Of Editors, Writers, and Swinging Doors

from The Writer’s Chronicle December 2002

Years ago, Ford Madox Ford referred to editors as swinging doors “that authors kick both on entering and leaving.” Writer’s, of course, tend to describe editors using somewhat different metaphors. Clearly an adversarial relationship is often perceived where, if there were better communication, none needs to exist. Granted, an editor’s job is primarily that of a naysayer-at the Georgia Review we are forced to decline over 15,000 manuscripts each year-but that situation only exists because writers freely submit so much work arid would strongly resist any effort to curb that privilege.

>One of the questions I am asked frequently at writers’ conferences is, “How does it feel to have all the power that goes with being editor of the Georgia Review?” Such a question, it should be noted, is never raised by one aware of how much editing is routine drudgery, how much uncertainty editors have over near-acceptances, how much guilt accumulates over dated correspondence and aging manuscripts still awaiting responses. Power? We’re just human beings, making what we hope is a responsible and creative contribution to a literary enterprise that is much larger than any individual writer or editor.

—Stanley W. Lindberg

A Moment of Grace

“There is a moment of grace in most of the stories, or a moment where it is offered, and is usually rejected. Like when the Grandmother recognizes the Misfit as one of her own children and reaches out to touch him. It’s the moment of grace for her anyway–a silly old woman–but it leads him to shoot her. This moment of grace excites the devil to frenzy.” (from Flannery O’Connor’s THE HABIT OF BEING letter to Andrew Lytle, 4 February 1960)

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg

Often when I ask a writer to name her favorite book on writing, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within is mentioned.

I found the book wildly disorganized, with no discernable structure. Perhaps that’s what Goldberg intended but it drove me crazy. That said, she offers some good suggestions, encouragement, and solid advice on many aspects of the writer’s craft.

I wouldn’t put this is a must read category, but it does have value. The following are a few gems from the work:

  • We always worry that we are copying someone else, that we don’t have our own style. Don’t worry. Writing is a communal act. Contrary to popular belief, a writer is not Prometheus alone on a hill full of fire. We are very arrogant to think we alone have a totally original mind. We are carried on the backs of all the writers who came before us. We live in the present with all the history, ideas, and soda pop of this time. It all gets mixed up in our writing.
  • Writing is not just writing. It is also having a relationship with other writers. And don’t be jealous, especially secretly. That’s the worst kind. If someone writes something great, it’s just more clarity in the world for all of us. Don’t make writers “other,” different from you: “They are good and I am bad.” Don’t create that dichotomy. It makes it hard to become good if you create that duality. The opposite, of course, is also true: if you say, “I am great and they aren’t,” then you become too proud, unable to grow as a writer or hear criticism of your work. Just: “They are good and I am good.” That statement gives a lot of space. “They have been at it longer, and I can walk their path for a while and learn from them.”
  • Even if we go off alone to write in the wilderness, we have to commune with ourselves and everything around us: the desk, the trees, the birds, the water, the typewriter. We are not separate from everything else. It’s only our egos that make us think we are. We build on what came before us, even if our writing is a reaction to it or we try to negate the past.
  • Push yourself beyond when you think you are done with what you have to say. Go a little further. Sometimes when you think you are done, it is just the edge of beginning. Probably that’s why we decide we’re done. It’s getting too scary. We are touching down onto something real. It is beyond the point when you think you are done that often something strong comes out.
  • Some people hear the rule “Write every day” and do it and don’t improve. They are just being dutiful. That is the way of the goody-two-shoes. It is a waste of energy because it takes tremendous effort to just follow the rules if your heart isn’t into it. If you find that this is your basic attitude, then stop writing. Stay away from it for a week or a year. Wait until you are hungry to say something, until there is an aching in you to speak. Then come back.