7 min read

‘Why Can’t I Do My Edits?’

Hi everyone,

I’m so grateful to each of you who have written, shared, and signed up for paid subscriptions since last weekend. Thank you to each letter writer, whose questions help me clarify my own positions on what it means to write. I had no idea that I had it in me to write this much this often and how much it would mean to me. (An aside: the letterbox backlog is getting low. If you’ve been waiting to send a letter, please do!)

The Reading is my vision of a new kind of creative writing. One in which prizes, resumes, and assignments matter less than the transformations we bring to each other. One in which we write not to “readers,” but between you and me.

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I don’t call myself a writer, at least not yet.  

I work in a place where I am surrounded by some of the world’s best writers, so I reserve the title for people like them. People who are more serious than me, more literary, more talented, more legitimized.  

If I am one (by the grace of my friends who insist I call myself one), I am lowbrow. I don’t have an MFA from a nice school and the words don’t pour out of me in a stream of poetic prose as if I was destined to do this. I was never nurtured in school for writing, never plucked out by a teacher for this, or any unique talent, but this never bothered me until now because until now it didn’t feel real.  

Now, upon completion of my first manuscript, I’ve signed with a dream agent who I adore and gets me and my writing more than I could myself. But as I go through submission, get the rejections I was warned (and fully expected) would come, I find myself more and more petrified to continue.  

I have edits to do, edits that should be freeing, edits that any other more talented writer should feel ecstatic to tackle, but I am frozen in place. I could type the most unimportant sentence that should be no more than a millisecond for a reader to connect point A to point B, but I’m disgusted by it. Disgusted by each word I choose to put after the next. It’s almost laughable. It took me weeks to bite the bullet and pull this string of words together to you - despite how kindly you’ve addressed every other submission - because I’m so terrified that by reading this, you would see somehow between the lines that I was indeed *not* a writer.  

I am so grateful to have gotten this far and know how lucky I am to have done so, especially when so many others haven’t. I know I’m lacking the confidence I should have to do this, and I’m not asking for validation here, but is it really supposed to be this hard?

Dear ____,

I love hearing about the successes of the community at The Reading, including yours. Signing with an agent, finishing a manuscript, and getting through your first round of submissions happen all the time in the publishing industry, but they only happen to you for the first time once. Congratulations.

When you wrote to me, you noted that you were “surrounded by some of the world’s best writers,” reserving the title for those you deemed more worthy than yourself. Real writers, you imply, are “more serious,” “more literary,” “more talented,” and “more legitimized.” Their words pour out, you assume, “in a stream of poetic prose” as though they were “destined” for greatness.

I’ll agree with you on one of these because it’s the basis of all the others. “Real writers” are more legitimized, but let’s not make it passive: literary critics legitimize, editors legitimize, comps legitimize, agents legitimize, prizes legitimize, and MFA programs legitimize. Legitimization is a system that requires every actor to do their share, push that lever, and follow that rule so resources can beget resources. It’s not writers that this system endorses. They—we—aren’t destined for greatness: there’s a complicated apparatus that props us up.

That apparatus works on exclusion. Exclusion is necessary to optimize sales, prestige, and uphold the status quo. Exclusion pulls up that old desire to be recognized and rewarded. The stories we tell about what’s “good” may explain exclusion, but exclusion was always the point. We’re more likely to uphold exclusion when we each have something to gain in its justification, be it a prize to win, praise to receive, fame to accumulate, or money to survive.

____, you’ve been taught all your life to look toward this system of legitimization. Perhaps you even work in publishing for your day job and actively participate in its existence while promulgating its myths. Perhaps you know, intimately, that the exclusions are loosely structural and largely arbitrary, yet your heart pounds and your mind repeats how you’re not a writer. A part of you knows, but another part of you believes otherwise.

I have, for the past several years, called myself a critic. Yet, I’ve only written a few essays and given a few talks here or there, perhaps only a handful of times combined. These past few years, I’d been given opportunities to speak on topics meaningful and urgent to me, but each time, with those deadlines looming, I would always be terrified to begin.

My opportunities, like your edits, become tests of who I am. In a way, it is comfortable not being chosen. Not being chosen means that I don’t have the chance to fail spectacularly. My dreams could neatly stay my dreams, far-off fantasies that always ended with my desired outcomes. But these talks? These deadlines? These audiences? I can’t control them. And I fear most, still, that I will be exposed as the fraud that I believe I am but know I am not.

As you wrote, ____, your rejections were “fully expected.” Perhaps, too, you expected your agent or those editors to give up on you. You expected to be left out again, and though it would be painful, it would at least be something you were used to.

These edits, however, are not something you’re used to. These edits, like my talks, are tests of who you are. For if you succeed in these edits, you might succeed in something else. You might succeed in finishing another draft of your manuscript, you might succeed in selling it, you might, you might, you might. Of course you’re terrified to begin: you’re terrified of finding out who you really are.

Succeeding, ____, would mean facing years of rejection. It would mean that you could no longer be “okay” with being “lowbrow” or not being “plucked out by a teacher.” It would mean giving up dreams you can safely control. It would mean putting yourself in public to be praised, loved, and maligned. But most of all, it would mean aligning who you are with how you move through the world. And revising yourself means revising the world you believe in.

Although you long to call yourself a writer, you’d rather ignore the signs that you already are one. You’re doing this to protect yourself. For you believe that your success is conditional, possibly a fluke. You’re afraid that your manuscript, selected by this agent, commented on by these editors, is the only good piece of writing you’ll ever come up with, and that there’s no more you can do with so much to live up to.

For all those years, you toiled in the background, perhaps even secretly, on this manuscript. You wicked away the subpar sentences; you labored over each character’s voice, each passage’s rhythms. You went over your own work meticulously as though it were a marble sculpture, counting each chisel and polish. Under the cover of anonymity, your words didn’t matter—you could always get another block of stone, a bit more time. Now, you write as though you’re under a spotlight. Now, you write to catch up.

Perhaps you fear you can’t do it again, and that the work you presented was the best it could ever be. Perhaps you resented being given edits and they are not the right edits. You’re avoiding these edits because they would mean going on: and what if the work never ends? What if you’re destined to be lowbrow, never good enough to ascend? What if you are more than that?

Revisions, as I’ve said in the past, are meant to help a piece become more like itself. Revisions, too, are tests of who writers are. The best revisions come from readers attuned to what the work offers them, but their suggestions are yours to reject or accept. It is not their gaze that haunts us writers: it is the challenge to act on behalf of our own.

In revisions, you have to explain who you are as a writer, what you value, what you’ll stand up for, what you might change: details as minute as punctuation and as large as characters. You not only have to explain, but you must act, you must try out, you must make against the possibility of failure. There is no such thing as escaping uncertainty: there is only the choice to act in spite of it.

As a writer, the page unfurls before you as a life yet to be lived. The writing changes as you change, some parts disappearing from disuse and others appearing when you most needed them. Trust the land to yield what you cannot see. While doing your best in the present, you need not fear becoming, or failing to live up to, a future you never had control of. It is better this way. Turn the soil. Stay in search of your own perfection, for this is the drive that marks necessary transformation—in art as it is in life.


Postscript: Previously, this newsletter was an occasional update on events, publications, and random facts about my life. Since the pandemic started, it’s been strange how hard it’s been for me to advertise anything I’m doing at all. So, here’s a quick summary of the next month to rectify that: