Primum Non Nocere
Letter from the Editor, Spring 2008 originally appeared here at Our Stories Literary Journal
I LIVE BY THE LAKE. CAYUGA LAKE. THERE ARE DEEPLY WOODED HILLS TO THE EAST AND WEST AND GORGES CUT THROUGH THE LAND WHERE WATER RUSHS DOWN, FLOWING INTO STREAMS. In the spring the basements flood, as the foundations in the flat land have been made of stone slabs tossed one on top of the other in a statement of masonic futility. When you journey to the cellar with your laundry basket and your socks are suddenly soaked, that is the demarcation between winter and spring in upstate New York. The streams overflow with the melting of permafrost and the earth soaks up as much as it can, takes all that it could possibly need and then a little bit more--until it finds another way to the lower spots, pushing itself out through the streets. Yes, into my basement and, further still, into the long dormant lady, our Cayuga Lake. We watch her unshackle herself from the burden of the last vestige of winter and finally it begins. The days get warmer, the nights shorter and the earth is brought back.
Then onward into summer. There are boats on the water, big and small: sailboats, motorboats, fishing boats and charters. You can watch one minute as a group of your friends go by water skiing and, if you close your eyes, you can see your step-father trolling in the deeper parts of the lake as he prays that the weather holds long enough to catch dinner. And then the dinner boat eases past—they have a full slate of diners for the sunset meal and their engines are bigger and louder than anything else and its wake rocks your small cat boat. On the second plank you rest your legs--stretching out comfortably--pointing towards the stern as the wood creaks. The boat rocks slightly while you passively sit, writing your first draft. You make your own ripples in the water. The shore is not far, and the ripples will head back. You hope that they will emanate around you and extend in every direction. Back to the creeks, back into the basements of the town folk and up the waterfalls to the hillsides of this small, upstate New York town. The process is then reversed. It withers in the fall. Only the best stories last our winters.
Meaning, Sense and Clarity. My job as an instructor is to wait patiently on the shore for these elements. I look for meaning. How does it change the order of things around me? What has shifted underneath me—will I stand to look at the world the same way ever again? Clarity. How clear are the ripples? I check whether they are fluid or choppy. Is it a gentle push or the slamming of mass against the placid Cayuga Lake? And then I close my eyes and open my senses to it: listening to the sound of that gentle lap on the pebbles; taking in the beauty as part of a greater more realized whole; bringing the tips of my fingers to the crest (that only ants would confuse with a wave) and dipping my finger into the water to taste. It is then--and only then--that your work has been fully received.
It is never the job of a reviewer to disturb this process while you sit, sun above you, in your cat boat in the middle of the lake, coupled with your leaky pen. We are not supposed to doubt your sense of audacity. It is my job to tell you that I heard you, that I was listening. I send a message back from the shore, skipping a rock back to you. I pick up one of the rocks from the skip rock pile, my back leg twists slightly, and I toss the flat piece of shale. It skims the surface over what you sent my way and into your hands that dangle outside of the boat, resting after your incantation. You are alone on the lake and there are storm clouds behind you. You may want to paddle back to shore and cut the story short when you inspect my thoughts. At times perhaps even leave the boat in the water because what you are trying to convey is too difficult, too confusing. Please listen. These are your doubts talking to you. Your doubt is what tells you that your story matters—that it means something. “Doubt”, as Richard Bausch told me, “tells you whether you’re any good.” And that rock that I skip back to you is the message I send from the shores intended to keep you afloat.
Primum non nocere is not only the creed of doctors, it is the creed of the creative writing workshop. We do no harm. We are here to help. We do not speak in certainties or extremes, we speak in touches, small edits, suggestions, insight into what you’re telling us. We do this so you go back to your story until we can hear you completely, so we can feel everything you are trying to express. We ask you to send it out again and again until we are both caught in a refreshing summer storm. After the wind picked up and the rain poured down and I stand on the shores covered with everything you have conjured, ankle deep, and say, “Hey, I heard you loud and clear!”
For the past three years we’ve been doing just that at Our Stories, working with thousands of writers, running contests and publishing some of the best emerging writers on the web. I am proud of Our Stories, perhaps as my love for all of our writers has grown I myself have not made it to that cat boat as often as I would’ve liked. Yet, I tend to think that this mission is larger than I imagine at times and, if I sacrifice a paragraph or two of my own prose on the altar of the craft, it is a worthy cause.
We’re starting a new facet of Our Stories because you’ve asked us to help you more. It’s called Workshops @ Our Stories. Many of you didn’t have the money or the time for a creative writing workshop. Others didn’t want to work with 20 other writers and hear 20 different opinions about their stories. You want to write and need guidance, we’re giving you Workshops @ Our Stories. For a very reasonable price we’re offering you one-on-one time with a member of our staff (yup, me too) to work through three drafts of one of your stories or three drafts of three separate stories. We’re going to keep doing our contests and our free submissions throughout the year. But we think it’s time that we tell you, while standing on the shore, that we’re here and we’re going to keep finding new ways to stand here until you learn not to just submit, but how to receive something back.
We’ll be waiting on the shore the next time you paddle out, and we’ll have fresh pile of skip rocks ready.