort from friends and family. They clucked and tsked and urged me to do whatever it took to make it right or I would never forgive myself.

Not Bernard. When I told him of the “break” he said, “Wow, it took this long?” It was such a comfort. It wasn’t that he was telling me not to try to make it better, or that I shouldn’t grieve at this profound heartbreak. He was simply acknowledging that this was normal, that mothers are people too. They, just like anyone else, are capable of rejecting — even their own children. It would not ruin me. It did not make me a bad daughter or a bad person. I also took his comment to mean, “That’s no excuse for not writing. Get a grip and get on with it.”

At the end of this month Bernard celebrates his 90th birthday. When a friend called to tell me this, I was astonished. Not at his living this long, which only makes sense for such a vital soul, but because Bernard makes turning 90 look like so much more fun than turning 40, which is what I’ll be doing next month. For the first time in my life, I’m worrying over another year gone. If I have any hope of being like Bernard, I need to get a grip and get on with it.