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Best of L.A. Weekly: Grace and Calm: Bob LaBrasca, the writers' editor 

Originally published October 16, 1992

Wednesday, Dec 3 2008
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Film critic, senior editor 1978-1993

The good times, bad times and stupid times weaved together so tightly that even the best times were a little bad and a little stupid, and the worst were at least interesting.

That about sums up my years at L.A. Weekly, from making the first dummy-copy in ’78 to my final, shall we say, disagreement in ’93. I could rhapsodize, analyze, theorize and philosophize about that period, or relate stories printable and not-so-printable about the terrifically gifted writers who challenged me to do my best: Ginger Varney, Steve Erickson, Big Boy Medlin, FX Feeney, Helen Knode, John Powers, Robin Podolsky, to name a few. Some of us got kind of famous, for a while. All of us got older. But as the paper turns 30 I keep thinking of someone who didn’t get famous or older: Bob LaBrasca.

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I don’t know what his title was, but his main job was to edit. When LaBrasca died in 1992, this is part of what I wrote about him. For me, it says everything that’s best of what this paper has tried to be:

The craft of editing rarely gets written about, probably because, though most editors began as writers, not many good working editors find the time to write anymore. (To this, LaBrasca was an exception — he wrote for publication regularly, with a graceful style and a superb ear for dialogue.) The technique of the editor’s craft is difficult enough to master and describe; the psychological skills required are maddening.

For instance, an editor who’s good with a stylist like Steve Erickson may not be as good with a stylist like Ginger Varney. And editors who are good with stylists in general may not be as good with writers who are, shall we say, more plain. (Likewise, editors whose strength is the, uh, non-stylist, are usually terrible with stylists.) An editor who knows how to handle experienced writers may be too tough for novices; an editor who’s good at nourishing new writers may be too soft on veterans. An editor who has to make a lot of well-meaning but talentless practitioners look presentable (and all editors bear this cross) — after hours or days or weeks of that, they may be too jaded or exhausted to give real writers the attention the process deserves. And an editor good at roughhousing with prima donnas may not be good at dealing with people, no matter how talented, whose neediness gets expressed in other ways, in shyness or aloofness or writing blocks.

It’s not that every writer liked LaBrasca, nor that he enjoyed every writer he edited; it’s that LaBrasca could make every sort of writer look his or her best upon the page. I’ve heard so many, from plain novices to veteran stylists, say a version of what Ginger Varney said to me: “Nobody I knew, as an editor, understood what I was doing, line for line, and even word for word, better than Bob LaBrasca.”

One of the qualities that made LaBrasca so good at what he did was his understanding of this central fact: that there is a difference between having an opinion and having an idea. Opinions are expressed reflexively, almost involuntarily, however much you dress them up with erudition, references and style. An idea is when the writing meets the subject and something is generated that hasn’t quite been there before. The mediocre editor (like the mediocre writer) doesn’t know the difference; the bad editor (like the bad writer) fakes it, tries to dress up opinions as ideas. LaBrasca was a man of ideas, who could respect well-grounded opinion, and this gave him an impressive versatility. He could make the writers of opinions connect the dots, ground his or her notions in something more than a personal response, so that the opinion didn’t seem shrill; and he could guide the writer of ideas toward the most apt forms of expression....

He was 49 years old when he died. It was his second heart attack. I wonder, now, at the composure he always showed. Ginger, again expressing something many of us thought: “He was the calmest person I valued — not the calmest person I knew, but the calmest person I valued.” And his colleague during the bad old days at the Weekly, one of LaBrasca’s few peers as an editor, Mayer Vishner: “He was just there. He was the thereness that made the experience real.”

And Mayer again, crystallizing Bob’s most subtle and essential gift: “He always knew the difference between the problem and himself — and the ability to make that separation is an incredibly rare quality.”

I think of the last time we spoke, in part about last June’s earthquakes. When the first one hit, Bob woke instantly, saw that his little girl, Jana, had during the night crept into bed between him and his wife, Tara. As the quake shook the house, he gently held Jana, kind of rocked her, and she slept right through. I find that both typical of Bob, exactly what you’d expect of him, and an act that evidences incredible discipline — a kind of inner monitoring system where self-knowledge meets awareness of the world, and each tests the other, working so effortlessly that what we see on the outside is grace under fire — or “the calmest person I valued,” or “the ability to make that separation.” What we don’t see is the tension at the heart of such bravery and generosity, the unwavering inner gaze that is so alert. The mechanics, if you like, of grace and calm.

So I begin to think that LaBrasca paid hard for the reserve, the equanimity, the centeredness and the humor that were both the means and ends of his life. But I also know that he was acutely and passionately aware of the prices to be paid in his or any life, and that he paid gladly to be what he was. Maybe if he’d been more like the rest of us, he would have lived longer. But then he wouldn’t have been LaBrasca, and that would have been too high a price to pay.

 

From “Letters at 3 AM: In the Light of Goodbye — Bob LaBrasca, 1943-1992,” L.A. Weekly, Oct. 16-22, 1992. Michael Ventura’s column has appeared in The Austin Chronicle since 1993. A wide selection of his writing is available for no fee at michaelventura.org.

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