I’ve had an unusual career progression. When my undergraduate classmates were either collecting their degrees to head straight into MFA writing programs or moving to New York to break into the publishing industry, I already knew what I wanted to do: go to Portland, work for myself. A relationship with books was mandatory, though the means to do it was something that would have to sort itself out. By some miracle, I found my way quickly, and The Threepenny Editor actually paid the bills. For almost fifteen years, I’ve honed my voice and editorial style. As an editor, I approached writers’ work with the same care I wanted for my own writing. (Sometimes I even kept up with my accounting!) I also worked–and continue to work–with excellent, ambitious writers who happen to be some of the most superbly warm-hearted human beings on the planet, and all of this together makes me love my job.
When I entered Warren Wilson College’s MFA program six months ago, I was surprised to feel so ready for something I thought I’d never do (for lack of desire, money, and later, ability to pull up stakes and move to a college town somewhere else). But the beauty of a legit low-residency program is that I can still run my business, live where my wife is stationed, and focus on degree work. It makes for very long days sometimes, but reading, thinking, and writing are not the sort of effort I find taxing. Now, after my first semester, I have a moment to assess whether what I’m learning is making me a different kind of editor.
In entering the MFA program, I brought some advantages and disadvantages to the task. I call it a task because, as I’ve learned, working day-in and day-out with writers involves a set of skills that probably come in handy anywhere:
- Delight in your colleagues who work just as hard as you do.
- Be able to continuously observe your response to a piece of writing as you read it, and prove your reasoning.
- Write. Even when you don’t know what to write. One word leads to the next, if you let it.
- Be curious. Assume all the people around you have read books you have never heard of, experienced things you never have, and solved problems in their craft that you are still wrestling with.
- Be humble, but trust that you are capable of solving any problem as long as you rely on your resources.
So, on a superficial level, the MFA task is similar to the editing task. I’m comfortable in a world where creativity happens on a deadline; where your job involves a good-faith effort to understand what other writers are aiming to achieve in an imperfect draft; where you have faith in the final product; where you ask a lot of questions and also trust your instincts for constructive criticism. It’s also a world where no matter who you are–editor, writer, faculty–you are engaged in the endless work of improving your art.
On a deeper level, editing differs from the MFA task because it is less open-ended. All writers work to get published, but the novel manuscripts I see in my business have aspirations of a comfortable advance, and soon. The pressure is higher to edit well, to communicate complex suggestions, and to give the exhausted writer just the tools s/he needs to finish the project. The work is prescriptive. And Warren Wilson’s MFA workshops discourage bossy feedback; instead, ideally, you only ask questions and make observations. You leave weaknesses to the writer to fix in their own way. In most projects, were I to stop there, I’d worry the client would feel my feedback was waffling and open-ended.
The part of my editing that will never change as a result of my MFA studies, then, is that it always involves the final step of offering writers prescriptive ideas for making a novel better (unless, of course, a client requests otherwise). But if you’ve worked with me in the past, you know my critique letters are voluminous and detailed, and talk a lot about general craft techniques. And that is the space my MFA work might influence me most.
For very literary projects, I expect to have more to say about alternative structures. For writers still sharpening their craft, I expect to have more specific ways of explaining psychic distance and the relationship of the narrator to the character (and some other techniques, as well). I also find myself doing a lot of work with meaningful omissions in my own writing, and expect that I may offer this as a tool more explicitly, especially in manuscripts that are too long or too plodding. And of course, MFAs offer a rare chance to read widely and well, so I hope to become a better source of book recs.
Yet the critique letter is still a place to be author- and results-focused, not to show off a whole overwhelming bag of tricks. So the very specific part of my editing that will never change is that what I offer will be guided by what the writer wants to receive. And for all the talk of “NYC vs. MFA” in the writing world, I think everyone believes that fiction has the best chance of success when a skilled writer is able to execute exactly what s/he sets out to do; also that the writer doesn’t achieve success in a vacuum, without our support. The universal goal is to offer the best support to one another that we can, whether we’re MFA faculty, independent editors, Big Five acquiring editors, authors, beta readers, or any combination of these.
Writing, as always, is the long game. It requires luck, curiosity, and most of all, support. I’m glad to be in such a supportive program, and to do editorial work every day with my fellow writers. As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches this week, my gratitude for these things is as plentiful as the stacked books beside my bed and desk.