Soundbites from Dialogues with Michael Spooner, Part II: A Happened, Happening, Then Retrospective on a Career in Publishing, Writing, Reading, and Responding

21 November 2017 Written by   Stacy Kastner with Michael Spooner
Drawing by Bob Harvey, artist who retired from NCTE. Drawing by Bob Harvey, artist who retired from NCTE.

Below is Part II of the tribute published in the 2017 Writing Center Journal, issue 36(2). The editors welcomed the opportunity to honor Michael Spooner’s work with writing center scholars on the occasion of his retirement from Utah State University Press.

Part I can be found here.

An editorial pedagogy for the writing center: a master lesson with Michael Spooner¹

Frequently people in the field think of “editing” as mechanical cleanup done, say, after the final draft. To me, that’s not editing; it’s proofreading. Proofreading is very important work, but editing is a step prior. And editing is totally compatible—or at least my vision of editing is—with writing center pedagogy. Writing centers are sympathetic to the writer’s purposes, they’re trying to help the writer get where they need to go. Me, too.

A good place to start would be with Louise Phelps on response to writing (my fave is her “Cyrano” piece). Or even Louise Rosenblatt. One really important thing that Rosenblatt taught us was that the text doesn’t exist until it exists in your mind—in the reader’s mind. Yet this does not authorize every possible interpretation of the text—not even the editor’s—and to know which reading is most persuasive might just take more than a “gatekeeper’s” subject position. If we understand ourselves in the transactional terms that Rosenblatt and other reader response critics described, then we see our job much more as negotiation and much less as arbitration. We don’t necessarily get to stipulate the authoritative reading. It’s not just given to us by the gods. Understanding this puts us in the right frame of mind to work with somebody on the text that they’re composing. That’s where I am. I don’t come at editorial work from the view that our job is simply and always to make the text conform to Yankee conventions. It’s one of the things I’ve always admired about writing center pedagogy as well—that sort of tutorial exchange, negotiation over meaning first, then convention. Good editors—like good WC consultants—learn to read in full awareness that they are a ghost: a reader but not the audience. Ha. We live in a really interesting layer of response theory.

Now we can talk about sympathy for the text. We want the text to become what it wants to become; we want to help the writer take it there. If that means violate some conventions, then do that; the editor’s competence with conventions can help the writer transgress in an intelligent and effective way. And if it means the opposite; if it means the text needs to observe the conventions really rigidly, then fine. Is this APA? Great—let’s fix these ellipses; don’t make claims without citations; indent if you quote more than forty words. All of those pieces relate to the rhetorical situation of that text and the purposes of the writer when composing. The point is, first understand the writer’s purposes (not yours), and then think about how the text needs to behave to reach those purposes.

Editors and editing textbooks sometimes surprise me with how content they are to imagine writing as transparent or neutral. A text should be “clear and concise,” right? But for whom—a nineteen-year old? I always wanted to unteach this with my interns, so I would have them read the “Sympathy” piece (see below), along with the Chicago Manual of Style, and a good book on copyediting.² We’d have these long chats about how the “true” job of an editor is to help the writer achieve the writer’s purposes and not to stifle the writer in favor of what we infallibly imagine “clear and concise” might mean to the reader. I mean, we may end up negotiating, but we have to begin at least provisionally in the belief that the writer has a better sense of their audience than the editor does—especially a novice or student editor (who tend to be overconfident, frankly). Editors are not gods, heroes, nor even teachers. For some, this is news.

The pedagogical is where I disagree with Louise Phelps (in “Cyrano”). To me, the relation between editor and writer is way different from that between teacher and student. There may be an expert/novice thing going on, but only in a very limited range. Nor do I see editors as writing collaborators, as some do. It is so 4Cs to go there, but really, the editorial purpose is significantly different from collaboration, too.

Not that my views on this are especially authoritative (a little unique, maybe), but what I think about editing I’ve written up in a few different places:

  • “Sympathy for the Devil” (1997): I think I was struggling at the time to discover what I think, and working from ethical impulse more than from writing theory, beyond a sort of grounding in Winston Weathers’s “Grammar B” stuff. Wendy Bishop (editor of the collection this piece is in) was a big fan of his. I mean, me too, but she knew a lot more about him.
  • “An Essay We’re Learning to Read” (2002): There you can see that I’m thinking the same ethical/editorial thoughts, but I had found in Louise Phelps a workable anchor in actual grown-up response theory.  
  • “Too Many Books” (2004): This is sort of a spoof and experiment and critique of publish-or-perish, which I shouldn’t have been criticizing in the first place, given how I was making my living. Ha. But it was so much fun to write. The Cheyenne folktale I included had been haunting me as a critique of white culture, and it was awesome to find a way to pull that into an academic piece. (Publish-or-perish is such a white world problem.)
  • “How Everything Happens: Notes on May Swenson’s Theory of Writing” (2006): Here I’m working from the aesthetic side of response. Candidly, reading it later, I was surprised by how this chapter gathered so many scattered fragments of eclectic me: writing, history, folklore, Native Americans, the visual, philosophy, the personal, and poetry, of course. (Thank God I didn’t drag my family into it.) I think the section on her poem “How Everything Happens” is worth a look.


Coda: what are two things you know about writing that you’ve never told anyone?

May Swenson was an extraordinary poet of the mid-twentieth century. There are now eleven volumes of her poetry, I think, plus a collected works. From the 1960s through the ’80s, lots of her poems landed in The New Yorker, among many other places. She was mostly self-taught, but when May was young and starving in Greenwich Village, she got a job working for James Laughlin (famous New York publisher who discovered Ezra Pound). Along with him, she hung with some of the best-known New York writers of her day, spent months at Yaddo and other writers’ colonies; she had a thirty-year correspondence with Elizabeth Bishop and others. Everyone loved May. She became a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, a MacArthur Prize winner, etc. Truly, she had a wonderful pen.

But May Swenson was born and raised here in Utah—in this very town—and although she was well published, she was not well known. Over the years since she died, some of us at Utah State University have been working to raise her visibility in both the state and nation. My part of this effort was to establish the May Swenson Poetry Award, which ran for twenty years through USUP.

I only met May through her writing, but after she died, I met Zan Knudson, her life companion (these days we would say her wife). Zan, I came to know very well.

Zan was a fabulous writer, too. Like May, she was born in Utah but ended up in NYC—kind of a farm girl among the literati. She wrote forty-some books, including fiction, nonfiction, some ghost-writing, and some books about May that we published here at USUP. She was a maniac. I have ten pounds of scribbled correspondence from Zan about opera and writing and about May and about how things are done so much better in NYC. She would visit Utah sometimes, and we’d spend an afternoon drinking beer and playing “dueling sopranos” on my stereo. Zan was difficult, though: one of those high-energy, high-maintenance bullies whom you can’t help loving but who make you wonder why. She used to say terrible things to me. We had a big fight about some trivial event in NYC just before she died. “I thought you were a serious publisher,” she said. “But I guess you’re not.” Three months later, I learned that Zan had brain cancer and too much pride and was actually trying to say she wanted to see me one last time. Unbelievable.

May and Zan are buried in different cemeteries, but both are within an easy drive from my house. I visit them when I can.

Listen, I’m not one to give much advice. But in my own work—whether editing or writing—I’m always guided by two things I learned from these two lovely compulsive writers, May and Zan. The first is about process and the second about craft.

On process, it doesn’t get better than the last two lines of May’s short poem “How Everything Happens”:


Screen Shot 2017 11 16 at 10.45.02 AM

On craft, Zan once said to me very quietly and soberly: “It’s never, Let me show you what a good writer I am. It’s always, Let me tell you a story about what people want in life.”


1. In his 2015 keynote address at the International Writing Center Association Conference in Pittsburgh, Ben Rafoth noted that “consultation and collaboration will remain a key part of writing centers because these qualities are in our human DNA; in the future they will take forms that may seem a little strange now” (27). I remember distinctly that it seemed (to me anyways) like a hush came over the audience when he nodded to editing as one of these once-seemed-strange characteristics of the writing centers of the future. In the spirit of (r)Evolution, if we are to take on editing in the writing center, could there be a better pedagogical guide than Michael Spooner? Return to text.

2. Recommendation: At least the first few chapters of Amy Einsohn’s The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide to Book Publishing and Corporate Communications (2011). Return to text.


Boquet, E. 2002. Noise from the Writing Center. Logan: Utah State University Press.

Einsohn, A. 2011. The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide to Book Publishing and Corporate Communications. Oakland: University of California Press.

Phelps, L. W. 2000. “Cyrano’s Nose: Variations on the Theme of Response.” Assessing Writing 7(1): 91–110.

Rafoth, B. 2016. “Faces, Factories, and Warhols: A r(Evoluntionary) Future for Writing Centers.” Writing Center Journal 35(2): 17–30.

Rosenblatt, L. 1978. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Spooner, M. 1997. “Sympathy for the Devil: Editing Alternate Style.” In Elements of Alternate Style: Essays on Writing and Revision, ed. W. Bishop, 149–59. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook-Heinemann.

Spooner, M. 2002. “An Essay We’re Learning to Read: Responding to Alt Style.” In ALT DIS: Alternative Discourses and the Academy, ed. C. Schroeder, H. Fox, and P. Bizzell, 155–77). Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook-Heinemann.

Spooner, M. 2004. “Too Many Books: Sampling (on) Publish-or-Perish in Composition Studies.” Writing on the Edge 15(1): 21–30.

Spooner, M. 2006. “How Everything Happens: Notes on May Swenson’s Theory of Writing.” In Body My House: May Swenson’s Work and Life, ed. P. Crumbley and P. M. Gantt, 157–80. Logan: Utah State University Press.

 Stacy Kastner is associate director of the Writing Center at Brown University.

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