We were out to Malaysian--a tucked-away place in Brooklyn on a street that literally sells eels swimming in buckets--I'd just returned from a weekend chasing around two kids under five, and suddenly, over Tsing Taos and fried cubes of spicy rice, by the light of a tank of fish whose fate, I knew, couldn't be good--I was hit with a very sudden realization about the sensitivity, the ego, and the great risk involved in letting another human read your work.
We're starting a little foodie zine, an e-digest of short fiction and memoir with recipes--so that one can, as my friend pointed out, actually eat a part of the story. We're all going to edit--the writers will be, mostly, our friends; we're also charged with writing--sharing little moments of our lives, the food that fed us as children and our feelings that go along with it--nurture, sustenance, indulgence, deprivation.
But it was when we discussed how we'd get these pieces into shape--we'd each be in charge of editing, and publishing, the work of someone else at the table--that I started to feel a great sense of unease.
"There is, you realize, a huge potential for drama?" I asked the table, six of some of the smartest people I know, people with skills ranging from advanced mathematics to gourmet cuisine to graphic design to fine art to Japanese language and culture. Only two of us considered ourselves writers; the rest can write but, often, don't.
"They'll just have to get over it," a friend of mine said. "If they get upset with people fixing their work, they shouldn't be writing anyway."
She isn't a writer, but this shocked me: Hmm, maybe I shouldn't be writing, anyway. I had considered some upset inevitable. Heck, I take it personally when someone comments on my clients' work.
Another piped up with, "That's life. They'll get over it. What are we going to do, print something bad?"
They shared smirks. Of course they wouldn't print something bad. This would be top-quality email. If there were awards for such things, we would get one. Surely.
Then the arguments over format: You do realize that [a suggestion of a layout] is unprofessional and just CAN'T be done, right? said one. We CAN'T allow this to become newsy. [General chatter about how pieces with lowly journalistic elements--restaurant reviews, etc.--would drag down artistic vision of the project.] I want to hand-bind this. What do you mean, just email, just an e-version? We're doing something special here.
I looked over at the fish, naively swimming in their tank with its too-powerful aeration jets. Every once in awhile a tail or fin would get caught in the stream, and there'd be a flash of fluorescent-lit, upended scales. I sank lower in my chair. I'd lost my appetite.
"Don't worry," a friend said, "I can help you learn how to tell writers that their work isn't good enough."
I didn't correct her, remind her I do this often--but never terms of not good enough. "But they're friends," I said.
"This is supposed to be fun," a fellow diner reminded us. Yes. Fun. Of course. Incredibly productive fun that just happens, with minimal effort, planning, and feelings hurt, to be genius. Uh-huh.
If I knew every person whose work populated my inbox, I'm not sure I'd ever be able to get anything done. There is a certain distance required--when one has to break hearts and deliver disappointments en masse, detachment is necessary. I'm too much of a control freak to outsource rejections to my interns--some agents do, and I understand--that way, you are always the person saying Yes, never the person saying No, except when it's a No of the, Try X, Y and Z and You Have a Good Chance variety.
I worry sometimes that my writer karma is irreparably ruined--having rejected thousands of works, surely some of that will come back to haunt me. Perhaps now. In the form of a essay about, and a feeling that matches, deflated soufflé.
What my friends didn't realize was that I wasn't worried about saying no to others--that I've done so often, and have learned to, I hope, sensitively. It's not like I was without illusion--I had visions of sending prettified final versions back to the authors that would make them think, Oh yes, now don't I write well? or, Yes, that's exactly what I meant--thank you.
I was worried about sending pieces to my friends. Perhaps they're the harshest, most subjective critics. Or perhaps they'd never notice my misuse of every bit of punctuation ever, my tendency toward too-long sentences--and I could start inserting bigger and bigger mistakes just to see what they'd let me get away with. I'd write fan fiction about Martha making cigarette cakes in jail and Paula Deen deep-frying not just an ottoman, but a library.
I suppose what I'm saying is that the feeling hasn't gone away. Do I worry more than the average NYC bear? Yes, yes I do. But.
But I can't decide if it's more or less scary to send work to your friends (I used to bribe mine with lattes; then again, I knew who would tell me I was a genius no matter what I wrote--and who would think me insane) or to agents--to know your readers, or to know nearly nothing more than an ad in the Jeff Herman Guide, all the while knowing that this stranger's opinion could change your life forever.
Actually: I vote for the latter. I really vote for the latter. No hanging chads here. You're not writing little pieces about Mom's cookies or Grandma's lasagna. You're writing--sometimes for years--on, I assume, that which means most to you. All on faith.
I suppose what I am saying is: kudos. (Or 70 percent cocoa, locally grown, hand-pressed, hand-dipped, agave-sweetened, organic kudos.) You, my fine, writing friends, are doing something very, very brave. It's moments like these that remind me, and remind me to remind you. You are exposing your written underbelly to a system of professional strangers who undergo a mysterious process that spits back sometimes-inscrutable replies.
You. Are. Brave. Do know that we know it--and very much respect it--and that many of us would be afraid, and are, to do the same ourselves.