I mentioned in my last post that I've worked as an editor for the past several years, currently as a senior editor at Tin House literary magazine and an editor at Tin House Books. There was a time when I thought the people on that side of the desk — those who read my work, who generally said no but sometimes said yes — were probably a certain order of tweedy, well-read gods: decisive, opinionated, absolute in their rightness, their chic offices awash with coffee and bon mots. I pictured them forever harried but deeply satisfied with their duty to squash me and others like me.
The coffee part, it must be said, is absolutely true.
But the rest came in for some revision. For one thing, I don't think I ever appreciated how subjective the response to the work can be. Above a certain level, that is — below that, when we're talking about writing that is not remotely publishable, writing that makes you want to cry or stab at your own jugular just a little with the point of your pen, that's the easy part. You say no thank you, disinfect your pen, and that's it. But there are endless writers out there who can put the pieces of a story together, who can turn a phrase quite skillfully, who can fill in the gaps of a good plot and character — and yet in a particular story leave me cold. I would never have believed this before I worked at Tin House. Back then, I thought if it was good, it would be published, and that's it. If I sent out a story and it came back to me, I took it as a representative judgment from all editors everywhere. It never occurred to me that some people liked my writing but some didn't, that you could always send it to other people and see what came back.
Yet the notion is pretty obvious. Consider the pantheon: does every single person love Hemingway? God, no. But many beginning writers send out their work and are waiting for the definitive reply: Keep Writing, or Stop Writing. So I say, Just keep writing and divorce your feelings as much as you can from the process of rejection — not from writing, just from the unholy business of publishing your writing. It may take a little booze and lot of bravado but you can freeze out that part that makes you want to throw yourself under the bed when a rejection arrives. Breathe deeply and think of it as little Botox for the soul.
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Do people still use the old trope about choosing between being an editor or a writer? I imagine it still gets tossed about somewhat. It seems to me the reasons may have as much to do with logistics as with an inner suitability to one or the other. If you're an editor in a big publishing house, for instance, you're signing on for long hours and heavy workload, all using the same verbal part of the brain, and frankly who can write after all that? Fine, Toni Morrison could. I'll give you Toni. And I know there are others out there, others far superior to me in many ways but in this way in particular. My own job allows me to squeeze in writing because it has flexibility and a workload that is sometimes heavy and sometimes light, but I will say that nearly seven years working as an editor has changed my approach to writing and to publishing quite a bit, even to reading in my off time.
For instance, I used to read almost all literary fiction with the occasional palate cleanser of a good mystery. I now spend so much time reading literary fiction at work that once I hit the train home I'm desperate for a break. I've read so many detective novels and mysteries in the last several years that I routinely scan the grass for corpses when I take my morning walk. That said, I do live in a city that makes this habit not entirely unwarranted.
On the upside, editing has made me a better writer. I no longer think my limpid prose will carry a reader through the first ten pages of a story in which nothing happens except delicious meandering thoughts. I cut. Twenty-five pages is actually a long story to me now, not because of arbitrary page length but because I rarely see stories that need to be that long. I cut. And you know that thing we writers often do, when we hope no one will notice that we aren't exactly sure of why X is in a story, or the purpose of the subplot on bowling with frozen turkeys, or if Z would really rush, laughing gaily, into a snowstorm in her nightgown or if we just really wanted to make her do it so we shoehorned it in there? People always notice. I try to make it work or I cut.
I'm sure there must be more. If there is, I'll shoehorn it into another post later in the week. But for now, time to walk three miles and scan for bodies.
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Michelle Wildgen is the author of the novels But Not for Long and You're Not You and editor of the anthology Food and Booze. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, O, the Oprah Magazine, Best New American Voices, Best Food Writing, and various anthologies and journals. A senior editor at Tin House Magazine, she lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
Books mentioned in this post
Michelle Wildgen is the author of But Not for Long