The fellow you see in the picture above is Tom Becker. In 1991, I got my first full-time professional writing gig, as a movie critic for the Fresno Bee newspaper. Tom was the Assistant Features Editor there, which is to say he was my boss.
There are many things that are important for a young writer, but the one I want to focus on at the moment is this one: That it helps to have the right editor at the right time. When I started at the Bee, I was 22, young enough that I got carded at the first “R”-rated movie I was sent to review, and madly, truly, deeply full of myself, because, hey, I was 22 years old and I spent my time watching movies and interviewing movie stars, so obviously I was doing something right, you know? Basically, I was a bit of an ass. Had I been matched with the wrong editor, bad things would have happened.
Tom was, very simply, the right editor for me. I think Tom very quickly sized me up for what I was — a young guy who had the potential to let his ego get in the way of his development as a writer — and also quickly figured out what it was I needed from him, and then set to providing it to me. Tom’s method was to be calm and sensible, to give me enough of a lead to try things and then reel me in during the editing process and show me where things needed to fixed and why. I can’t say I always agreed with him — I was a bit of an ass, remember — but how he worked with me did the job just as much as what he did when he edited. It’s a long way of saying that he did his job in a way that didn’t set off my ego and insecurities. Over the time I worked with him, I did indeed become a better writer.
That being said, I truly learned to appreciate what Tom did for me not when I was at the Bee, but when I left it and took a job at America Online. One of my tasks was to be an editor, and I spent a not-inconsiderable time with writers, finding ways to make their writing better, and also finding ways to do it in a way that didn’t collapse those writers into tight little balls of neurosis. Once I did my stint as an editor, I went back to look at some of my raw writing from my Bee years and was horrified at how unfinished it was, and how much it really had needed an editor — how much, in point of fact, it needed Tom Becker.
Shortly thereafter I had reason to visit Fresno again, and on a visit to the Bee I went over to Tom’s desk, to thank him for the help he’d given me, and to apologize to him for being, as previously mentioned, a bit of an ass while I worked with him. Tom was amused, and very gracious, and also, I think, happy to know that his work and patience had been recognized and valued, even if that recognition had been a bit late in coming.
I do recognize it and I do value it. What Tom Becker did for me and for my writing helped make it possible for me to go on to do everything else I have been able to do. He’s also responsible for me recognizing that as famously solitary as writers are alleged to be, we really don’t work alone. Our words — and our skills as writers — very often do need help, which we get from editors, copy editors, proofers and all the other people between the writer and the audience for our words. Writers are fortunate to have people who strengthen our skills and our work, and it doesn’t hurt for us to recognize that fact. I may or may not still be a bit of an ass, but I know how much more of an ass I would look like without the help I get from editors and others. I owe that sense of realism, and humility, to Tom.
Tom passed away on Wednesday, at peace and with family and friends by his side, in his home. Tom had known for some time that this was coming and from what friends tell me handled it in the gentle and orderly manner I remember him having. I was fortunate to have been able to say goodbye to him before he left us, and to thank him again for everything he’d done for me. He wrote something to me then which I don’t think he would mind me sharing with you:
It makes me happy to know the influence I had on you. I was never sure at the time. You always seemed like a wild horse running free on the plains. All I tried to do was get you to look in the right direction every now and then. Sounds like I did just that. Thanks so much for remembering and absorbing my teachings and editing. I consider my life as a journalist and editor successful and full with the positive influence I had on you and others. And that makes me happy. I always was trying to teach as I went along. I think I did with you. Now you are spreading the word to others, so maybe there will be fewer hurt feelings and more working together between writers and editors in the world thanks to your stories about me. I am honored.
In fact, it is I who am honored, to have worked with Tom and to have been taught by him. And I am honored to be able to tell all of you this little bit about him and about how he was important to me.
If you are a writer, in Tom’s honor I would ask you to think about the editors and others who have helped to you to become the writers you wanted to become. Everyone else, think on your teachers and mentors who with patience and humor and possibly even a bit of love looked past your unformed nature, saw what you could be, and helped you be just that.
Your appreciation of their work would be a fine memorial to my friend, teacher and editor Tom Becker. You might not have known him, but I bet you know someone like him. Let that person know that you know what they did for you. You won’t regret it.