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Thursday
Feb092017

Lessons in Copycatting

I’ve never had the pleasure of yelling at someone I was mad at. I really don’t know how. It’s a secret wish of mine to fly into a full-on Minerva rage. Not minding my volume or grammar, definitely not minding anyone’s feelings. But I could no more easily do that than I could tell myself it’s okay to pee my pants on the street. Even if my mind said sure, YOLO, my body couldn’t let go. 

I know I’m incredibly lucky to say that there was no yelling about dirty rooms or report cards in the home where I grew up. Once, when I was 18 and new to the driving thing, I left a 4-foot dent in the side of the gorgeous red car parked next to mine. I’d nervously backed out of my parking space with my eyes trained on the rear view mirror, waiting until the last second to look right. Even then, not one family member made digs about the debatable deservedness of my driver’s license. At our dinner table, significant stretches of time would pass during which chewing was the only sound—unremarkable until you consider the fact that there were 11 of us. I left this home for college as a peaceable 17-year-old.

Just maybe too peaceable, I’d find myself wondering after I’d swallowed my words yet another time. So I began to take special notice of any straight shooters I encountered, wanting to crack the code. For example, I recognized my opposite the first time I heard Mindy Lahiri of The Mindy Project gasp “How dare you?” (a line she liked to come back to). Her fingers made an L shape as they punctuated the air in front of her—though not viciously. She was as non-threatening as any chronically dramatic 12-year-old. Wearing a wardrobe not unlike Elle Wood’s, she farted like a man and liked to stare appraisingly at her reflection in the mirror. 

After I’d watched a couple seasons, I started to catch myself acting out of character. When faced with anything mildly outrageous, I’d let fly a tentative “How dare you?” Lest my meaning be mistaken, I threw in a hand gesture (L-shaped fingers) for good measure. There was even a trace of Mindy’s cartoon mouse voice—that slight squeak of incredulity—to be heard. I caught myself in the act. I know exactly what you’re doing, I thought to myself, and I had to admit I found myself pretty amusing. 

Of course, snapping up mannerisms and affectations like a baby bird is a known process by which family tics are passed down from generation to generation. “I’m not really like anyone I’ve ever met,” my 13-year-old sister once told me, swinging back and forth the veiny, size ten-and-a-half feet she shares with my mom. It’s easy to overestimate your originality. And some of us are simply more malleable than others. Some of us slip into unconscious mirroring for the extent of a conversation. Some of us, on a deeper level, don’t even know what our personalities would look like without another person to interact with. That person would be me. When I’m alone, the voice in my head is half-asleep, ignoring most incoming stimuli. In social settings, when those stimuli take the form of people, I do and say things that surprise even me. 

After I finished the second season of The Mindy Project, I braced myself for a six-month wait before she came back onscreen. But as January turned into February, I had to admit that “How dare you?” had entered into permanent rotation in my vocabulary. Those weren’t my only Mindyisms. I’d also picked up “I’m sorry, you did what?” and “What did you just say to me?” It was surprisingly easy to copy her signature move, for which so many twenty- to thirty-year-old women say they want to be her: to wonder out loud what most of us only think in our heads. That’s how each episode’s comedy is generated. Our heroine flouts the social norms we’re so mindful of and gets away with it more or less scot-free. (Then, every so often, she does a 180 by dropping all her braggadocio and saying something selfless.) Anyone can do this with a little practice. 

It wasn’t the full-on Minerva rage I had in mind, but it was a step in the right direction. Plus, it was my first experiment with dropping the mature act I’d been keeping up for as long as I could remember. It turned out that self-monitoring my words and facial expressions 24/7 was not imperative.

Fast-forward to today, and I hear myself plagiarizing other people’s best lines on an hourly basis. I guess a 23-year-old can say that without being embarrassed. (Although this 23-year-old is particularly inclined to be embarrassed.) My biggest challenge right now is at my office. I’m two years into a publishing career that I’d like to last much longer. The quiet, non-confrontational mood I default to isn’t the least bit inclined to lead conference calls or speak up in meetings. 

One of the most surprising things about the job of editing books is that minding your commas and em-dashes isn’t a core skill. We have a separate copyediting department for that, if Microsoft Word’s spell-check doesn’t clean up your act first. You do, however, need to command decent sales skills. 

In fact, my superiors startled me by seeming competent at just about everything when I started. There were no reclusive English majors in editorial. They were patient, quick, charming, practical superstars who squashed my doubts about the publishing industry “dying.” Sure, in the last five years, self-published books have flooded the market with an excess of content, competitively priced or even free. Today, a book bearing the stamp of a prestigious publisher still must convince a distracted audience it’s worth their attention. Enter sales skills.

In college, I picked up a business minor and then dropped it immediately, claiming the tactics grossed me out. Now I was back to square one. And one habit I had to break right off the bat was my phone manners. I’d learned mine from my dad. He likes to indulge in long pauses while he gathers his thoughts, perhaps also loading the dishwasher or answering an email. He believes multitasking is one of the great virtues in life. If you called to tell him a hilarious story, he might say, “Okay” in a crackly voice that betrayed that he was across the room, let ten seconds pass, and then rally a “That was funny.”

But this etiquette, or lack thereof, didn’t bother me. I’ve been known to daydream mid-conversation. I got to do more of what I love when I talked to my dad. On the job, I knew something would have to change. Phone calls were for building relationships with people on opposite coasts, for establishing trust with those who needed to believe you could fix their problems. Awkward, festering silences wouldn’t do me any favors.

Feeling unequipped, I started listening to the conversations floating out of the open office door nearest mine. A more senior editor worked inside. Shelves of books she’d edited over the years lined the walls. She kept them near her as if they were framed pictures of her kids. I was regularly invited into her office, which thrilled me. Tough but warm, prone to brief bursts of disclosure that ended as unexpectedly as they began, she set you spinning in her orbit. She had many long phone conversations with authors and agents. When she picked up, it wasn’t immediately apparent that one of New York’s most talented editors in her genre was talking: she had the manner of a confidante, full of questions and eager to listen (but meanwhile furiously taking notes). From my vantage point—one wall and a bookshelf away—I learned things she’d never told me, from her favorite TV shows to the fact that she and her husband wanted kids in a few years. 

She wasn’t wasting time, though. I came to see that her ear was always sharply cocked. What did this person want, she’d be thinking, and how can I give it to them? Why was the manuscript really 3 months late? Laziness and fear required different editorial approaches, according to her philosophy. The nice thing was that—however dim her view of humanity might’ve been—she also made lighthearted comments about her own childishness. We were all in this sorry state together. 

This approach squared with my realist nature. We all want the same things in life—to connect with someone—and is that so wrong? If I just dispensed with my ingrained formalities and treated authors and agents like real people, they’d tell me what the problem was a whole lot sooner, and we could find the solution together. 

This editor didn’t have a signature line so much as a way for picking up on the important part of what was being said to her. The humble brag in disguise, the subtle cry for help. I began to listen for these clues everywhere. And when people suddenly became both more interesting and more relatable, it hit me that I’d gone a long time thinking I was an emotional complex person surrounded by more shallow people. The truth was way more fun.  

This was not the sales I’d encountered in my short-lived business minor. Or if this was sales, I didn’t mind it. At first I’d just been miming someone else’s manner and phrases, but soon they began to feel like they’d been mine for a long time. It was lucky I didn’t continue thinking of every caller as a monster with eight-tentacled heads, because I started spending more and more time on the phone.

Holding my own in meetings, however: that was a different beast. They were so different from one-on-one interactions. I couldn’t respond to everyone’s individual cues because I didn’t have enough eyes. In fact, I needed to ignore certain individual cues, like the token resting bitch face or the token narcoleptic. 

By far, our most high-stakes meetings are pitch meetings. Potential authors and their agents scope out an imprint’s editorial and publicity team while we, in turn, scope them out. Like first dates, one party is usually more interested than the other. 

If I had worked almost anywhere else, I dare say I wouldn’t have been allowed to lead a pitch meeting before having five years of experience under my belt. Many imprints didn’t even allow assistants to attend them. In one (of six) interviews for the editorial assistant position I eventually got, one of the editors had mentioned that they didn’t believe in letting rookies get bored. This was the honest-to-God truth, I soon realized. I found myself tasked with running a pitch call less than a year and a half into the job. 

It was a pleasurable experience to attend a pitch meeting with the editor whose phone manners I admired. There was no official agenda for the meeting (again, like a first date). She helped everyone in the room relax. She had a way of expressing enthusiasm for the book that drew out what was most special. And, importantly, she made the monetary aspect of the book deal seem like a distant concern. All this without ever once showing a chink in her perfect composure, once uttering a sentence that wasn’t worth printing verbatim in an important article about something.

I knew it took a lot of preparation to pull this off. Who was the author? Who followed them on Twitter? What other books have been published in their space? Why did the books that succeeded succeed, and why did those that failed fail? I dug into all these questions before the meeting I’d been tasked with leading. I read the short book proposal, and tried to imagine the full book as it could be, complete with a beautiful cover from our cutting edge art department and a title you could see on the New York Times Bestseller List. 

The pitch meeting began, two of my superiors beside me with expectant looks on their faces. I knew right away that I was not, as they say, “In the zone.” Pit stains spread to my flanks as I tentatively repeated some of the sentences I’d seen used. I reminded myself of bad celebrity impersonations I’d come across on YouTube. 

It seemed that there were limits to how far I could stretch myself in an impersonation—or at least how quickly I could learn to do it. We hear body language and tone more loudly than words, and my over-preparation was completely pointless: I was demoralized. 

What I didn’t know is that all my managers had expected me to do was to ask a probing question or two and give a genuine compliment or two to the author’s idea set, not pull out an extra chair at the table for my ego. 

During this time, one of the editors I felt most comfortable with sat just down the hall from me. She was so quick to laugh that, for a few months after I started, I assumed she worked in publicity. (No, I’m not immune to stereotyping.) Her department-wide emails soon proved that she could be as keenly analytical as she was breezy. What struck me about her was how few pretenses she put on. If she’d been up till 2:00 a.m. editing the previous night, for instance—not unusual in this line of work—and was so sleep-deprived she lost her train of thought in a meeting the next day, she would alert the room to her mental state, laughing and pulling the skin on her cheeks to further communicate her exhaustion. 

In other words, she was proof that “ineloquent” and “charismatic” weren’t mutually exclusive ways to be in the world. And that maybe—just maybe—if you shook off your failures without being a crybaby, they’d be invisible to everyone else. In ten years I might have the institutional memory to pull off the perfect pitch meeting. My brain will crunch numbers while my lips tell jokes and my eyes scan the room for key behavioral data. Right now I’m more concerned allowing myself a lightness of being. My pit stains won’t wash out too many more times.

Unsurprisingly, my interactions were much more successful once I stopped trying to be the clone of one specific person, and I took on new responsibility. This was a double-edged sword. I wormed my way into a few book deals, celebrated hysterically, and then found myself unable to leave the office before 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. without falling desperately behind. Wanting to get everything done consumed me, made me into the kind of person who answered texts days late and forgot birthdays. 

What I needed was to be more productive. Where can I cut 15 minutes out of my schedule? I asked myself sternly. An eager crowd of suggestions surrounded me, since my imprint dabbled rather heavily in time-management books. I tried the Pomodoro Technique (working for uninterrupted 25-minute intervals without checking email; even thinking off-topic thoughts was forbidden). I contemplated the bulletproof diet, where you substitute a fusion of coffee and butter for breakfast, and intermittent fasting, where you have no breakfast. I decided I’d save more time doing the latter. For the first time since freshman year of college, I didn’t fry three eggs directly after getting out of bed.

I wanted to become a better person. More productive, and more peaceful. Instead I became a hungrier person. Less so in the obvious sense, thanks to the handfuls of trail mix I inhaled every afternoon, than in my constant feeling of deprivation. I craved the secret to having it all together. I wanted to meditate in the morning, to write emails without pressing the brakes every sentence, doubting my wording. Most of all, from a macro level, I wanted to know I was accomplishing something meaningful. 

Sometimes, when a group of editors didn’t have agent lunches scheduled, we’d find an empty conference room and munch and talk.  On one such occasion, I found myself explaining why I finished 75% of my grain bowl or whatever in less than 60 seconds. Intermittent fasting, I gushed! Gone are standard “mealtimes.” Think of eating in terms of a restricted feeding window! One editor was eyeing me pityingly. “You know,” she said, “it doesn’t make you a better person to twist and contort like this. The time that you eat breakfast does not. Mean. Anything.“ She helpfully phrased her criticism in terms of people other than me. “Dave Asprey [the creator of the Bulletproof Diet] is not morally superior to any of us because he ingests coffee and liquefied fat instead of eating the breakfast sandwich he wants.”

Incidentally, this was not enough to get me to quit intermittent fasting. But it was what I needed to hear, when I needed to hear it. A voice in my head to intercept the thoughts that pushed me to compare, compare, compare. This advice came from someone who didn’t sit near me. We weren’t close before or after. But right now, she’s the author of one of my better instincts. 

Without implying I was thrown into the world with zero good instincts, I can’t think of any of my best impulses that weren’t imports. So much so that I sometimes wonder if I’m going to be called out by someone who sees me walking around wearing something of her own. Maybe by the roommate who taught me how to make a facial expression that simultaneously communicates “That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard” and “But I’m going to give you another chance,” or the roommate who taught me hand gestures for telling stories that sort of look like you’re doing ballet underwater with a fresh manicure. 

If anyone has noticed, they haven’t called me out on it. They say good artists copy and great artists steal, so for one, no point worrying about my authorial voice issuing from deep within—I’m an artist, thank you!—and for another thing, why was I born not knowing how to express myself if not so someone could teach me? 

I’m a 23-year-old female seeking an experienced yeller who can teach me how to let someone have it when they deserve it. If you know anyone . . .


Olive Bilton is an Associate Editor at Penguin Random House. 

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