The days when I read for the review tend to be harrowing days. I put off reading the pieces that are in my slush pile until they have to be read, and then I read them all in one go. This is mostly because I’m lazy, but also in part because logically, reading everything at once gives me a better framework to work within. I pick out the best of what I’ve got, instead of looking for The Best compared to whatever else I’ve been reading. It should be a kinder, gentler way of editing. It doesn’t work out that way. I do read everything. I don’t just read the opening and drop it. You never know (OK, sometimes you do know) when there will be an ending that saves the whole thing. Plus, I’m trying to build karma.
Usually, I read pieces and I feel many things, chief among them: 1). annoyed, because many of the pieces we receive seem to have had less attention in their composition than I’m giving them in reading through. 2). Lazy, and hopeful, in combination, because many of the stories that I read and go, “Augh! No!” have authors with listed credits at several other reviews. And so I have that editor reaction of: “I can do this” and then “why don’t I do this?” and then “I really should send out.”
Today, though, I felt absolutely inspired, twice (out of 23 stories). I won’t talk directly about the content of the stories or name their authors, because I rejected both and it feels like picking on people to be too explicit. The first “moment of inspiration” came not because of a story — the writing was bad, the story was very bad — but because of a cover letter, in which the author explained his current situation (in prison) and his drive to write, and in which he emphasized that the story was not a simultaneous submission. So there’s a guy out there in prison sending out stories, and today for a while I was the only person in the world to whom that letter had reached or been meant for. I dunno, something about that was sort of breathtaking. It’s sad that I can’t say the same for the story, but I did send back some nice comments.
The second story was a better story, though not great. What got me from it was the included illustration. The story was a somewhat typical rebirth/growth story — character is bad at something (in this case, dancing), character tries after a significant loss to become good at the thing (joins a ballet class), character is changed by the effort, etc. The language was plain and uninspired, though, and everything that happened was predictable. But the author enclosed a page — part of the story — that had two grainy, black-and-white, photocopied pictures of a middle-aged man in a leotard, standing in a hallway, wearing ballet shoes. In pen, double-underlined, in the middle of the picture page, he’d written, “THE AUTHOR.”
So when I first saw these pictures, I laughed. They’re kind of absurd. He’s just flat-footed in one and in the other he’s holding his arms above his head and lifting up on his toes. Not gracefully, not beautifully. A bookshelf blocks out one side — it looks like a picture taken on a timer, and not on a digital camera. It’s also strange — yeah, absurd again — to include pictures with submissions, particularly pictures of oneself, particularly pictures that seem to say “this story is real and it’s about me.” And I thought, I am so going to take this back to the office and put it up on our bizarro wall, and everyone will get a good chuckle.
But then, I finished the story and I looked at the pictures again, and I decided there’s something admirable about them. There’s something to be admired in a man sending out something like this, something with such a high potential for direct personal connection and personal embarrassment. So I pulled the picture page out of the pile to return to the office, and out of the recycling pile, and I bought the picture a frame from the bookstore and hung it up by my desk. Because if this guy can be this confident and out there about his work and his dancing and his self, well, that seems like something I could certainly do better with in my own writing.
And if you want to see the picture, you have to come visit.