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Thank you so much for this column. I feel like I’ve learned so much from you about how to write, and love writing, while staying vigilant and critical of the MFA/publishing systems’ injustices.
I have a question on that theme: where is the boundary between writing and editing, collaboration and being taken advantage of?
I am a writer and also a very good editor. I give very specific suggestions. I enjoy editing and making my friends’ pieces as good as they can be, but I also feel conflicted. I have one friend in particular who often asks me for edits, and I’ve given them, mostly for work in a different genre than what I write. He has more publications than me, also in this genre. Until recently this hadn’t bothered me in a way that made me question our working relationship, though I have felt jealous, and odd seeing a sentence I wrote in the published version, credited to only him, because that’s how credit generally works: to one person, the writer.
I’m also generally someone who’s very anxious and competitive and I would like to be less so. Writing is and should be considered a collaborative effort! Writing that doesn’t get published in prestigious publications, i.e., conditions of artificial scarcity, matters (more) too! But recently, my friend and I applied for the same thing and we edited each other’s pieces and he gave me helpful edits but I couldn’t help noticing that I gave him more specific — and also just more — edits, more of which made it into the final draft.
I’m also the type who struggles to ask for help, while he is much more comfortable with it. So maybe we should meet in the middle. But I just know that finding out the result of this application will be a very uncomfortable experience for me.
I think I’ve already realized that I need to set a boundary as to how involved my editing can be in these situations, but I also don’t feel good about it.
It’s Not Him It’s The System
Reading your letter made me think about the round of first readers I send my own work to. These friends are often busy in some way, shape, or form, but bring different sensibilities to their readings of my work: all encouraging while highlighting various facets of the work I’m doing.
These friends of mine don’t always come through. Sometimes, it’s a medical emergency (one recently has been recovering from not one but two concussions!), others have chronic illnesses, and still others are swamped by their own work. It always surprises me when I receive, even weeks from the day I sent my drafts, a generous “short” response from any of them in the midst of all this life. It makes the moments when I receive pages, typed or handwritten, and long editorial walks in the park, all the more valuable.
For this is the economy of friendship, isn’t it? Romantically goofy, imprecise, and often touch-and-go depending on the shapes of our lives. What underlies these interactions is not a sense of what we owe each other, but an appreciation for when our worlds align and to witness the treasure of a fellow traveler writing and changing with you over time.
All this which seems, at first, accidental, always starts with an intention: you and a friend, following the unwritten good faith of writing community, agree to read each other’s work. Some relationships like this are frequent—the poets Sharon Olds and Galway Kinnell used to fax each other new poems. Others may be built with more space understood in them, like the exchange I described above with my friends: having space not to respond, even though we really might like to, reflects how we want to give each other’s works attention when we are at our best.
Writing relationships don’t always work out this way. Inevitably, an unwritten agreement may be broken; an assumed mutual value may be overlooked or miscommunicated. Ultimately, the dilemma you’ve outlined here becomes perhaps, a common one. In your case, INHITS, you’ve noticed that your friend comes to you more frequently than the other way around. When your exchanges are mutual, his edits are helpful but not at the level of detail that you actually want. And, to bring it all home, you’ve noticed how deeply your edits shape and affect the writing that’s gaining him prestige and accolades.
There’s trouble afoot when it seems less like you’re traveling side-by-side and more like you’re carrying someone else’s load on your own baggage. Your exchange must not only be equal but sufficiently separate you and your friend. You made a small mention of how your friend’s published work has included sentences you’ve written but were credited to him. The written work is often just a symptom of a larger relationship dynamic. If you can’t tell how much of a final piece is your friend’s work and how much is your own, it’s clear that you are cowriting and not just editing.
I agree with you that you should check yourself on being anxious and competitive, but the feelings you have here are not petty. In writing exchanges like this, value is determined by barter. So there’s a twofold emotional effect going on when your friend’s edits are fewer and shorter than your own: you see his edits as his judgment of what effort your work is worth to him, and you’re angry at yourself for putting more effort into your critique in the first place.
Why have you ignored your sense of discomfort with this friend? If you value your own work so much, why are you still agreeing to edit your friend’s work when you know you won’t receive if not the same, then something of equal value to you, in return?
Perhaps it’s difficult for you to ask for help because you were raised to believe that this was a weakness, and you resent your friend for being able to do so, for whatever personal or social reasons working in his favor, because you were never given that space and leeway. Or perhaps you dismiss your own concerns when you pathologize yourself. Perhaps being weak meant never receiving care. To be weak was an emotional luxury. You couldn’t be weak. You could never afford to fail.
You’ve already decided, by the end of your letter, that you need to set a boundary in how involved you get in these editing situations. That may be the case. But do you struggle to set boundaries not only in writing, but in other parts of your life? Do you often drop the time you’ve set for yourself to get back to people or their requests? Are you often giving advice or help to a friend who disappears when you need that care in return?
The thing is, lowering your standards to match your friend’s editing seems like the literary equivalent of acting “cool” in a relationship. You betray yourself by pretending not to care about what you actually care about. Sure, it’s possible that your friend can give you better edits if you ask for them. It’s possible that your emotional energy will be worth the effort in order to navigate that conversation. Not knowing your relationship, you are the only one who can make this call. But the worst part of imposter syndrome isn’t overworking on the things we can read on the page: it’s overworking for relationships that should have been nourishing us in the first place.
If you’ve grown into an adult who finds it difficult to ask for help, perhaps you were told, as a child, that your basic needs were too demanding. That sense of unease in your gut—is it familiar? Perhaps you fought your neglect by becoming the self-sufficient rock you are today, competing for little morsels of recognition by outperforming everyone else.
Whatever you do, I recommend that you don’t practice setting boundaries with this friend, especially if you’re not used to saying no, because he’s already not noticed—and stepped over—several of your own. Not only did you grit through this discomfort of this too-close editorial exchange: he’s also done nothing to stop it and has no qualms about taking, and asking for, your work.
If you were my friend, INHITS, in this year of absolute change, I would tell you this: you can get what you want right now, without any work, because you are allowed to choose. You’re not a rock, you’re a squishy person with needs and desires that are just as real as everyone else’s. Before you can fight for your labor’s value, you need to learn and practice what it is for yourself.
I love the confidence with which you talk about your editorial skills. Just proclaiming yourself “a very good editor” shows that you esteem your own work, which is half the struggle in getting your due as a worker in the first place. Have you considered editing as a day job or even in a freelance capacity? Putting a concrete value to your editorial services (check out the rates at the Editorial Freelancers Association and what other writer/editors have on offer), can have a palpable impact on what you subsequently choose to do for free.
You also need practice in letting in love without having to do anything at all. You deserve friends who will naturally remind you of that, not question you when you bring your needs up. You deserve friends who show up for you in the ways you want, not the ways you can tolerate. You not only deserve the kinds of edits you want, you also deserve friends who understand you because they’re trying to grow too, and they patiently make space for you to nudge your budding needs along, however long they may need to come around.
You deserve friends who welcome your changes and choices: friends who remind you of the version of yourself you’re trying to become. These friends remind you of your inherent value. They make it easier for you to fight less, not more. So you can let go of your need to be strong. So you can make mistakes and be sloppy and even ask for more than what you believe you deserve. Until eventually you’ll know when you should ask for more. So you can choose what you want without having to ask at all.
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