The Piranha in the Pet Shop ~ Peter Chilson

In the summer of 1988, I was a stringer working the copy desk at the Associated Press West Africa bureau in Cote d’Ivoire. One afternoon I answered the phone to hear an editor in New York. His southern lilt sharpened his annoyance across the Atlantic Ocean. “You guys just sent out a story about a bus crash,” he said, referring to a 300-word news item I’d written and placed on the AP world news wire twenty minutes earlier.

“Yes,” I said, “it’s mine.”

“Well, it’s got more holes than Swiss cheese.” His drawl stretched the words in a way that made his opinion seem personal. I blinked at “Swiss cheese.” Apparently, my work was not worth a more original image. “A bus carrying fifty people flips on a highway and you don’t tell us if anyone was injured or killed.” He went on. Where was the bus going? What kind of bus was it? “Jesus, son, didn’t you ask anyone how the accident happened?” Every syllable felt like a rap to my forehead.

In journalism, a stringer is an adjunct: Poor pay, no benefits, no job security. I was grateful for the experience. I was the only one in the office when I heard about the bus crash on Ivorian state radio and called police in the town near the accident for more details. I had other stories to edit from stringers around the region—student protests in Senegal, locust swarms in Mali, a profile of a woman banker in Ghana, a piece about petrol smugglers in Nigeria. On the phone I took down the location of the wreck and that the bus was carrying women who’d been at a village market. Police said the bus had been loaded with trade goods—bolts of cloth, sacks of grain, wire cages full of live chickens, a few goats, their hooves bundled in twine. Most of it was piled on the roof.

But after the editor’s call, I got the police back on the line. The bus, an old 1970s Mercedes coach, was headed north to the border with Mali and had been going too fast around a curve when the laws of physics kicked in and the top heavy bus tipped over. They confirmed three dead and a handful of injured. Three dead in an auto accident anywhere in the world is not a high enough body count to make the world news wire. The editor pulled the story. “I’m sorry,” he said. This one’s not going to fly.”

I can still hear his voice—a mix of my Aunt Mary from Detroit, defender of the King’s English, and Lyndon Johnson, ruler of the first Texas White House, who, his biographers say, loved to invent brutal metaphors about political opponents, his Texas twang dripping in the air. Johnson said of a speech by Richard Nixon: “I may not know much, but I know the difference between chicken shit and chicken salad.” My aunt’s opinion of my work cut deeper. I once wrote her a letter from Africa, describing the small desert village that was my Peace Corps post. She sent the letter back across the great ocean with pencil edits, entire paragraphs crossed out, and a reminder about the difference between subject and object pronouns. She signed off with this: “Too many words. Get rid of your adjectives. Love, Aunt Mary.”


I have many editorial memories like that—lessons from workplace and workshop, and startling encounters with readers. Expressions of laughter and anger and doubt and earnestness. Painful as these experiences are, I’m thankful for the direct clarity editors have offered about my work. Like Betsy Marson, retired longtime editor of High Country News, whose exasperation with my writing still plucks at my nerves. She once stood over my desk in Paonia, Colorado with a hardcopy of a story rattling in her hand: “Look, every story has an arc, a beginning and middle and end…You should know this by now.” And there was the late novelist Paul West, my graduate school writing teacher—a former RAF flight lieutenant, author of some fifty books, including twenty-three novels—who roughed me up in my first writing workshop. He groaned at a story I submitted about an African bar. Forearms crossed on the table, he gazed down at my work and said: “This reads like so much dribbling mud.” He was right. Still, his words angered me, which was West’s aim. The subtext of his workshop was this: Commit to doing your best work or go away.

Now, as a university teacher of writing and literature, I’m careful of how I deal with student work for fear of harming a young artist’s ambitions. But I tell stories about Paul West to prepare a workshop and I find myself channeling West and my Aunt Mary when editing fellow writers who value a close line edit. I also confess to using the “more holes than Swiss cheese” cliché about a badly written proposal that landed in a faculty meeting. In class, though, I encourage specific and constructive feedback—emphasis on constructive—because such critique resonates in positive ways, especially when backed up by detailed pencil edits, which Paul West also gave his students, line for line. West became my major professor in graduate school at Pennsylvania State University. I took four workshops from him, during which I kept a notebook of Westisms, including his favorite words of praise. “You’re in good form today,” he’d say when he liked something you said in class. He loved “purple prose” that pushed the boundaries of what language could do, often to the irritation of editors who’d bought into what he called “the minimalist craze.” He defended purple style in a 1985 New York Times Book Review essay:

Purple…is the world written up, intensified and made pleasurably palpable, not only to suggest the impetuous abundance of Creation, but also to add to it by showing – showing off – the expansive power of the mind itself, its unique knack for making itself at home among trees, dawns, viruses, and then turning them into something else: a word, a daub, a sonata. 

I’m amazed how that sentence winds through multiple clauses and lists to deliver meaning smoothly, with the slightly subversive “viruses” dropped in at the end of the first list. West loved playful juxtapositions of words, things that slow or even stop a reader, asking for a moment to think.

He marked our work in heavy black felt ink as if to reinforce that he’d been there, asking open-ended questions in the margins. Beside sweeping generalizations, he’d write, “Do you really think so?” or “Well, is that right?” For a badly written passage he’d underline the offending language and write something like, “Rewire this!” I got his British up once when I mistakenly wrote that “Rule Britannia” was the English national anthem. “Don’t bloody think so, Yank!” he scrawled. He line edited our pages in his shorthand of check marks, exclamation points, underlines, question marks, occasional inserted commas, and mysterious little dots between the lines that left me bent over my work trying to determine what he was getting at. Which was his intent, to push the writer to closer scrutiny. He’d pepper some pages with his marks and then a page or two might go by with only a light edit or nothing at all. Then, just when I thought I’d escaped, I’d see a black line through a sentence or more with no comment or maybe a suggested rewording. If he really didn’t like something, he’d leave a margin note like, “Drop this one over the side, and let it sink.” His comments snuck up as if he were whispering over your shoulder, “Oh yes, I’m still here.” Then he’d sign off with a page of notes typed out single-spaced on a manual type writer and paperclipped to the last page like a subpoena. I received high praise only once. Beside a character description in one story he wrote, “Bravo!” I fed on that word for weeks.


My undergraduates seem surprised and mostly pleased a teacher is paying attention with edits. My graduate students, on the other hand, having arrived at a career point where more is at stake, aren’t so thrilled. “He’s mean,” one complained about me to a colleague. The student’s words stung more than I was willing to admit, leaving me wondering what it was I had said in class or written on her papers. I try to balance pro and con comments with line edits. But when students complain that I am harsh I take comfort in listening to an interview with a poet I admire, the late Philip Levine, who grew up rough in Detroit and who was for a time a harsh teacher, “capable of being very, very funny when he was ripping students to shreds,” according to a former student. But when Levine was named U.S. Poet Laureate at age 83, he told an interviewer that the worst thing a writing teacher can do is regard students with “disdain” marked by “cultivated boredom.”

A good teacher or editor knows that to give bold, specific comments on the work of a student, colleague, or family member is the opposite of disdain. The late Simone Weil, a writer, teacher and political activist, wrote that “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” To which I add that to challenge diction, syntax, style and voice, logic and the quality of one’s evidence—even a simple gesture such as to bracket a few lines in the margin and write, “I’m not sure what this means”—might be the purest form of love expressed between writers. The novelist and critic Nick Ripatrazone writes: “Line editing is the ultimate union of writer and editor…it is a gift of trust, and it must go both ways.” The sub-text of a close edit is not that the writing in question isn’t good (sometimes that’s the case), but that this is part of a process and you, the student or colleague, should rethink the work. As New Yorker editor David Remnick once said, “Revision is all there is.”

On newspapers there’s never time to revise, which is why we have editors, though they don’t catch everything. In 1984, just out of college, I worked for The Watertown Daily Times in upstate New York in a bureau in Canton, near the great Saint Lawrence River. One morning my editor called to say he’d heard the local pet store was selling a piranha, the razor-toothed fish native to the Amazon. He wanted a feature story. I visited the store, which was a block from my office. “Oh yeah,” the owner said, “I have a piranha.” He pointed to this greenish oval shaped fish by itself in a tank. It looked about the size of my hand with my fingers spread. “Here, let me show you.” Using a ladle, he scooped a tiny goldfish from another tank and dropped it in with the piranha. Sure enough, the bigger fish ate the goldfish in a single gulp. Yep, I thought, scribbling notes. Must be a piranha. The man was all smiles and explained how he’d bought the piranha through an exotic fish catalog. I snapped a picture. My story made the next day’s paper.

Two days after that a local high school biology teacher stopped by my office. She was bespectacled and wore jeans and boots and polar fleece, and a filthy fisherman’s ballcap with an elongated bill like the one Hemingway wears in those pictures of him fishing off the coast of Cuba. She stood at my desk, holding a copy of the paper and smiling a bit too broadly. “You know,” she said, “I loved your article about the piranha. There’s just one problem.” She tapped a finger on the photograph. Her eyebrows twitched to accent her smile. “This is a yellow perch. They eat smaller fish and perch are common in the Saint Lawrence River.” I gripped the armrests of my chair as she went on, smiling and chatting like someone who loved her work, loved correcting people like me. “Perch have tiny teeth, but they’ll eat anything they can fit in their mouths.” Then she took from her daypack a marine biology book with a picture of a piranha with scary-looking and well-defined triangular teeth obvious from the front and side. “See?” she said. “But a perch’s teeth are hard to see.” She plopped the book on my desk, turning the pages to a picture of a perch, the same kind of fish I saw in the pet shop: not much wider than the width of my hand and oval shaped like a piranha, but with larger dorsal and tail fins.

Later, I saw the pet shop owner on the street. He winked at me.

I wish an editor had been paying attention that day to save me from myself. The best editors are tough to please. After I returned from Africa in 1989, I worked as an AP staffer in the Hartford, Connecticut bureau under an editor named Brent Laymon. One hot July day he sent me off to cover a murder-suicide in the wealthy township of West Hartford. A man, possibly distraught over his business dealings, had shot to death his wife and two children, before turning a pistol on himself. Police had strung yellow tape around a stately red brick house and closed the street because of the crush of media and curious onlookers. With the investigation ongoing, they gave the barest details. I learned what I could from the neighbors and filed a short news brief from the landline in a neighbor’s living room. Then I headed back to the office to make more calls and write the longer story. It was a good day, with the brief filed on deadline under my byline followed by a news feature with more from the police, background about the family, and the smell on the street after police opened the windows of the house where the bodies had lain four days in the summer heat.

“Nice work,” Laymon said. He made some edits and put the story on the state wire ahead of the 6 pm deadline for the morning papers. I sat at my desk, shuffling my notes as I got ready to leave. Although what happened to this family sickened me, I felt good about the work I’d done on deadline and stopped by Laymon’s office on my way out. I told him about this dog, a black poodle that raced out of the house after a cop opened the front door. The dog was squealing and trailing a leather leash as the cop lumbered after it across the lawn. His cap flew off as he dove on top of the animal.

Laymon studied me through horn-rimmed glasses, his brow pinched and lips pressed together in a slight grimace. “Why didn’t you put that in the story?” He spoke so softly I had to lean forward. “Don’t you see? The dog was the last surviving member of the family.” He shook his head and turned back to his computer. “Rewrite it,” he said. “Add the bit about the dog. Maybe it’ll make the afternoon papers, if we’re lucky.” Then he said, “Too bad. It was a good story.”


To this day I think about that lost opportunity and about the hard words Paul West and Betsy Marston. They were lessons that involved shame and maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing.

I work with all kinds of students, including many who write better than I. And others whose abilities awaken with time, and still others who come in day after day just because they love to read, they love the back and forth of workshop and talking about literature. One student named Ted came to me a few years ago with a personal essay about losing his mother to cancer. The early drafts were disorganized and self-indulgent, with sentences that trailed off into the stratosphere. But the story was deep and specific, and we worked through five or so drafts, each one a significant rewrite. He never missed a class or appointment. I was as direct and specific with him as I’ve been with any student. He was hungry for it even as tears rimmed his eyes as he recalled his mother’s pain. Over a semester he worked his memoir into something sharp and wonderful, which is to say he just kept at it draft after draft. He respected the process and I like to think he learned from it.

Ted was also part of a campus comedy troupe and did stand up in local bars, where feedback is immediate and brutal, propelled by alcohol-fueled Get-the-hell-off-the-stage vulgarity and wet popcorn to the face. I witnessed his performances. Ted taught me about rhetoric and about what it means to deeply feel the thin line between hurt and laughter. He threw himself into stand-up with the same untidy energy he did his writing. I’m not sure I taught Ted anything he didn’t already know instinctively or would not have realized on his own. Thinking of him brings to mind something the writer Lynn Freed once wrote in Harper’s. “The best I can do as a teacher is to function as a good editor, to help a student train his ear so that he can come to edit himself.” A few years after Ted left our campus, he joined Second City, the famed Chicago comedy troupe, and later landed a job producing comedy for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.

I think of the writing and editing process—all the drafting, the workshops and critiques, the line edits and even the unwanted, uninvited feedback—as a necessary, painful messiness, like democracy. And until our democracy crumbles, ordinary people still have the right to stand up and speak as comedians and as citizens, to complain to news media about the reporting of a story; or to any government office or police agency if the citizen finds some fault in their work; and to his or her own workplace colleagues and bosses if the citizen finds something amiss. But to do this, to put yourself out there as a writer or critic, even in an established democracy, takes courage and willingness to face ridicule or worse. For a writer this means being able to take criticism for what you’re hoping other people will read.

I’m thinking of something that happened years ago at a bookstore in Bellingham, Washington. I was giving a reading from a new book of short fiction that included a story called “American Food,” written from the point of view of an African biologist raising his family in the United States. In the audience a woman who came from the same region of West Africa as my fictional biologist sat politely in the front row, my book in her lap. Her face looked a bit clouded. When questions began, she was nervous, shifting in her seat and looking around the room. She raised her hand and I gestured to her but she was interrupted by another questioner. When her turn finally came, she stood up and said she was from Senegal. “How can you, a white man, write this?” she asked. “How can you know what this man’s life is like in his country?”

Stumbling and halting, I said that after many years living in both Africa and the U.S. I felt kinship with people struggling to live in a culture not their own. I based the biologist character on an African scientist friend with whom I’d worked and traveled in Africa, and whose family I’d gotten to know over a decade. Africa and the United States, I said, are full of displaced souls—Pakistanis and Indians, Vietnamese, Turks, Chinese, French, Lebanese, Japanese, Germans, Syrians, Mexicans, Iraqis and many more. I tried to explain that my book was about people who cross racial, cultural and political boundaries for a thousand reasons all over the world. People live in their own countries but beyond their own cultural borders—such as in Niger, where Hausa traders work markets in Arab villages, or in America where New York City native teaches in a rural Texas high school. The woman smiled thinly but said nothing more.

Afterward, I looked for her in vain. I wanted her to read the rest of the book and write me her thoughts. I wanted to know if I’d done my homework. After all, I’d just been challenged by the toughest of readers and her questions pushed me to revisit the work, searching for where I’d gone wrong. I believe in the story I wrote, but I also believe in hard conversations about writing as much as I also insist on the writer’s freedom to explore ideas across all boundaries through imagination and real experience, mistakes and all.


My thing for straight forward feedback has gotten me in trouble at work, a university where my editor with the southern lilt might be reprimanded, or worse, for daring to be Swiss-cheese blunt about someone’s writing, not to mention my teacher, Paul West. At a faculty meeting not long ago, I encountered a proposal for a student writing award. The thing was eaten through by typos, grammar errors, half formed ideas and leaps of logic, plenty of righteousness but few facts, and no criteria for how winners would be chosen. I pointed this out with line edits and questions that stirred anger but no answers. Finally, I said, “This thing has more holes in it than Swiss cheese.”

This earned me a trip to the dean’s office to answer a complaint that my edits and the Swiss cheese comment had been too harsh. The thing fizzled, though I hope my feedback gave my colleagues their own piranha-in-the-pet-store moment. The experience also made me realize that in so many workplaces no one is expected to pay close attention to written documents and if we do, we are supposed to shut up as if the writing in question were a deal done in the shadows, like a crime in progress. Best look away. My job, however, is not to pretend a piece of writing is something it is not.

My spirits improved when a magazine accepted an essay I submitted about the civil war in Mali, a subject I’ve been writing about since the war began eight years ago. They sent a contract. Then the editor sent me back an attachment of my essay with detailed questions, fact-checks, challenges about narrative chronology. He included a note with kind words about the work, and a caveat: “There is still the need for edits. Always edits.”