I recently subscribed to Writer’s Digest and it is sincerely the best little bit of money I have ever spent. I suspect it’ll pay for itself over and over again, plus it is a tax deduction.
There’s a terrific little section called “10 Embarrassing Moments That Made Me a Better Writer” (This is the issue of 10s), and my favorite is from Jane Lebak. It goes like this: “In one college-level, short-fiction class, each student would lead a session in which we critiqued two pieces. When it was my turn, I received a story about a military wife stationed in Germany; the writer was the mother of another student, and was auditing the course with her daughter. In my young-writer arrogance, I critiqued with impunity, giving my unglossed opinion that the story suffered because the main character was self-absorbed and arrogant and she didn’t seem aware of it. As I delivered this opinion to the surprised writer, her daughter covered her face with her hands. It turns out this piece wasn’t a short story, it was a memoir.”
Stick with me for a minute.
Been catching up on Mad Men. There’re analagous anecdotes all over the place in that show, but one struck me on the episode we watched last night, somewhere in the middle of season 2. Peggy begins to befriend this young priest. The priest seems to be a little more interested in Peggy than is appropriate for a man of his station. Meanwhile, Peggy’s older sister, who’s charged with the care of Peggy’s bastard son, and who lives with her mother and does not flit off each day to live in an apartment and keep a job in Manhattan, tells this priest about Peggy’s indescretion in confession. The priest then, on Easter Sunday, hands Peggy a blue egg (blue, the color of truth, ahh, Mad Men. You are so clever) and says, “for the little one.” Peggy is, of course, aghast and that’s the end of the scene.
So I’ve been thinking, with some embarrassment, about the time I was a sophomore in college and somehow managed to become the editor of the undergraduate Literary Journal. I was reminded of a particularly embarrassing event born of my similar arrogance, and here’s my story. When I sat with my editorial board in the magazine’s office going through the pile of submissions, their duplicates, and cover pages and cataloging and categorizing the entries, we were disqualifying ones that exceeded the length requirement. The woman who’d been editor of the magazine a few years before me, we’ll call her Pam, was in her forties and was, as far as I was able to glean, a somewhat ridiculous character. Her piece was something like 3-5 pages over the length maximum. So we disqualified it. She’d been the editor 3 years running, and had transformed the journal from a very amateurish publication to something that looked professional. Everyone was very proud of her for that, and she was in a love relationship with one of the faculty.
In my 21-year-old arrogance, I felt justified for the following reasons: The journal was for college students. To my mind, it was tacky for Pam to even submit work because she had 20 years more life experience than the average college student, and I felt like she’d had her share of the limelight from that publication, and I thought it was time for her to just be graceful and let the space for someone else. I felt like she was being absurd, and it was in my power to show her I thought that, and it was for those reasons as much as for the fact of her slightly-too-long submission that I participated in disqualifying the piece. Also, I didn’t want to be seen as playing favorites. I wanted to treat everybody exactly the same.
Turns out, that’s not really how life works.
And now I know, like Jane learned, that Pam’s life was not easy, and that college was probably the first thing she felt successful at, and that being a woman is tricky in the world, especially if you happen to be a woman who has children and is smart. Fairness and equal treatment exist only in really rare microcosms of society. I should have just printed her story, disregarded maximum length and all.
And I acted like the priest from Mad Men. I presumed to know something about Pam just by what I could see from the outside. I had not yet learned that when people are ridiculous or absurd or insane, there’s often cause—and the cause is usually understandable, even if their behavior is perplexing.