Empathy Exercises, Part 1

This spring, I started as a fiction reader for a small journal with the hopes of understanding the inner workings of a literary publication, since I’d like to try my hand at running one some day. Curating and analyzing others’ work seemed like something that could help me as a writer, and would allow me to give back to other writers—thus, I’ll begin by thanking every reader who has spent time on anything I’ve submitted, whether they’ve accepted it or not. (They don’t call it a slush pile for nothing, baby!)

In three months’ time, I’ve faced familiar mistakes that now make me cringe: cover letters addressed to another journal (sorry, Virginia Quarterly Review!); writers ignoring word count and formatting specifications; stories with flavors of racism, sexism, gratuitous violence and utterly unrepentant deviancy; works without plots or stakes to drive the action forward; and, in some cases, vague or poorly written prose. I’ve watched a surprising number of characters die, do drugs or have affairs, and I’ve lost count as to how many authors have made their main characters writers. (Yawn. Unless you’re Stephen King, I think it’s a tall order to make writers into interesting protagonists; note: King made most of his insane or chopped off their limbs.)

Being a front-line reader is the greatest gift for any writer, in my opinion, and the name of that gift is empathy. The slush pile yields a gold mine of examples for what not to do, some of which I know I’m guilty of. It’s also really exciting when we find a piece that we’re eager to send up to the associate editor. (Yay, writers!) I now understand the sincerity behind encouraging notes to submit more work (we really mean it) and I’m floored by the rare times when an editor has passed along critique to me, because such a thing is really generous. When you’re slogging through ten or fifteen 7,000-word submissions at a time (meaning you aren’t working on your own writing), it’s a feat of altruism and faith to grant a stranger such focused attention. And they may not always thank you for it.

This experience has also made me realize how rare it is to find (and write) truly nuanced work. Before wading through the slush pile, I had no comparison except between journals like Paris Review, Tin House, The Normal School, Iowa Review and The New Yorker—and high-quality, polished novels and memoirs that make writing look so, so easy. Now, when I read the likes of Claudia Rankine, Rebecca Solnit or Maggie Nelson, I savor their sentences down to the last word, sometimes re-reading them simply for their beauty.

But most of us are not Rankine, Solnit or Nelson. On afternoons of giving mostly thumbs-down, like today, I question if any of us groundlings has something original to say. I begin to doubt my own capacity to create life-changing or “worthy” art. These are not typical feelings for me. About writing, I am generally sanguine—Buck up! We all have unique perspectives to share, and if we keep trying, we’ll get published! Though I’m learning a lot, I am not sure how long I’ll be able to do this without becoming jaded. I can imagine talking myself out of writing for fear that I’m cluttering the world with more useless, sophomoric junk that no one will want to waste time on.

At those moments, I put my laptop aside and read something gorgeous, and remind myself that I can’t really exist without writing, anyway. I tried to do it once, and I was miserable. I also remind myself that I don’t write with the goal of publication, though it’s a pleasant side-effect. Thanks to social media, it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that publication or “acceptance” equals success. When we’re bombarded by rolling byline announcements from writer-friends, it’s easy to lose sight of the real reason any of us writes (or reads), which is to feel, to explore, to reflect, to create—to give a little goose to that wrinkled sac inside us called empathy.

The only way to make something great is to make it. You have to put in the hours—1,000 or 10,000, or however many it takes—and you may not ever reach commercial success but you will be changed inside by what you do. Writing is a continuum, a long game, and the journey itself is the juicy stuff. You learn something from every piece (hopefully), and for every misstep, you gain insights that influence how you see and write about the world. Doing the work improves your next work, and the one after that, and the one after that. Look back occasionally, and you’ll see how your writing has changed and matured over time, often in small details that you couldn’t recognize in the moment. Then you move on. The only way to truly fail is to quit.

An occasional reminder is not bad, though. That’s why the inside cover of my newest field notebook contains a quip from a panelist at AWP this year: “The only way to get the job done is to get the fucking job done.” Damn straight.

P.S. Speaking of pelts… If you’d like to read my latest essay, Fledgling, published by Two Hawks Quarterly, please click here.