A few days ago, I wrote a year in review post. I listed my 2016 accomplishments (Masters Fellowship in Fiction!), raved over writing retreats (all 6 of them!), and boasted about organizing a literary reading series that placed poets and prose writers in historical sites (5 venues and 22 artists—argh!)
As always, I let the post rest overnight. After 10+ years as an editor and I-won’t-tell-how-many years as an author, I have learned the habit of patience. Never hit Send or Post or Submit until you’ve allowed the Whatever a rest.
The morning after, I realized I’d gotten my review all wrong. Oh, certainly, I am happy about the honor and retreats and readings, and that would probably be the smart thing to post to promote oneself. But those things are external. The true highlight of 2016—if highlight can be interpreted as what most moves you—was internal. And it was not happy.
This is what I’m talking about:
Late last summer, while working on a short story anthology, I could not reach one of the authors to discuss revisions. Eventually, I learned that she had, unexpectedly, passed away. Though I did not know her personally, the news was sad and unsettling. More unsettling was that, in November, in the middle of a different anthology, another author unexpectedly passed away while we were working together.
Both times, it was decided that the stories would remain in the anthologies, and I would complete revisions on the authors’ behalf. Two authors, three stories, to be readied for publication, posthumously. Who would not be moved by this responsibility?
By a rough count, I have edited 12 short story collections, nearly 200 full novel manuscripts, countless 50 page openings, and just as many standalone shorts and essays. I feel comfortable in climbing into an author’s head to try to hear his/her voice and see the story in visuals, but I always had fallback. When a word choice seemed off, or a line was redundant, or a dash might be better replaced with an ellipsis, or a logic error occurred, I could consult the author. Editing is meant to be a partnership, and that makes my job a joyful one, but in the end, the name on the story is the author’s. The work belongs to its creator.
This summer, and then again this fall, the partnership ended before the work was completed, and I was entrusted with completing someone else’s story, solo. A story that might be that author’s last published work. A story that the author herself would never see in print.
When an author passes away in the middle of a project, first there is business to be handled. It must be decided if the story will be pulled or if someone will revise on the author’s behalf. There is also legal permission to be obtained. This year, a family member gave permission for the stories to be published as the author had planned.
It is difficult to describe the emotional burden required for a posthumous project. I’d never met either author in person, though we’d had friendly email exchanges. Both times, we’d gone through an initial revision, so I had some insight into her thoughts, but these were not my stories. I rigorously questioned every editorial decision. Every word choice change, every deletion, every grammar fix felt like an intrusion. Would the author have concurred? Would her writing partners agree? Would her family approve? I didn’t know. I couldn’t ask.
I struggled until I remembered the lesson I revisited this week, about this post. Let the story rest. Allow a little time and let distance do its thing. Practice patience.
There were three stories. With each, I did a new revision pass and then put it away for a few days. When some time had passed, I found a quiet place and read like the combination reader/editor that is my work persona. Time + quiet + distance allowed me to see the visuals and hear the voices.
Did the stories turn out exactly as the author would have wished? I’ll never know, but I did my best for both.
Naturally, two sudden deaths made me consider my own mortality, my own body of work, my own legacy. In my office is a bookcase with the journals and magazines where my short fiction and essays have been published. Also on that bookcase are the publications where I participated as editor. My work is mixed with my clients’ work, because publishing requires all kinds of partnerships: writing partners, critique groups, beta readers, editors. We all help one another.
There’s no shelf for posthumous stories, which is only right, because while authors die, stories never do. That is my takeaway for 2016. It seems appropriate for a year when Richard Adams and Carrie Fisher—two very different authors whose words touched me, entertained me, and made me a better writer—left the literary world.
Countries fall. Empires crumble. Buildings tumble down, and monuments wear away. People come, they go, they die. Only stories and dance and music and drama—only ART—remains in the world forever. Art is not required to be embodied by a physical thing. As long as we can move, sing, speak, act, and remember, we can pass along who we were, who we are, who we hope to be. Art is the ephemera that will last forever.
I thank all of the authors who partnered with me, this year and all years past. I thank Richard Adams and Carrie Fisher for their legacy. And to Terri and Gale, I want to make a word choice change. It wasn’t a burden to ready your stories for publication. It was a privilege.
I wish us all patience in the new year.