The Same Page: writing, editing and the pursuit of great literature
God I miss my angry days. I used to thrive on them. I would get rejection letters that read like bank statements, ready to be torn up and set on fire. I’d show stories to friends and family members who’d say they liked them, then make excuses to promptly leave.
I took writing classes too. Most of the time, I just wanted to meet whoever was teaching them. I thought they might know who I was because I’d been published in Marginata (an aptly named publication that no longer exists) and if you googled me, something actually came up.
I was an angry writer, or at least an angry person trying to be a writer. I wrote 1500-word stories about alarmingly emotive people. I wrote first person urban, because third person rural typified everything that was wrong with Australian literature. I wanted people to understand me, readers to come up and say I feel your pain and it is breathtaking.
In all of this, it wasn’t my passion that stopped my stories from getting published. What stopped me was that I wanted so badly to be a writer that I never considered the needs, wants and workloads of those who might publish me.
This year, I’ve gone from being anonymous to slightly less so, and some way to understanding these considerations. I now teach publishing, work at the Small Press Network (SPUNC) and have been published in journals I’d secretly always wanted to be part of. I’m also the Fiction Editor for issue eight of page seventeen.
My life hasn’t changed that much. I still sit at the same desk with the same motivational quotes and the same old piece of A4 entitled why I write – first scrawled in 2004 – stuck to my wardrobe with Blu-Tack. My net connection lags, my HL 2040 printer makes strange noises, and today I’m working from bed because it’s too cold to let go of the doona.
While I’m not at Going Down Swinging, Sleepers or Overland, I imagine their circumstances aren’t so different. Most lit journal editors are not sitting in high rises, cancelling one o’clock appointments and swapping war stories with Henry Rosenbloom. They are getting by, getting high, and reading submissions, ever hoping for that elusive one that makes all the effort worthwhile.
And so it goes. Writers write, and write, then write some more hoping that someone, somewhere, will see their genius and get them published. Editors search and search some more for that same writing gold, because they love the feeling that comes with a good story. They love the thought of launching or relaunching a talented writer to greater exposure.
The complexity of such a parallel often leads one to drink. Thankfully, liquor-laced launches are yet another part of Australia’s literary culture. In my angry days I would enjoy these events; now I feel increasingly divided. As a writer, I want to catch up with other writers. I also enjoy talking with the editors because I find the act of selection so incredibly fascinating. Once an agent walks in the room, I am tempted to both French kiss them and hide behind a curtain, and therein lies the rub. There is nothing, it seems, more confusing than the delicacies of social interaction in a room full of scarves, egos and tight jeans.
A decent literary scene is like a nightclub. Some people are nice, some are dicks, most are drunk, and the good majority just want to be let in. The hierarchy is defined by a journal’s age and cultural importance. Page seventeen has a little of the former and slightly less of the latter. We do, however, pride ourselves on giving new writers an outlet, so in that sense, we’re often a starting point for those too frightened to go to a salon, soiree or re-enactment of key scenes from Dave Eggers’ You Shall Know Our Velocity.
Writers love you when you’re a writer and an editor, but they’re scared, too. You’re still one of them and they can relate to you, but they think you’ve been given a magic key that opens writing doors. They assume you’re working less for every writing breakthrough. Suddenly you’re one of those people they want to rally against, or be best friends with. It’s complicated.
I can’t say I blame them for such confusion. As an editor, I’ve asked friends to submit only to have their work rejected at the selection meeting. You know you’ll see these people again and when you do, it’s awkward. You feel a dissonance not usually felt outside the bedroom. You want to know why they couldn’t write what you wanted, and they want to know what kind of a bastard invites people to submit only to reject them once they’ve sent their work.
Being an editor means selecting the best quality work from what’s available. . Sounds simple, but it’s not. Name writers send us their b-sides because we’re not Meanjin or Sleepers. We get stories with cover letters to other journals attached, and submissions that are obviously early drafts, complete with spelling mistakes, missing punctuation and coffee stains. The sad truth is that if you can’t write well to begin with, then not even Sophie Cunningham can save you. And while networking is important, if you write like Tori Spelling, it doesn’t matter how many drinks you buy an editor.
With such variations in quality, it’s not that certain writers get preferential treatment. Editors select these writers because they send their best work, when it’s ready, and treat every publication as important as any other. This isn’t nepotism, it’s common sense.
My own experience with editorial nepotism is borderline comical. Two friends of mine have stories in issue eight of page seventeen. In one case I read the author’s work blind, and in the other, I wasn’t the one who shortlisted the piece. Being previously published did help them, however, and I was pleasantly surprised when they surfaced to the top of the pile.
It's sad that you can’t please everybody, and I’ve rejected more friends than not. In the world of editing, you either make or break people’s days, and no amount of kindness can soften the blow of another no in a year already marked by disappointment. It’s all the more difficult when you both know the person and can see how their writing could develop with appropriate advice, time and development.
These days, I’m a writer and an editor, a copywhore who tries to create scintillating writing to impress editors, all the while passing judgement on people just like me. Does being a writer mean I look at the editorial process differently? Does being an editor mean I can no longer be a fully-fledged, down-and-out writer?
Here, classifications are mostly unhelpful. Calling yourself a writer limits your opportunities because you’re so busy trying to impress editors that you forget to produce good work. But calling yourself an editor can harden the soul. A bit of this will help your journey as a writer, but too much is the death of creativity and will result in the sort of intelligent but completely banal writing you sometimes find in the world’s more esteemed journals.
It’s the middle-ground that has the potential to save modern literature, but not all writers can be editors, and many editors aren’t suited to a writer’s lifestyle. And there are still differences.
When writers hit gold they pump their fists. They play imaginary drums and guitar. They stand up from their desk, sit down, and then stand up again. It’s like life itself just flowed right out of their fingertips.
When editors find gold they make approving noises. They feel shaken and stirred, and sit silent, ever hesitant to go back to the real world. They say you have to read this to friends, and hope to one day meet the writer and share their feelings. It touches them deep down and they thank God, Allah or Obi Wan that they chose the life of an editor.
When I create, discover, or stumble upon gold these days, I react according to the context, or the hat I’m wearing at the time. With either role, it’s about the pursuit of quality, a pursuit that brings both chaos and order. Writers, editors and readers come together, all searching for the same thing. We gasp, lose language, and then celebrate: for nothing is as potent or invigorating as great writing.
This article was originally published in The Emerging Writers Festival Reader, Volume 2.
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