by Adrianne Kalfopoulou
Many writers dream of an editor, let alone a generous one; an acceptance is analogous to being seen, and being seen by someone with a good and generous eye is akin to having found love. That said, relationships can be painful, and those between editors and writers sometimes notorious. It is a bond that requires equal doses of commitment to work.
I tend to write in fits and starts — my relationship to writing not unlike my relationship to romance. Then there’s the moment when it’s “there,” or so I think. After I’d spent about a year writing an essay, I sent the work out into the world in what I thought was its most attractive dress, and anxiously blessed the passage.
I’d received more than several “Thanks for sending your work our way, we read it with interest, but…” emails when I saw the name of yet another journal in my inbox. I was about to hit “Delete” when I read: “Our readers and editors read the essay with great interest and were quite taken with…” followed by three brief paragraphs. In the midst of the third there was also this: “However, this version is not as successful as it could be, I think, as the second part of the essay currently feels too distant and disconnected from the first. I believe it essential to establish a stronger connection between these two parts.”
It was late. I went to bed feeling a mixture of relief and uncertainty. Relief that the essay was interesting enough for the journal to consider it, and uncertainty about the revisions — and there were also those defensive “Well this is my aesthetic…” thoughts. In the morning, though, I reread the email, and felt newly appreciative of the detail, and time, that had gone into the response. It was clear that thought and care had been given to considering my submission; a request for more “strategic trimming and narrowing of focus” broke down into a suggestion to start the essay “in place” as opposed to the “more abstract ideas” I had begun with.
I noticed that the editor had used the pronoun “we:” “there are areas where we are currently taken a bit too far afield, where the lens draws back a bit too far or shifts focus too much, if you will.” I was invited to work with the editor, “with an eye toward publication.” This was carefully worded, I thought, to not keep my hopes up if for whatever reason we hit an impasse and the relationship didn’t work out.
In what became two months of some eight rounds of edits of a 20-page essay, I learned what it means to go more deeply into language, and that my assumptions are not always as resonant to someone else. Most valuably, it became important to me to make clear to another reader what my understanding took for granted. “I love the sentiment but I keep tripping here,” was a response from one writer friend. I trust multiple views on a work, as they can reveal patterns in the feedback.
As the dialogue grew, so did what I wanted to achieve. I began to recognize that my process, while important to me, wasn’t always generating work that was as clear to others as it was to me. It’s humbling to be told that what you found so rich with nuance is simply confusing. Again, like any intimacy, it takes a willingness to risk misunderstanding and then, a willingness to backtrack and try again. That’s the tricky intersection where the accidents happen; where a level of vulnerability sometimes feels overwhelming.
After all, we might say to ourselves, just getting something written was hard enough. Another analogy to romance: for a work to mature beyond that first-stage excitement, you must confront the reality of that fraught space where you wonder how much of yourself you actually want seen. After all, you think (or I think) I’ve made this art, written this piece as an expression of what I want in the world. The murkier workings of the alchemical might be less salient or salubrious fare to expose; yet it’s there that the truly fertile exchanges take place, where the work matures.
“What do you really mean here?” I was asked editorially, and “This is a little challenging to follow.” I rewrote, reworded, put certain sentences in another order, fully concentrated on explaining my choices. There were more questions: “I’m really not getting why he’s mysterious.” I pause at my idea of “mysterious”— to suggest the inexplicable, or contrary to expectation. I thought of what made the character’s behavior any one of those things, realized it was his inexplicable “earnestness;” an adjective less vague than the general if evocative possibilities of “mysterious.”
Further along in the process, I got a “thank you!” for a section I rewrote. This reassured me. I continued to adjust and revise. A desire to bring forward the essay’s ambitions became more explicit as the revisions made them more visible to me, too. In this, I was indebted to the continued discussion in tandem with a developing trust between the editor and myself. The conversation was enriched by a mutual commitment to the possibilities of the work, possibilities I would not have been open to if I did not trust the conversation.
The essay became shorter by several pages, as I cut whole chunks that seemed to stray from the focus, then added content where more was requested, so it returned to its original page count. And yet “straying” is exactly what I like to do in essaying. The strands are like a wandering through streets that would, eventually (hopefully), bring me home. Much of this straying involves a good deal of quoting from others, those I admire, those who have helped me think through, or write through, ideas I’m engaging with in the work.
In this particular essay I was thinking through notions of refuge and how types of gift giving build community, and emotional exchange. I was quoting from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, but bringing in a slew of others like Georges Perec and Lewis Hyde, as well as lesser-known writers like Genese Grill. Grill’s essay “Portals: Cabinets of Curiosity, Reliquaries, and Colonialism” which won the 2015 Jeffery E. Smith Editors’ prize in nonfiction was key in helping me make the connections I was making.
In many ways I felt like I was having a conversation with her, answering to her points about “the challenges and pleasures of materiality,” her essay being about “the rich, meaningful, messy complexities of history…” It is my way of saying “thank you,” or if I think I’ve been led down a blind alley, I can also say, “where do we go from here,” or just “really?” I am writing because people like Bachelard, Perec, Hyde, and Grill, have led me to where I am in the conversation, and I like to make this process explicit.
Finally, I discovered that a process of revision, difficult and time consuming as it often can be, is a process of discoveries. From the seemingly banal (I was asked if what I called the “toilet,” transliterating the Greek “toiletta,” wasn’t meant to be “bathroom”), to the more theoretical and structural, collaborative revisions invite a conversation about perspectives and points of view.
Ultimately, such collaborations offer an opportunity to expand the understanding of a text beyond what might otherwise be limited to one person’s unexamined assumptions. As we provide our suggestions on the body of work —“I might suggest, and apologies, a big cut…” as a writer friend says — we engage in a romance of true intimacy.