Sunday, January 1, 2017

Why we edit: Literary citizenship and the litmag

For me, one of the highlights of 2016 was being invited to serve as keynote speaker at the annual FUSE Conference—that’s the Forum for Undergraduate Student Editors, and its conference was held during Winter Wheat: The Mid-American Review Festival of Writing, which I helped to found, and where I was a featured reader in 2016. Here is the text of my remarks, which are about editing and literary citizenship.

            Hello, editors! It’s so nice to be here among my people—people who spend their time—without the benefit of pay, in most cases—putting other writers’ work in front of the public, either digitally or in print. It’s important work. Sometimes it feels like holy work, or a calling. And you’re doing the work, and if you’re like me, you’re learning so much about writing in the process. There is no creative writing class you can take that offers quite as effective a lesson in where you can go wrong in a poem, essay, or story. I’m still learning these lessons through my own editing practices, every single day.
            And it’s especially nice to have an opportunity to talk about literary citizenship, a topic that is close to my heart. I was among the group of editors who created this festival, the Winter Wheat Festival of Writing, sixteen years ago, and it’s my own greatest contribution to the literary community. I’m intensely proud of it—how it provides a chance for all kinds of writers, students, faculty, and people from the region, beginner or advanced, published or unpublished—to come together and talk about something so essential to our very selves. Our writing is so often an artifact of the spirit, a product of effort and hope, a reflection of our deepest selves. We all have that in common. Writing matters to all of us who engage in it, whether we’ve never published a thing or we have ten of our own books on our shelves. Look around. These are your fellow adventurers—people who dive into murky and dangerous waters and come up with the occasional pearl.
            If you’ll look around, too, you’ll see a bunch of people whose role it is to hold a jeweler’s loop up to some reasonably well-formed pearls and still say, “Nope.” What we bring up from deep inside of us is always worthy, always important, but it’s not always enough, from a literary standpoint, to justify publication. And so we reject people we know to be our fellow sufferers, not because their deepest truths are insufficient, but because there’s another part of the equation: the writing has to be impeccable. We look at work and we judge its form, its language, its rhetoric, its syntax, and if it misses on any level, we send a rejection—kindly worded, I hope, with the compassion the offering of an artifact of the spirit requires.
This is a key point. If we are rejecting writers and we don’t have in the back of our minds their vulnerability—their risk and exposure—we are doing them a disservice. I hate to say it, but I was at my worst when I was on the staff of my own undergraduate literary journal. Work came in and we judged it with names removed, and saying no to it felt empowering. I looked at poems and stories that weren’t working, and sometimes I knew I was a better writer, and that realization gave me a charge and affirmed me in my path.
But I didn’t always look on the rejected work with compassion. I sometimes rolled my eyes. I sometimes shared a funny passage with the other editors gathered around the table. We had a lot of good laughs in those days—laughs garnered at the expense of people who had, mind you, sent us what they regarded as their best work, work that they would have been proud to share with the readers of our magazine. Those writers didn’t picture their work being mocked by a circle of editors, but we did it, and at the time doing so felt cathartic—but it was wrong. (I should note that it was also completely contrary to the example of our adviser.)
I’d venture to guess that I’m not the only one here who has done this. Maybe others in this room have read comically bad excerpts aloud, or at least others have laughed when their fellow editors have done so. I hope I’m not alone in this, on one level, although I also kind of hope I am. I value literary community, and that community benefits if I’m the only jerk in the room. I’m a jerk who is mostly reformed, with a few lapses from time to time, but I’d be willing to be the only one. I’d be happy to bear that burden—the label of editor-jerk, which I’ve earned from past misdeeds.
But we’re all jerks sometimes. This work is hard and our decisions have the power to hurt people. A good laugh can release some pressure and give us the will to stay on task. Sometimes a writer’s missteps are, frankly, hilarious. Sometimes our own goofs as writers are equally hilarious—but because we’ve learned so much from the act of editing, we very seldom send the funny stuff out.
But some things feel much better than writing. When you engage in the kinds of literary citizenship we witnessed here at this conference today—walk-in workshops, guerrilla poetry posting, community zine-making—you’re contributing to community, and it feels amazing, and much more enduring than a laugh. For me, Winter Wheat feels very good. I don’t get to come every year anymore, but I like knowing that it continues, and year after year, writers have a chance to get together and celebrate words, while also learning ways to make their own words line up a little bit better.
We started Winter Wheat when I was first out of grad school, but I also had a hand in founding a similar festival when I was an undergraduate in the late 1980s. Remarkably, it also endures in a different form. For the Spring Arts Festival at Morehead State, we gathered everyone who did any art at all and we roped them in to contribute to our effort. The theater department had mimes giving out invisible flowers on the streets. The fraternities and sororities chalked the sidewalks. People from the art department put up installations. Ensembles from the music department set up on the lawn outside the student union. And traditional artists from the surrounding Appalachian Mountains came and demonstrated weaving and other crafts. We showed art films. We tried building with clay. And we had readings and open mics, putting literature at the core of an arts event. That was very empowering.
Laughing together over funny moments in submissions builds a small community. The dozen people on your staff have a better time doing the work they’ve volunteered to do. But it is incomparably great—and my experience suggests that it is much more enduring—to build community and to nurture and support writers.

So, here’s the key question that we must keep asking ourselves: Why do we edit literary journals?
Obviously, we edit to gain experience and understanding. Through our discussions, we learn to articulate our aesthetic judgment, and as writers ourselves, usually, we also build empathy and understanding for the people on the other side of the transom. Those are some of the chief personal benefits, and they are great.
But editing is also a service. We do it to serve several other constituencies: our staff members, our readers, and our writers—three communities that overlap in many ways. This is actually a crisis in our field; very few people read journals unless they’re in them or trying to be. I don’t know anyone, aside from the occasional student intern with an interest in publishing, who messes around with litmags but isn’t a writer.
This sounds like a digression, but hear me out. I was recently at a Cracker Barrel restaurant with its kind of cheesy, fun gift shop. They had this toy, and I don’t know what you call it, but if you hold it in one hand it doesn’t do anything. (Not a great toy, seemingly!) But, here’s the thing—if you hold it in two hands, it lights up and plays holiday songs.
I wish I had this toy here today, because it would be fun to show you an experiment. I could hold this toy in my one hand and then grab the hand of the person closest to me, who could grab another hand and so on in a circle, and as long as we were to complete the connection, we would get the lightshow and the music. (Maybe there’s a limit to how many people could be in this theoretical circle for the toy to work, but in the metaphor I’m about to slap you upside the head with, the number is limitless.)
This little toy is an excellent metaphor for editing. As editors, we act as conduits for a very significant spark.
There is electricity in the creative act. In writing, we usually sit alone somewhere—at a desk, maybe—and we forge a connection with something. This idea of connection is very key to my creative process. Art comes from my intellect, clearly, but there is also a source. Jung called it the collective unconscious. Yeats referred to it as the Spiritus Mundi—the spirit of the world. For the Romantics, this spark was found in nature, and the ancient Greeks attributed it to actual gods, the Muses, who visited them with inspiration.
I guess we all have our own ideas about where art comes from, but I credit  divine source that matches up with my construction of God—a river of everything, of cosmic memory and intelligence. This source accounts for those pinnacle moments when we look closely at an emerging draft and we see something unexpected, like a system of imagery we didn’t intend, or a shift that occurred unplanned, but that adds a layer of meaning.
If you believe in electricity as an impetus for art—even if it’s an electrical synapse firing in the brain—the toy metaphor I offered earlier becomes especially relevant to a room full of editors. It is our job, after all, to transfer that divine spark from that very private place and moment in time to the readers. We close the circuit from the writer’s desk or corner table in a coffee shop (or, at least once for me, a bare leg and a Sharpie!), and in doing so we move along the energy from the writer into the world.
I guess it’s appropriate that I’m giving this talk in a chapel! I don’t necessarily think we need to regard this as a spiritual concept; it still works to think of our work pragmatically, or even capitalistically. A writer makes a thing, and we distribute it. I have a terrible time thinking of it so starkly, though, because the “thing” might change a reader’s life, or even save it. I know I’ve been transformed and saved by poetry many times, and it’s a solemn duty to be entrusted with something so, well, electric.
Editing for me has never been about making a journal. That is a truly challenging, enjoyable part of the job, but for me, editing is mostly about this connection.
In editing, I try to connect with submitters, even those whose work is not chosen. I always thank them, and I try, too, to have predictable policies for them (e.g., I would never close a reading period unannounced; most journals get a lot of submissions, and it’s important to work through them while putting the needs of the submitters before the needs of the editors). Additionally, I never play favorites. I may on rare occasions solicit work to try to improve diversity or to raise the cachet of the journal, but generally, every submitter is read the same way, and no invitations are offered casually.
Back when we read paper submissions, I was famous for my smileys. It’s a strange thing to be known for, isn’t it? But I’d put a note of personal thanks and a smiley face on every rejection—and that grin was certainly not a symbol of mockery, but one of friendship and esprit de corps; we’re all, as writers and readers, in this endeavor together. When I’m at a writing event, such as the AWP Conference, people still come up to me all the time and thank me for my smiling rejections (and occasional acceptances). They appreciated that I made things personal. It took away the sting and offered encouragement.
As an editor, I also try to connect with readers. At the last journal I served as editor-in-chief—and it was a large national journal—most issues that we distributed were in envelopes my own hand had actually touched. I was usually the one who made the labels, stamped on the return addresses, sorted out the recipients who had perished since the last mailing, inserted a discounted subscription offer (since editors are honor bound to always try to build audiences). If you subscribed during those years, I may have licked your envelope. Real editorial DNA with every issue!
Of course, in the daily work of putting together a litmag, we also work with our fellow staff members, and it has been an incredibly gratifying part of my professional life to work hard with so many people on a shared mission. Sometimes when the work takes place online, we don’t even know our fellow editors’ faces—these may be people we’ve passed in airports, completely oblivious to the fact that a good friend was near. But we are committed to the same goals—to passing along the spark, and to getting as many readers as we can for the writers whose work is entrusted to us.

Editing a journal is all about building community—a community of a staff with a shared mission, a community of writers, and a community of readers. As I leave you today, I encourage you to ask yourselves what you might do to create and nurture community.
The questions we must ask are these: How can I encourage and support writers? How can I forge lasting relationships with my fellow editors? How can I reach the maximum number of readers? And most importantly, how can I share the discovery and the magic and the deeply felt meaning of the written word?

How can I pass the spark, keep it moving, and thus electrify the world?

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