The Writing Life: Can You Do It All?

In September, I started working as a publishing assistant at an independent publishing house. Shortly after I started, I was getting drinks with one of my co-workers, and I asked if he was a writer. It’s clear that everyone I work with loves books, but people don’t generally talk about their own writing, so I was curious. He replied that he used to write more often, mostly nonfiction, but said, “at some point, I think you have to choose between being an editor and being a writer.” This took me by surprise, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

My immediate reaction was “Bullshit!” but the more I thought about it, the more I wondered whether his statement might be more true than I’d like to believe. He went on to explain that when working on the substantive editing of a manuscript, he’s deeply immersed in the author’s writing, and it becomes difficult to extract himself and to write without drifting into the style and voice of the writer whose words he’s focused on.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I...

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I…

Part of my suspicion of his assertion stems from the fact that I think it’s important that writers learn how to steal from each other. Not plagiarize, obviously, but I find it useful to get out of my own head sometimes and re-remember the weird and new things you can do to language as a writer. I’ll turn to John Berryman or Carl Phillips—poets who write poems much different than my own—when I’m having trouble writing something new. And sometimes, if I’m really stuck, I write imitation poems or I choose the line of a poem I can’t get out of head and use it as the title or first line for one of my own pieces. Of course, this can create its own set of problems. I’ve rolled my eyes at many poems that lean too heavily and too obviously on James Wright’s “A Blessing” or Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” but another way to look at stealing is to see it as a form of learning. And I think it’s important to steal language anywhere you can—dictionary definitions, street signs, eavesdropped conversations, etc. If you’re a good writer, the language you borrow will be transformed from an imitation to something wholly your own.

On the other hand, my co-worker’s point comes from a place of experience. When I think about it, I have not been in the position he’s in as an editor, elbow-deep in someone else’s words for months at a time. There may not be enough brain-space to do both. My job at the publishing house is mainly on the production side of things, coordinating with our freelance designers and copy-editors, and making sure all of the books go to the printers on time. I do become involved with each book, but I’m not working with an author to shape or clean up a manuscript. I read the finished work, and though that of course can affect me, my job doesn’t force me to get into the writer’s head or to think about the work in the way that a developmental editor does. My past experience as Poetry Editor of Willow Springs also didn’t involve heavy editing. Though I occasionally worked with poets for small rewrites or revisions, the pieces we accepted were more or less in a finished state.

Not to mention that while working on Willow Springs, my main job was to be an MFA student, which is to say that my main job was to write and learn how to improve my own craft. I suppose when your main job becomes that of an editor, it risks feeling selfish to focus on your own writing, particularly if it distracts you from the job you’re being paid to do. So perhaps my defensive reaction to the idea that one can’t be both an editor and a writer comes from the fear that I will someday have to choose a path when what I really want is to be both.

There are, of course, numerous examples of those who do both successfully. Matthew Zapruder is an editor of Wave Books and an accomplished poet. In an interview with Ploughshares, when he was asked how the two roles join up for him and whether being an editor was helpful to his writing, Zapruder said:

Yes, it is helpful to be an editor, mostly because a lot of the thinking about line edits, and discussions with poets about what they have done and why and what would be best, are good for my concentration, and for enlarging the ways that I think about poetry. I have benefited greatly from the experience of being an editor in much the same way I have benefited as a poet from being a translator.

I agree with a lot of what he says here. But not every writer is a good editor. And not every editor is a writer, nor do they need to be. I think what’s key about both roles is that you have to be well read, to be familiar with how language works and with what makes a piece of writing successful. I think the concentration and education Zapruder talks about gaining through editing can also be obtained from reading a lot and thinking critically about the choices a writer makes.

One of my graduate professors often advocated for having a “muffin man” job—a job that paid the bills, but that you could go home and not think about at the end of the day. A job, in other words, completely separate from your “job” as a writer. That might seem an odd thing for a creative writing professor to recommend, but I can see how it might be beneficial for some. I’ve heard many professors express how difficult it is to teach creative writing or even rhetoric all day and then have energy left over to dedicate to their own work. But I don’t know that I’d be as happy working outside of the writing realm. And I certainly can’t think of many other jobs that would leave me feeling so fulfilled.

Perhaps the debate between being a writer and being an editor, like that of the muffin man job, varies from person to person. Some people, I’m sure, can’t work with other voices in their heads. Some people rely on it. I haven’t had to choose a single path just yet. I’m hopeful that I never will.

4 Comments

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    I think a big part of how you deal with this has to do with how you prioritize the jobs. We certainly see plenty of people who do both, especially with journals or smaller imprints or special projects, writers like George Plimpton, Robert Bly, Joyce Carol Oates, William Maxwell, Dave Eggers, and Kelly Link, among others. Then there are writers who worked as editors in major houses and left their full-time editing jobs to become full-time writers–I’m thinking of Doctorow and Toni Morrison, and I’m sure there are others. I’m also sure there are writers who have worked in major house or smaller presses full-time and continued to work as writers. But, like I said, I think it’s all about how you prioritize. I don’t think you need to worry about being infected by someone else’s style. You’re reading all the time anyway. The question is the same question that arises with any full-time job. Which comes first? How do you juggle the jobs? How do you preserve the space/time you need to work/live as an artist? We know that Wallace Stevens went to his insurance company job five days a week — and continued to thrive as an artist.There’s no doubt that it can be done.The only question is, how do YOU do it? It won’t just happen. You’re going to have to make it happen. And if anyone can do that, you can.

  • Laura Citino Laura C. says:

    It seems like the question is always what to do with the “and.” Can you edit AND write? Can you write AND teach? Can you write AND participate in steady, healthy relationships?

    I’m working through the same paranoia as you with my own career at the moment, but I feel like it’s not just writers who go through this, although I’m sure we spend more time than the average person thinking about it. It seems like a growing up question to me: as you go through your life, how do you do all the things you want to do, feel compelled to do, and perhaps NEED to do at the same time?

    For me personally, I’m trying to become comfortable with cycles. That there will be some periods (weeks or months) where I will write more, some where I teach harder, some where I retreat to photography and lack of words. For me and my soul at the moment, that feels best.

  • Lisa Romeo says:

    I think Laura C (above) makes two great points — about cycles and about the AND. I’d also add that a lot has to do with the (in my opinion, over-rated) idea of balance.

    Try to “balance” the writing AND other/job, on a rigid or consistently regular basis, and you might just give up.
    But recognize that there will be cycles in your life when you are writing more, writing less, not writing, and this may make it possible to not so hard on oneself, to savor or at least recognize and adapt to each new cycle, and to take the long view. Give yourself enough time and ease up on self-imposed deadlines that are not realistic given your day job, and the writing will get done.

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