The hot seat. Who wants to sit there?

Writing and music. These are two careers living inside me. The lessons I’ve taken from them define me in everything I do. And today, I’m sharing  “music producers and copy editors” experiences.

A lot of editors I’ve met like to complain about argumentative authors, and I have to smile. Because before I ever met a single editor–I’d met one hell of a music producer. But before we go any further, here’s a quick explanation for my two different types of readers:

For the writer: A music producer is like your editor. They go through and clean up all the junk in your writing, word by word, paragraph by painstaking paragraph. Your work slowly takes on qualities that includes the characteristics of your producer/editor, and when their job is done–you sound/read like a million bucks.

For the musician: An editor is like your producer. They scour your awful intonation, rhythm, wrong notes, ensemble problems etc. You bounce different cuts of the CD back and forth a few times. And when they’re done, you read/sound like a million bucks.

A few years ago I had the incredible experience of working with a multiple Grammy Award-winning producer, Da-Hong Seetoo. I was

Da-Hong playing my cello.

playing in the Euclid Quartet then, and we were recording the music of Bela Bartok for the Artek label. It was the last thing I did as a cellist. These days, since I can no longer play, I’ve learned to transfer lessons from that experience into the rest of my life and, in particular, into my writing.

I think my editor is happy that I do.

Da-Hong is a first-rate human being. He’s a guy you’d want to send if you needed an ambassador to represent the planet earth; he’s smart as hell, doesn’t compute B.S. and he has a heart of gold. That’s a rare combination, for some reason. Also, he has a “can do” attitude. In fact, chances are he “can do” it better than you. And everyone else you know. But don’t feel bad about that. There’s a reason.

He was born in Shanghai, China and grew up in a climate where Western music was forbidden. He had to practice violin with the windows shut and the blinds drawn. His father bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder, (spent months of saved up salary for it,) and obtained recordings of classical music which were essentially illegal contraband. When the tape recorder broke, the ten year-old boy learned to fix and upgrade the machine. Years later, Da-Hong was discovered by the legendary violinist, Joseph Silverstein, and subsequently brought to the States where he studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

We got a little nutty by the end.

Da-Hong was more than just your run of the mill child prodigy violinist. He was more than just another kid who was good enough to solo with the Philadelphia Orchestra. You see, Da-Hong also has a passion for electronics. These days, he builds his own microphones, speakers, and even digital audio editing software, customizing them to create recordings that no one else can replicate. He’s created his own “sound” as a producer, and it’s a sound that’s repeatedly achieved the highest level of accolades in the industry. He has that rare gift of being an expert musician as well as having the technical capabilities to translate the “natural ear” into the “digital ear.” And the dude can sight-read Bela Bartok quartets, accurately.

I like to think of him as a “Soooooper Genius,” because that’s exactly what he is.

Our sessions with Da-Hong were a week of ten- to fourteen hour days, sitting on a darkened stage, under the spotlight, with microphones crammed up into our f holes, (yep, that’s what you call the holes on a violin, viola or cello,) and a speaker set in the middle of the group where he could talk to us from the control room back stage. That speaker, for all intents and purposes, was the voice of God.

“Worse than high school!” he’d yell. “Do it again! This time, like you know how to play the violin!” Or, “Again! This time, try

A manic Jamie Cooper. Can you blame him?

playing an F-sharp!” Or, “What the hell are you doing? I speak Chineese–and that ain’t Bartok OR Chinese! I don’t know what the hell that was!” Etc. etc. etc. A lot of what was said during that week is a bit like Fight Club. What happened with Da-Hong, stays with Da-Hong, and the other guys in the quartet.

At meal times, when we remembered to eat, or just made time for it, Da-Hong was our best friend. Funny, positive, intelligent, and kind to the server at the restaurant we ate at. He never apologized for the brutality of the recording session. Quite the contrary. If the subject came up, he’d tell you again how what you were doing was wrong, and then it was right. Period. Black and white. “Do this, not that.” Or, “Out of tune, in tune.” Or, “Too fast, or too slow. Period.” His clarity became our new best friend.

Da-Hong didn’t suffer foolishness. If you are ever fortunate enough to record with him, you’ll surely find yourself sitting uncomfortably inside his cross hairs. You’ll squirm and grow sick to your stomach, maybe, but you can’t get away, and the clock is ticking for you to get it right. You’ll reflect on just how much is riding on you getting your part right while he’s ripping your head off for being wrong. You’ll reflect on how your window of opportunity is closing with each passing second. And you’ll either rise or fall.

Jacob studying the score.

Then, you get it right and the moment passes. It’s your neighbors turn. Now Da-Hong’s after him, and you breathe a bit easier, except–you know he’ll be back. He’ll be back when your stupid fallibility returns to remind you that you’re only human. Stupid human! you’ll think. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!

“Don’t argue with me,” he’ll tell you. “You know, the best artists don’t argue. They fix it.

The best artists, whether he was talking about Daniel Barenboim, the Emerson or Tokyo Quartets, Gil Shaham, or any of the other brilliant superstars he’s recorded, the best artists know they’ve done something wrong. They know it, and want to the opportunity to do it right. And, because they’re capable, they move on and just do it. They do it right because  they can, and because they understand that arguing about it comes from a place of wanting to save face–which has absolutely nothing to do with Da-Hong, his point, or Bela Bartok’s string quartets.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t subjective issues in recording and/or writing. “In tune” or “out of tune” is far more subjective than a non musician might believe. But, while Da-Hong, or your editor, might have a different idea of how to fix your problem, the point remains that the expert’s ear doesn’t lie.

After all, you’re paying a ton of money for someone’s expertise. Why in the world would you undermine that expertise by arguing? If you know better–do it yourself. Are you arguing because you can’t build your own microphones? Or your own digital software or speakers? Is it because you want to be selective over which parts of his genius are right, and which parts are wrong? Maybe you were soloing with the Philadelphia Orchestra (or the writing equivalent) when you were eleven? Or maybe your producer/editor checked all his/her experiences at the door at the exact moment he told you “worse than high school.”

No, it’s none of those things. One argues with one’s editor or producer because s/he’s got a finger squarely on a nerve and it’s

I'm probably praying.

uncomfortable. But where some people react to that discomfort by shying away, arguing or denying, others stretch out and grow. And that’s what “good” is. “Good” is “right.”

Writing, like music, is frustratingly subjective at times. But there is “good” and there is “worse than high school.” When you hire the expert–listen to him/her when you are told “worse than high school.” That’s an opportunity to turn “bad” into “good.” It’s an opportunity to remove the subjectivity for a while, a day, a week, or a month. Besides, you already know what you think. Sadly, “you” live with “you” all the time. Isn’t it time to avail yourself of what the expert knows?

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12 thoughts on “When Arguing is Stupid

  1. David, this is a great blog, possibly your best. I think writers who have difficulties with crit or editing should read this. It might illuminate their difficulties. It did for me.

  2. Great post, David! I have shared it on Twitter, my FB profile, and the Breakthrough Bookstore fan page. It needs to be read by as many writers as possible.

    Editing is much more involved than a lot of writers realize. It involves a lot of hours because we don’t just rely on the knowledge in our heads; we take the time to confirm what we think we know if the circumstances are even a little unusual.

    I especially agree with your comments about trusting the expertise of the person you hired to do the work. If you see something questionable, it’s okay to ask about it. What’s not okay is to become the editor of the editor’s work, asking for proof for every correction made to your work. If you’re that attached to your words as a writer, it leaves no room for improvement. You might be better served to put your novel on the shelf for six months to give your emotions a chance to chill.

    1. Well put Dannye. I’m glad you mentioned that it’s okay to ask questions, and respond critically to an expert’s critique. In fact, that’s another blog I’d like to write. “When Arguing ISN’T stupid.”

      The thing that I think some writers/musicians struggle to understand is that the personality of the “artist” is resilient. It’s more resilient than most people think. Your editor can file away a lot of dirt from your prose, but your personality will still be there when it’s done. Right where you left it–only now it’s sparkling clean. 😉

      Thanks for the shares, and the kind words!

      1. That’s right, David. A good editor knows how to step into the flow of the stream that is the author’s writing style so that any changes blend seamlessly into the existing story.

        Sometimes a writer’s style causes you as an editor to step away from the textbook approach to sentence structure if the author’s idiosyncracies in this area are contributing to a positive and unusual experience for the reader. Granted, this does not happen regularly, but when it does, an editor has to choose the personality of the story over the demands of the Chicago Manual of Style.

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