The Writer as Midwife
Daniel Halpern | May 1987
Daniel Halpern served as moderator for a panel discussion on the role of literary editing during AWP's recent annual meeting in Austin, Texas. We reproduce his kind remarks here for those who could not attend.
Our panel today wishes to address the topic of Writer as Midwife. Writers whose other work is to help others in their work as writers. Other being, as I understand our topic, one part of our subject, our feelings about this particular generosity, the other. Most writers must earn a living of some kind beyond "modest advance" and "per-page honorarium" which the matt and non-commercial among us make. And so a number of us have chosen the contiguous fields of editing and teaching and administrating.
Dave Smith, for example, is a poet who has devoted a great deal of his energies to the presentation of poetry, both as a teacher and as an editor of The Morrow Anthology of Younger Poets. Some of us have turned to trade editing as an ongoing way of providing lamb and decent wine for the evening meal—Joyce Johnson, as an editor at a number of publishing houses, including The Atlantic Monthly Press and Dial Press, and now as a freelance contributing editor at Vanity Fair, has spent her adult years in this particular pursuit. A few of the writers on this panel have at one time opted for more administrative positions—Carolyn Kizer, with her typical conviction and good sense, invented the NEA literature program back in 1966, and 16 years later Frank Conroy carefully but undeniably reinvented it. What all of us have in common is that we have each, on one occasion or another, done all three—that is, we have taught, we have edited, and we have administered something, besides participating—perhaps with a vengeance, given these public incarnations—in the vagaries of our own writing lives, which by way of these outside pursuits have suffered and prospered. Each of the panelists I imagine is going to tell you in what ways this is true, and untrue.
From my own experience, the one part of the "midwife" analogy which seems accurate is that aspect of it which is physical—that part of the job description which allows us to help make works of the imagination tangible, permanent that is, whether they be factual or fictional.
Doctors, for example, have the option of practicing their art in the pure world of research, removed from the actual beneficiaries of their epiphanies, or, they can practice directly on the infected. Writers, like doctors, have the option to practice their art and sullen craft alone, or to share it, directly, with the infected.
Like everyone here, I decided to make my living in a way that would involve some aspect of what I most want to do—write. My work as an editor has provided me with a costly education, in that it's been a public education, my grades posted on "word of mouth." I say costly because what is public obviates the opportunity for privacy—one of the crucial atmospheres through which writing of any kind is affected. But I like to think that this decision has a generous side to it, and I believe it does—however my primary motivation, besides the obvious pecuniary one, is further involvement with writing, regardless of how tangential, and to participate in some capacity in the act of committing the honest lie, whether we're talking about fiction or non-fiction, or poetry. About lying, Elizabeth Bowen wrote in The House in Paris, "Never to lie is to have no lock on your door, you are never wholly alone."
What I do as an editor and teacher allows me to justify spending much of my non-sleeping week to thinking about some aspect of writing—teaching it, editing it, publishing it, or actually doing it, and being with others who also do it.
Whether this work has helped or hurt my own writing is no doubt something I'll never be sure of certainly it must do both, but since this is what I've chosen to do, what I am going to do, I'm not concerned overly about it—what I do know is that this is the way it has turned out for me, that I can do my work as an editor and teacher and continue writing poems—as I continue to disagree with an earlier editor of The New Yorker, Harold Ross, who once said to his secretary, "Never leave me alone with poets."
Daniel Halpern is the author of six collections of poetry, including Life Among Others, Seasonal Rights, and Tango, all published by Elisabeth Sifton Books, Viking Penguin. He is the editor of Antaeus and The Ecco Press.