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.
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. Read more »