Starting with the "Classics"
I grew up poor, sometimes homeless and sometimes in foster facilities. But, at the first home within which I was reared, I had books—not just the Bible, but the "classics" of European and African American literature that my mother adored like the works of Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Donne, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Dickens, Yeats, Longfellow, Stevenson, Perrault, Christian Anderson, Grimm, Spyri, Whitman, Dickinson, Emerson, Howe, Equiano, Douglass, Jacobs, Truth, Poe, Dunbar, Doyle, Christie, McKay, Thurman, Hughes, Frost, Buck, and Walter Dean Myers.
Thrift editions of the works of these classic authors adorned my mother's shelves. My mother was herself an orphan and her favorite books were about castaway girls: Spyri's Heidi and Buck's Imperial Woman. She hid her withered texts behind a not-so-secret panel in her coral colored Singer sewing machine. I read all of these authors before the age of 5. When I was a toddler, I also began to sketch and sew. Design—meaning, how things are put together—became very important to me.
A Fateful Party
Sometime in the middle 1980s, I was at a house party held by one of my mentors, the late Guy C. McElroy, and I met the late Joseph F. Beam. I was not an invited guest like the luminaries in attendance. Rather, I was temporarily bunking at Guy's home because I had nowhere else to stay. At that party, incredible people mingled...a remarkable gathering of multiracial/multi-gender Mid-Atlantic artistic intelligentsia at the time: Adolphus Ealey, Max Robinson, Darrel Ellis, Peggy Cooper Cafritz, Ursula Nordstrom and her partner, Mary, and many others. I did not want to intrude at the party. Already guests like Peggy mistook me for one of the hired waiters. So I cloistered myself in a corner in one of the rooms used to store coats and tried to finish a book that was troubling me. Soon Joe arrived in the room to retrieve something from his coat and asked, "What are you reading?" I replied, "Absalom, Absalom!"
Then we talked seemingly endlessly that evening about words. It was one of the most remarkable conversations of my life. At one point, Joe asked me, "What part of speech is the archaic word 'wont'"? I promptly answered, "Noun," and I told him the definition. Earlier in the evening, when he asked what I was up to in the corner, I think I replied, cheekily, that I was "just reading as I am wont to do!" That's why he probably asked about my use of the word "wont." I suppose he wanted to discern my sensitivity to the grammatical cast of language.
"Do Something You Love"
Sometime later, Joe and I spoke over the phone about my struggle with making a living and my uncertain future. He was very sick with AIDS at the time. He told me that "Editing is an experience of reading" and that "Editing is about tenderness: holding language tenderly, holding authors tenderly." I'll never, ever forget his words!
Then Joe suggested that I could "do something I loved" by becoming an editor at least part-time. Joe told me that, on the night we met, he discovered that I might be suited to the task when we discussed the word "wont" and the structure of William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!.
As we discussed the novel, Joe told me that he noticed that I grasped local matters of grammar and global matters of structure with equal interest. Later Joe introduced me to the Editorial Freelancers Association and gave me a portion of my first year's membership fee. He also helped me secure my first copyediting job for the Baltimore Alternative (he was a close friend of the newspaper's executive editor, the late Bill Urban).
Joe believed that the best manuscripts and media are focused, purposeful, reasoned, accessible, persuasive, substantive, clearly worded, and well-organized. But, arriving at this place of excellence is challenging. As an American English language editor, writer, and designer for individuals and organizations, I try to carry on the principles that Joe taught me.
Joseph "Joe" F. Beam (1954-1988)
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