- The Threshing Floor
Some people paper their walls. I paper my floor. I have a long, pitchroofed room over the garage that I use as an office. On the blue-carpeted floor lie multicolored file folders strewn in offhand rows and columns, alongside computer printouts of article drafts and referee reports, photocopies of manuscripts and book chapters, music score pages, interviews, and handwritten notes on everything from Christian Wolff's sketchbooks to Der Vollkommene Capellmeister. I recall Annie Dillard's remark in The Writing Life:
How fondly I recall thinking, in the old days, that to write you needed paper, pen, and a lap. How appalled I was to discover that, in order to write so much as a sonnet, you need a warehouse. You can easily get so confused writing a thirty-page chapter that in order to make an outline for the second draft, you have to rent a hall. I have often "written" with the mechanical aid of a twenty-foot conference table. You lay your pages along the table's edge and pace out the work. You walk along the rows; you weed bits, move bits, and dig out bits, bent over the rows with full hands like a gardener. After a couple of hours, you have taken an exceedingly dull nine-mile hike.1
I write, too. But I can't fit such a big a table in this room. So I walk in and around the papered floor.
Editing isn't writing, I know. So to talk about my job with this journal I have to skew the gardening metaphor. Over the past four years I've learned that editing other people's writing is like threshing: teasing—or beating—good grain out of the straw. The harvest arrives in emails, gets spooled out to readers (or sent back to the reapers), and gets threshed into readable and, if we're lucky, publishable prose. I like hard copy [End Page 397] I can spread on the floor, study, and rearrange as I ponder an issue's content and layout. So I've begun to think of this office floor as "the threshing floor."
I am now about to get back a dozen square feet of it. That's because this is the last issue of American Music I will edit. I'll soon scoop up journal folders and pages, drop them into a file cabinet where they'll sit until I accept that most of them need to be rotated out like canned fruit—I'll need the cabinet space then as much as I need the floor space now. As I start to convert this office back into a workshop devoted solely to my own projects, I want to leave you a few final notes. Some are reminiscences and some are tips from the thresher to the threshees.
As unlikely as my being an editor seemed in 2006, I took heart from the letters that appeared in my mailbox from editors of other journals—Leon Botstein, Kern Holloman, and others—verbally patting me on the back. Their kind words were both salve and stimulant. Polish your trophy, they seemed to say, but get to work.
It wasn't long before I understood that old Carl Perkins song: "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby (Now)." I started getting manuscripts that ran the gamut from Parade magazine outtakes and overblown press releases to hardcore, laser-like research. They came from all sorts of folks who needed to be published, whether from the hunger of ego, the fear of being fired, or the defense of some musical hero. They had come to the right guy. Because, although I was a fledgling, I needed something—anything—to start with. The previous editor had taken all of the backlog of American Music manuscripts to start a new journal. I had nothing at hand and my first issue was past due even before I agreed to edit it. I soon learned to balance the needs of would-be authors and quarterly page counts. I often think of Thoreau's proverb, "Be not simply good, be good for something."2 I wanted this journal to be good...