Editing and Apathy

In “Literary Editing,” a course I took at the University of Oregon, we students read five or so stories per week and then discussed them in small groups, deciding whether each story should be included in an imaginary publication. During the class, we struggled with having the right kind of discussion and giving the right kind of comments about each piece.

Alfred North Whitehead wrote in Essays in Science and Philosophy, “The art of literature, vocal or written, is to adjust the language so that it embodies what it indicates.” As mostly English majors, we were used to analyzing how a work accomplished this, while in this class we were being asked if a work accomplished it. Our professor, John Witte, in his effort to help us make this transition in thinking, told us,
The ideal situation in a session like this would be to have every editor love the piece. But that hardly ever happens. So the second best option, and what you’re really looking for, is to have some editors love the piece and some hate it. The most dangerous thing is to have everyone in the group not really care, to have everyone be apathetic.

He encouraged us not to agree with each other (at least not at first), but for each of us to have an opinion, to feel something. And he valued those pieces of writing that provoked emotion, even if it was anger or disgust.

In This Is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel Levitin, he writes,

Memory strength is also a function of how much we care about the experience. Neurochemical tags associated with memories mark them for importance, and we tend to code as important things that carry with them a lot of emotion, either positive or negative. I tell my students if they want to do well on a test, they have to really care about the material as they study it (197).

As Levitin found in his classes, this need to care, to be emotionally involved, was necessary to the success of my class discussions as well. In editing, apathy is dangerous because it slows everything down. It makes the process of deciding the merit of a particular work longer, more frustrating, and eventually unsuccessful. Our editing groups had difficulty moving on from those pieces where no one felt strongly. We didn’t want to keep them and we didn’t want to let them go. Consequently there was no progress.

But it wasn’t always the story’s fault. Sometimes, a particular story we looked at was truly ineffective, and despite efforts at finding its intent and substance, we found it wanting. More often, we as students were the problem. We felt apathetic at times because we hadn’t spent enough time or effort getting to know each story well enough to have an opinion, or we were tired and distracted and not fully engaged in the process, or we felt intimidated and fearful of sharing an opinion that conflicted with the rest of the group, or we had limited understanding of the larger, final publication we wanted to assemble. During the class we learned that it takes perseverance, understanding, and courage to overcome apathy.

Like our editing groups needed to have clear standards for what would be allowed into our publication, spiritually we need a vision of what we are to become and what it takes to get there. Spiritually, apathy gets in the way of our mission of growth. Change and progress require emotional and mental involvement—the opposite of apathy. Without that kind of vulnerability, there is no moving forward (Romans 12:11, Ephesians 5:16).  Emotional investment is necessary for the completion of our mission. Revelation 3:15-16 says, “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.'” Verse 19 explains that zeal is the antidote to being spiritually apathetic, an attitude of zeal that is consciously and constantly developed and diligently practiced.

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2 thoughts on “Editing and Apathy

  1. Thanks for the insightful metaphor. I hope I think of this piece whenever the tendency to be lukewarm attempts to emerge.

  2. Because we have the opportunity to edit our own lives, we should have an intrinsic interest in the process. Still, it can be a challenge to be zealous. I appreciate the notion that caring makes for vulnerability; that is one deterrent to change, but perhaps more associated with fear and disappointment than apathy.

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