(I figured it would be easy to nab a position. I was willing to read for free. Actually publishing is filled with so many people desperate for experience I had to send out resumes and cover letters.)
When I began I made a solemn vow to read each piece with an exquisite care and tenderness. After all, I knew exactly what it’s like to spend a month holed up in the library typing, to beg everyone you know for feedback and then to revise and revise before submitting, to submit, and then to wait and wait and wait and wait only to receive a form rejection six months later.
I was going to be a different type of slush reader. I was going to be kind.
|Owl is kind|
That lasted until the third piece I read. Then sheer cynicism took over.
I slush read for a magazine that publishes memoirs. In other words, we receive submissions from people who take themselves very seriously. Most submitters fall into one of two categories.
(1) Writing professors
All of them seem to hate their students. All of them seem to have the same childhoods. All of them seem to hate their lives. After reading their writing it’s easy to see why. When your ambitions exceed your talent you’re doomed to hate everything.
(2) Trauma Victims
There are so many pieces about car accidents, accidental murders, murderous loves, and loving abuse that I began to wonder if writers were a particularly hardy stock. Then I realized it’s the other way around, trauma probably breeds writers as a form of therapy. Unfortunately, it doesn’t breed very good writers.
Kind. Um, yeah kind went out the window. It’s not that I read bad writing, writing that’s so awful it has its own sort of dignity, it’s that I read a lot of writing that passes for good writing at face value. Smoothly written, the structure holds together, but for one reason or another it fails to charm, fails to move in any worthwhile way. An almost-piece. Pieces that should have worked, but didn’t, and are somehow sadder because they are so close and yet so far away from what they need to be.
There are so many almost-pieces that their sadness overwhelms me, perhaps more so because I am a habitual producer of almost-pieces, and I begin to read each submission looking for a reason to reject, and then I'd get terribly sad and angry about rejecting. Here are seven sins that turn me into a hater.
(1) If you can’t be arsed to follow the formatting rules, I hate.
It’s like forgetting to zip your fly when you’re wearing an Armani suit.
(2) If you don’t proof read, I hate.
Like forgetting to zip your fly and going commando.
(3) If you use incongruous similes or metaphors, I hate.
Don’t be the person who finished a description of having sex with ‘my socks slipped off of me like butter sliding off of toast.’ The similes and the metaphors should add richness and texture to the piece, building on the subject matter at hand, or they should be canned.
(4) If you write about names not people, I hate.
I’m glad you have fifty billion friends and decided to reference all of them in your poem. Guess what? I don’t know who K.J. and Aunt Jackie and Marigold and Marshmallow-mallow are. I’m not going to care unless you make me care by describing their quirks. Otherwise, axe ‘em.
(5) If you write a fantastic piece that ends with a dull thud, I hate.
Ending a sensitive essay on a cancer diagnosis that explores the nature of mortality with ‘Yeah, Buddha was right, life sucks,’ is like murdering a brilliant child. Take the time to craft the ending your pieces deserve.
(6) If you write a fantastic piece that starts with a limp hook, I hate but slightly less.
It’s actually a pleasant surprise to find a piece picking up after a weak beginning, but the first paragraph sets up the reader’s expectations. It’s easier to forgive a weak second paragraph after a bombshell first paragraph, then to recover from a terrible first paragraph and recognize that the second paragraph is a bombshell.
(7) If you write a fantastic piece that that has no relevance to me, I hate.
Unless a story is lush with escapism and has the works—Rock Candy Mountain, Heaven deep fried on a popsicle stick, angels on high etc.—most people read to feel connected to someone else. That means a story about your life can’t be about your life, it has to be about themes and events people can relate to. Breaking up with Susan can’t be just about breaking up with Susan. Honestly, I’d rather call up one of my friends and have a good gossip. Breaking Up with Susan is actually another story, a story that everyone can understand, the story of loving and losing. Better yet, convince me I broke up with Susan.
Occasionally there are one or two pieces that are spellbinding, pieces that make me forget they are ‘writing’ and ‘writing’ is difficult, the product of laborious hours. These slide off of the page and into my mind effortlessly. These are the instantaneous acceptances, the reminder that yes, this ridiculous reading business is worth every minute.
If you can write a piece that makes my heart flip over in my chest, that un-peels the world so I can see the raw pulp that lies underneath, if you can work magic with pen and paper, for God’s sake, write. (And if you can’t, practice until you can. Practice, they say, is transformative.) Ignore all the nay-sayers, the people who’d tell you writers are bankrupt people, morally corrupt, unnecessary. Write, write, write. The world needs you.