I’ve been editing young writers for a few years now, mostly scribblers of fiction. It is as engaging as it sounds, but it can also occasionally be irksome too. But mostly fun: stimulating, heartening, kaleidoscopic fun.
The rewards of this have been many, but without a doubt the best part of working with young/emerging/raw/developing writers is the interactional aspect: communicating ideas and sentiments, unearthing the authors who at first read were buried beneath their stories, and then finding that the relationship continues beyond the project at hand. On a day-to-day basis, writing (and often editing) is an antisocial pursuit; to be able to forge links, even through a few circumlocutory emails, is an almost-magical panacea to the narrowness that often rides shotgun with being solitary. Marcel Proust said that when he sat down to write he frequently found that his mind would cease to function, that his consciousness would be faced with a blank, that he would feel that he was either wholly devoid of talent or that there must be something wrong with his brain. Thus, fraternising can often be the rescue rope that pulls you back up into the boat. Working together and repeatedly having each other’s cerebrums kick-started by each other’s inventions: this is the point of it all, after all.
Running the reading–editing–publication gauntlet with young writers has continually reaffirmed several convictions I’ve long held about writers not yet established, writers whose outlook(s) are still molten: that their capacities for originality and relevance—often unintentional—are more sweet and refreshing than an icy pole, that they worry much less about conforming to apparently prescribed rules of what fiction can and should do, and that their receptiveness is not only rousing but can sometimes lead to a better finished product. This is not to say that only writers under a certain age or of certain inexperience can possess these traits, but simply that more of them do. One writer whom I edited for Overland sent me a wondrous piece of fiction that melded the topical issue of bushfires—approached in a laceratingly oblique way—with issues of motherhood and the physicality of our relationship with the world. In only two or three days, she effected such significant changes to the story that I started to worry, absurdly, whether it was too perceptive, too authentic.
Rare in young writers is any sense of entitlement, nor have I come up against that immoveable wall that is creative stubbornness, when recalcitrance darkens not only the relationship between editor and writer, but can also jeopardise the piece itself. And never is the proverbial door slammed in my face; rather, it’s not only open, but it stays propped open for as long as cooperation and conviviality require. If a young writer has decided her narrator will eat with a fork, and I suggest that perhaps a spoon is more appropriate, maybe because it represents the hollow life that is at the heart of the plot, or maybe just because the narrator is eating cereal, then a dialogue is begun and from there the possibilities open up. Perhaps the suggestion of a spoon will be incorporated, or maybe the fork will remain—who knows, we could even venture into spork territory, or go cutlery-less altogether—but two people have discussed the shaping of a piece of fiction with the shared aim of making it the best darned thing they can both imagine. Extend this type of synergy throughout the whole process and everyone wins.
A commonly broadcast belief is that young writers need a little bit of a leg up in this big bitey publishing industry, lest they be discouraged and go off and become carpenters or hairdressers or salaried mid-level PR consultants (the horror!). Others believe a sort of Darwinian opposite: that we should throw everyone in together—akin to the start of one of those horribly frothy ocean races—and the best of the best will come up with the goods. Essentially this type of talk is paradoxical and thus frustrating, as all viewpoints are correct and spurious at the same time. It almost becomes a matter of doing not what is good, but what is least bad. Do we slip floaties onto young writers and cradle them as they learn to paddle, or do we jettison them into the deep end and hope they survive? Is there a balance to be found in between? Australia has somehow become a hands-on highly patrolled nation, but does such regulation and superintendence, when applied to a creative industry such as fiction writing/publishing, hinder rather than help?
I recently edited a story by a writer in her early twenties in which she tells of the rise and fall of a relationship between a shipwrecked man and a chimpanzee. Have you ever tried to write of a sexual love between human and primate? The story by this young writer is so relentless that not only does the carnal subject matter feel plausible, but the reader demands it, yearns for it, by the time it eventuates. This sort of storytelling is eccentric and esoteric and terrific, and comes with the so-called folly of youth.
© Sam Cooney 2011