Not By Birth Alone
Letter from the Editor, Summer 2009 originally appeared here at Our Stories Literary Journal
THE LAST THING I DO BEFORE UPLOADING A NEW ISSUE OF OUR STORIES IS SIT DOWN AND WRITE MY QUARTERLY ESSAY. I start by thinking about what I learned from running Our Stories for another quarter. I ponder my emotions and maybe muse on a bit of advice that I found myself repeating over in the past three months. The fodder of this advice tends to become the impetus to advise an entire audience. If I had to sum up each of my essays I'd come to one phrase: I heard you. Sometimes I’m funny. Sometimes I’m thoughtful or caring. At other times whimsical or combative. This time around I'm demanding.
We just ended a contest period. I had the pleasure of reading dozens of manuscripts and commenting on them. My reviews go from the minuscule nit picky sentence level edits, to the medium-sized questioning of logical facts, to the big stuff of themes, plot and character. In this line of work we do more than trim the fat--we tenderize the meat for you. Sort of like a professor, sort of like an editor, sort of the stranger in the workshop who has something to always say. We give you honest feedback encouraging you to another draft to take the writing to another level.
It is always easier for an editor to make comments about your story. I admit that. I apologize for that. Yet, I am also a writer, so because of that I try to always be compassionate and considerate. The position of a writer in this dynamic is the position wrought with peril. We should never abuse this relationship or publicly speak down to those who are trying to get it right. The writer’s chair is always the tougher chair to sit in. Know that. Yet, hear me out, just because we say that you didn’t get it right it never means anything, we’re not saying “you didn’t get it right” we’re saying, “this draft isn’t right.” We’re never talking about you, the writer, we’re talking about the damn draft of the story. That’s it. Nothing else. The hard part will always be in re-writing, the true blood is taken out by the eraser not by the pencil.*
There were many writers who did not win this submission period but I want to mention some of them here because they taught me things about the craft and I believe their dedication to the craft is worth mentioning here: Richard Fellinger, Sharon Goldner, Jim Ryals, D. Byron Patterson, Justin Goff, David Malkus, Robin Underdahl, Lisa Ebert, Yuvi Zalkow and I could go on and on but there's not enough room. If I could wish one thing for all of them—for all of you—it would be to work on another draft. Do not shy away from your writing, go back into your stories and fight with them. Do not file them away in a drawer somewhere—work on them. Damnit don’t you dare ignore them and treat them like wicked step-children. Work on them until your fingers bleed and you want to sing the prose out loud to everyone around you. Don’t stop writing, DON’T YOU DARE. All of your stories can be improved. Here’s my demand: Don’t stop. Don’t you dare quit. It is not fair to you, nor the story itself, nor your audience. Don't stop.
Part of being a storyteller is more than just being there when the story is born. The hard part is is letting it live and letting it grow and change. Commit yourself to the process of writing not just to the process of discovery–but to the process of editing.
We are not born into the craft. There has never been a child prodigy writer. Yes, there have been four, five and six year olds that have written rambling children’s stories filled with dragons, spiders and pookey bears going through the woods. Sure. Yet, the great works from the likes of: Tolstoy, Chekov, Hemingway, Mansfield, Bowles, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Woolf and others could never have been written unless there was some life behind their words. The best of what has echoed in the hall of great prose is work that did not rely on tricks or short cuts or daddy's agent. It took time to get at the emotions. Time to develop material that was compelling and had meaning beyond the page. Time to make the writing clear and concise. It takes time for the author to listen to the story, rework the material countless times till it's ready to be shown and then go back to it again. If you don't believe me, believe Junot Díaz who waited eleven years between his publications, writing and rewriting to come up with a Pulitzer Prize winning novel at the end of the road. In the same way that we do not “birth” great writing from our first draft--it is not by birth alone that we become great writers. That’s where we meet—Our Stories and the likes of you reading this now—we meet sometime after birth and before the thing that comes after our last breath.
You could not write at birth. You had to learn to write. And your life and your active imagination coupled with the composite of your soul brings you to that final draft that is accepted, understood and finally shown and taken and printed somewhere like Our Stories, my friends, not by birth alone will it happen. Not. By. Birth. Alone.