Monday, October 15, 2012
As a writing teacher, you are regularly bombarded with requests to review this or that manuscript: to critique them, to edit them, to suggest publication venues for them. These requests, understand, don't come from your own students--who get enough of your opinion anyway--but usually from total strangers, people in the public who make cold calls to Writing or English department offices, begging the secretaries to suggest names of faculty they should contact; or occasionally they come in the form of a mass email from a colleague who has been put in touch with one such stranger; and sometimes it's literally a matter of a person walking the halls of your building, manuscript in hand, hoping someone will listen to him. Almost always it comes as a shock to these folks to hear that editing manuscripts is a time-intensive affair, work for which people actually get paid good money in the real world. Almost always, word of having to pay for the service is enough to guarantee that the person hangs up, doesn't write back, or leaves your office. Often with a mumbled reply along the lines of "Well, I don't really have much money to spend, and I didn't think I would be asked to actually . . ." (Exactly what do they think writing professors do all day anyway? Apparently, we are just staring out our windows, puffing contemplatively on our pipes, waiting for the next person with a project to come knocking, because god knows we don't have enough to do critiquing our students' work!)
This scenario took a different, better turn several weeks back when from my office desk I spied an older, nattily attired gentleman in the hallway knocking unsuccessfully on another faculty member's door and looking noticeably disappointed when no one answered. I asked him if I could help him. As it turned out, the man had written an essay that was quite important to him, and he was seeking editorial assistance. Plus, he had brought along a short story written by his wife decades earlier, something they had discovered at the bottom of her desk drawer during a recent clean-up. He thought his wife's story was a stellar piece of work, and he wanted some feedback about it. Despite the fact that he stated up front he was willing to pay for the editing services--he was a retired professor himself, he explained, and he knew what a professor's time was worth--I resisted. As a writer there is always another writing project you need to get started on, and as a teacher there's always the next class to prepare for, so this resistance has become a necessarily automatic reflex. However, as the man visited with me and told me more of his life's story, I became interested. He'd grown up in Arkansas's delta region, in a home with an alcoholic father who on a regular basis drank up his meager paycheck, leaving his wife almost nothing with which to hold the house together. Determined to escape from that home and that environment, the gentleman before me had--every day for four years straight--hitchhiked from his small town to the nearest university, which was twelve miles away. (And not once, he declared proudly, was he late for class.) His college education allowed him to become a science teacher in the local school system--just the escape he had worked so long and hard for--and years later he became a university professor. This experience of making it through college at long odds was the subject of his essay. As he sat in my office and told me these things about himself, it occurred to me that I was the one who should be helping the man with his essay. And I wondered if I should offer to do it for free. When he left, I told him I would spread word among the rest of the faculty to see if anyone among us was interested in picking up editing work, but I already knew which among us would probably be doing that.
As it turned out, I didn't do the work for free, but I did suggest a rather paltry fee--which this genteman immediately quintupled. "Uh, okay," I mumbled, astounded. How often is the counterbid higher? His essay was certainly rough, but it had potential; obviously important stories were embedded in it. In the critique I wrote for him, I encouraged him to bring out these latent stories, to put flesh on the skeleton of what he'd created. When about a week later he came to my office to pick up my critique (and the critique for his wife's short story), he thanked me politely, paid me immediately, chatted for a few minutes, and then left. For weeks I wondered if he thought he'd gotten his money's worth. Well, it was to my true delight that he came by last week to inform me that my critique had helped him a great deal and that he had indeed revised and expanded the essay. He was starting to understand, he said, what it needed. He asked if I would look at it again; again for a fee. Of course I said yes, and I was thrilled to see that he had made wonderful improvements to the piece. There were still a few small matters to attend to, but it was so much better grounded, better realized now. When I met with him a couple days later, he told me he hoped to publish it, and he even had three perfectly sensible venues in mind. I encouraged him to send it out. With the extra work he'd put in, he'd done justice to his own story; and in its new state it deserved to be heard. He kindly took my joke that he'd proven himself to be one of my best students, and he asked if I would consult with him about a few other of his life stories he'd like to tell. Certainly, I said. Any time.
Lagniappe #1: More good news for my Van Gogh novel! One short chapter--it depicts a kind of stand off between Vincent and his exhausted, exasperated younger brother in Theo's cramped Paris apartment--has been accepted for the anthology The Man Date: Fifteen Bromances, forthcoming from Prime Mincer Press in 2013. An up-and-coming outfit headquartered in Illinois, Prime Mincer is set to release its first title after several years of publishing Prime Mincer Literary Journal. I'm very excited about this development, because the anthology will feature some impressive writers--Rick Bass for
one--and the competition to get in was fierce. When I saw the announcement for submissions, I immediately thought of Vincent and Theo, those literal brothers, struggling to survive together in a one-man space in the spring of 1887. The dark side of "bromance." It seemed like a different, but appropriate, fit for the theme. I'm glad Prime Mincer agreed! For anyone interested, another chapter from the novel was published last year in New Delta Review. Hit this link to read it.
Lagniappe #2: I had the pleasure of attending a wedding of a former student this past weekend. She was easily one of the best young writers I've ever taught, and the theme for the entire wedding was writing. The bride even sported a pair of shoes with pages from The Odyssey découpaged on them. The ceremony featured several fine poems. I don't know about you, but I find reading poems at weddings to be a dicey, dangerously treacle business. But all the poems in this ceremony were terrific. One just blew me away. It's from the inimitable e.e. cummings. Like a great number of cummings's poems, it's a sonnet in diguise and known by its first line: "I carry your heart with me." Who else but cummings could be at once so sweet and so profound?