Twelve years ago I was part of a small but very active writing group in Oakland, California that met on Monday evenings. None of us had published our work before and figured it might be fun to go ahead and self-publish a small, ‘zine-like journal we named Monday Night. It was a lot of fun, so the following year we decided to make a second edition including work from outside the group. And the year after that, we released a third—but this time, we only printed stories and poems from other people, effectively transforming ourselves from vanity publishers to editors.
Over the years, our group fell apart and came back in various permutations as several members (myself included) moved away from the Bay Area. But we continued to edit and produce Monday Night and, just this week, released Issue 11. It’s a labor of love that’s grown from a scrappy ‘zine of self-published nobodies to a literary journal featuring over 100 writers that recently snagged a Notable mention in the 2011 edition of Best American Nonrequired Reading. I don’t think any of us guessed we’d still be around over a decade later, still reading submissions and even getting a bit of local press coverage in the East Bay Express. Yet here we are.
It’s been great fun working on the journal, though the most educational aspect of it was learning what it meant to be an editor. Almost immediately, I discovered I don’t have the knack for it, and this is why I shifted exclusively to design and production after Issue 5 (which was already enough work anyhow). Being an editor requires patience and a certain generosity of spirit in addition to a sharp eye and a connoisseur’s love of the medium. While I like to think I have the latter, I’m not so certain about patience and generosity. I certainly didn’t have that when it came to the slush pile.
At some point, every writer needs to read the slush. While I despaired and began to hate life as I waded through its desperate waters, I learned a lot. I learned that many writers can be jerks and idiots when they submit their work. Most of them don’t care who or what your publication is so long as you publish their 15-page rhyming poem about cats or cancer or cats with cancer. They’ll get the name of your publication wrong, send a mass e-mail, make a million typos, or submit terrible stories about a man who creates some kind of glove weapon out of cardboard to kill his neighbor that is so absurdly terrible you’ll remember it seven years later.
Okay, I admit I occasionally admired that kind of work—stuff that was so bad it ascended to brilliance. But most of it was just bad-bad, that sort of mediocre bad that made me scroll down to estimate how much more I had to read, then sigh as I decided to keep going and hope it got better. It generally didn’t, and I inevitably felt cheated and peeved when I’d reach the end only to realize I had lost another 15-20 minutes of my life to crap.
But that’s just the slush pile, which requires little more than a strong stomach to endure. Real editorial skills go far beyond that (though a good gut is still essential). I’ve been lucky enough to work with a handful of terrific editors, so I’ve experienced first-hand how they work. When a piece isn’t quite right, a good editor never tells you what to do. They never push you; rather, they simply ask the questions that inspire you into the right direction. It’s a bit like teaching: the point isn’t to berate or dictate, but to guide someone into seeing her potential more clearly.
Of course, I’m very good at berating and dictating myself, so I make a decent self-editor. But when it comes to other writers, I lack the intuition and finesse. I’m simply too impatient and get easily frustrated (which is probably why I was no great shakes as a teacher either). So I have the utmost respect for skilled editors. It’s challenging, behind-the-scenes work that often goes overlooked, but it’s never lost upon a writer—especially after you’ve guided her toward a better story.
So hats off to you, editors, and cheers especially to my cohorts, the Monday Night editors: Jessica Wickens, Nana Twumasi, and Heather Miller, who continue to produce a great journal. Only now, like all savvy editors, they have a team of interns wading through the slush.