Today I attended a four-hour meeting to vet submissions for a creative writing journal. It was a sobering experience–not only because of all the bad poetry we had to wade through
(but my friends, let me just remind you that comparing a person’s eyes or hair to something way bigger than eyes or hair, e.g., oceans, galaxies, forests, dunes, night skies, The Moon, The Rockies, The Abyss, The Heavens, has been done before; and if it was ever done well, it’s doubtful you can do it better, so why not steer in a different direction?)
–but because of the readerly fatigue and cynicism that set in halfway through the meeting. As we read the last-minute submissions aloud to each other, I caught myself tuning out. I snickered at particularly overwrought lines. When it was my turn to read, I let my boredom or disdain slip through in my voice.
Then I thought about the flipside, which is downright chilling. Imagine our best writing comprising someone’s grueling committee work. Becoming subject to editors’ caffeine cycles, mood swings, collegial antagonisms.
I’ve taught creative writing courses before, but that’s completely different. There, you take whatever crosses your desk and consider how to help the writer improve it, whether the trajectory will be from hellish to abysmal, or stellar to stratospheric. Vetting is totally mercenary: pass/fail, thanks or no thanks. Dithering is right out.
My own manuscript is Out There as I write, crossing the desks of people with the kind of power I brandished for four hours today. Golly, but I wish them all the broad-mindedness and patience and humor I didn’t have.
Now that I’m thinking about it, though, there was one positive attitude we did share in the meeting today: the willingness to be wowed. We were desperate, in fact, to be wowed. We were dying for it. Why? Because our loyalties lie not with the hundreds of hopeful writers whose work we weeded out, but with the journal itself–and we really, really want the journal to be good.
It’s not the editors’ attitudes we writers need to worry about, then. It’s our books’ ability to fulfill their hopes. A strangely reassuring thought, since after all we can’t control others’ attitudes, but we can control how well we write. Right?