- On Writers, Rejection, and Editing
Once a week I sit across from a writer and listen. She’s working on a collection of essays, and she’s fighting it almost every step of the way. She’s squirming under the weight of expectations, of self-doubt, of what readers will think and say about the stories and words and sentences that haven’t even been written yet. She’s working hard, week after week, to bring a set of loose ideas into concrete form, to wrestle them into a shape that makes sense, that pleases her, that represents her intentions. We sit and talk. She voices things she’s hardly ever said out loud. She hears herself name those intentions, and sometimes she recognizes them as strong and true.
There are times she talks herself into tears. There are times she bounces in her chair because she’s figured something out, and she’s pleased, and it’s working—shapes are emerging, she recognizes her own voice, she recognizes her bravery in saying the hard things that matter.
I sit on my side of a table and it’s hard work to do what I do, too. To listen well. To frame a question as generative rather than leading. To counter her fears, to risk saying, “No, it’s not like that.” To know when to use large brush strokes, to point to the bigger picture. To know when to work at the sentence level. And when to say, “Try this.”
Once a long time ago, I sat across from a man who was my mentor and teacher, an editor who had not yet begun to publish his own nonfiction. He was guiding me through completion of a large project, I was under a deadline, and I was running out of steam. It was summer in Iowa City, and we sat [End Page v] in his high-ceilinged attic study. “Look,” he said emphatically, in a tone that could be heard as somewhere between gruff and impatient, or as I much later realized was the result of his own efforts to hold himself back from taking over, “do it like this.” And then he wrote out the first couple of sentences, giving me direction, giving me a start.
We went downstairs, where his wife stood in the dining room jabbing fresh-cut flowers from her many garden beds into sculpted arrangements. “What have you been doing, Klaus?” she asked, her eyes scrunched up in amusement, her tone a warning. “Have you been writing it for her?” And I jumped to assure her, and him too, that no, it had been exactly what I needed, exactly the right amount of nudging in a more fruitful direction.
“This is the best rejection letter I’ve ever received.”
I’ve been rereading (a bit compulsively) this e-mail that came to the Fourth Genre account a few weeks ago. Being thanked for rejecting a piece of writing is the last thing you’d expect when you have to reject so many, and can accept less than three percent of the submissions you receive. Setting new staff members to the task of writing rejection letters is always the hardest part of the editorial cycle, and apparently, from their reactions, it’s the hardest part of working on the journal. “How do I reject them without crushing them as a writer?” they ask.
“I really cannot even thank you enough for this fantastic critique. I greatly appreciate that you took the time to send me these notes. You put your finger on the source of the uneasiness I felt about the essay.”
“I’m grateful for your critique of my memoir. Your willingness to do so is a compliment in itself. Your honesty about it gives me room to work.”
“Thanks so much for passing along that feedback—you’ve already got my gears turning about how I might rework those sections.”
“Thank you again for your careful reading and detailed feedback on my essay. That is rare among literary editors, but also extraordinarily helpful to hopeful authors.”
We have a lot of e-mails like this, all different in their own way...