Asking the Question I Can’t Answer

January 11, 2021 § 20 Comments

By Rae Pagliarulo 

As the Associate Editor of an online nonfiction magazine, I manage the incoming flow of submissions, and work with a team of 12 smart, capable, and opinionated people to determine which pieces we should publish in the magazine. As we read submissions and try to make thoughtful choices, we come up against a seemingly simple question over and over again – why? When we’re reading submissions from the slush pile, we’re always thinking about the intersection of two critical factors – how skillfully a story is told, and how meaningful that story is, both to the narrator and the reader. Why, we wonder as we read submission after submission, was it important for the writer to tell this story? And why, we yearn to understand, will this matter to our readers? 

The factor of skill has been debated and quantified for years, and I’m sure if you’re reading this, you’ve got dozens of books on your shelf that painstakingly outline precisely how to do this well. There are a million ways to go about it, but we can look at our favorite writing – at the online essay that stole our attention last week, at the anthology of flash we return to over and over again – and see these ways at work. We pay money for workshops and degrees that will help us answer this question. We talk about it over email, in writing groups, at conferences. 

But that second critical success factor – the work of taking the story of what happened and making meaning of it – or said differently, making the reader understand not just what you are saying, but why you are saying it, is so elusive. It’s personal. It’s deeply intimate. And I’m not sure it can be taught, or explained, or diagrammed. 

I’m also fairly certain that in everything I’ve written recently, I haven’t been able to do it. 

What does that mean for me as an editor? According to the publishing power dynamics that be, I am in a position to decide what gets accepted by the magazine. I have a team of very thoughtful and diverse individuals who share their amazing insights with me on every single piece that gets submitted, but even with their voices in the mix, the act of choosing what stays and what goes is inherently subjective, and therefore, inherently imperfect. It’s the question I’m sure many editors ask themselves – Who am I to pass judgment? But I’ll add this qualifier – Who am I to pass judgment, especially when I have trouble doing the exact thing that I expect the writers I publish in the magazine to do well? 

Perhaps this conundrum is proof (and comforting proof, I hope) that the act of learning how to do a thing well never truly ends, and that the work of seeing, understanding, and recognizing a thing may not be inextricably connected to one’s ability to produce it. In this moment, am I struggling to write things I’m proud of, things that are worthy of a home in online magazines like the one I dedicate my time and effort to? Yes, I am. 

But that doesn’t mean I can’t figure it out, and more importantly, it doesn’t mean that i’m incapable of recognizing the elusive, personal, hard to illustrate why in the writing of others. I see it every single day in the slush pile, and I’m reminded that not only is the why attainable, it’s abundant. Meaning is everywhere, if you know where to look for it. And so many writers, whether by sheer universal accident or dogged practice, prove time and time again that they do. 

The slush pile is a place that reminds me that in so many cases, experience + distance = meaning.  We cannot report on the storm from inside of it, and perhaps that’s what’s at play as I struggle to make meaning in my own work. The year 2020 was its own unique struggle (though I am deeply fortunate to have been less affected than so many others), but inside of that flaming container, I’ve had personal difficulties and demons to grapple with. Grief, heartbreak, depression, anxiety. Things I yearn to make meaning of, but things that ultimately color and influence my ability to do so. They shorten my vision, cutting off the big picture and only allowing me to see the next few steps. They numb my creative fire, tamping it down into an ember that barely keeps me warm. 

The truth is, my work as an editor keeps that ember alive. It reminds me that every single day, people are writing and putting themselves out there. Every single day, we get more and more distance between us and the moments and incidents we long to talk about. Regardless of how my own writing continues to develop, I remain romanced, driven, and enchanted by the why, and my team and I make it our mission to elevate the voices of writers who answer it brilliantly.

And perhaps that’s the best way to deactivate the self doubt that has been plaguing me, the frustration I feel at not being able to answer the very question I ask of every submission I read. Perhaps I need to reframe the work I do as an editor, not as picking and choosing or passing judgment on what’s good, but as finding moments of meaning, moments that say something about what it means to be a person in this world, and to shine the biggest light I have access to directly on those moments. To be a steward, a celebrator, a champion. A human and writer and editor who, like everyone else, is in the constant process of learning how to not just recognize a thing, but to do it well. Why not? 
__
Rae Pagliarulo is the Associate Editor of Hippocampus Magazine, and earns her living as a resource development consultant. Her poems, essays, and articles have been featured in Full Grown People, bedfellows, r.k.v.r.y quarterly, Cleaver, POPSUGAR, the Brevity Blog, and many others. She is the 2014 winner of the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry, and earned her MFA from Rosemont College, near her lifelong home, Philadelphia. Find her at raepagliarulo.wordpress.com.

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§ 20 Responses to Asking the Question I Can’t Answer

  • lisa_kusel says:

    Beautifully said. I, for one, am happy a writer such as you is helping keep the ember glowing.

  • dennyho says:

    A good read on self reflection and the editors’ thought process. We all get caught in similar cycles regardless of which side of the desk you sit.

  • Thank you, particularly for “the act of learning how to do a thing well never truly ends.”

  • I hear you Rae, well written and beautifully stated. Now, back to my slush pile.

  • joellefraser says:

    Thank you for this insight into your work as an editor and for your words of wisdom. I especially needed to read this: “We cannot report on the storm from inside of it…” That is what’s been challenging me with a current work-in-progress: I need more distance to find meaning.

  • bearcee says:

    Thank you for the insights of an editor and especially for highlighting the consuming question of ‘Why’? Our search for meaning in life is a constant master class. We are fortunate to learn from editors like you. As a former philosophy professor, I constantly struggled with how to assess the work of students, since I was just as subject to bewilderment by life as my students. Ah well, we’re all in this together. You’ve enlightened and encouraged this hopeful writer.

  • Loved this. Thank you!

  • Wonderful story.. I just need to know how to get in the slush pile. 🤣
    Keep writing and reading great work like this onen for starters . Nice job!n👏👏👏

  • camilla sanderson says:

    With this paragraph, I think you’ve just nailed what makes a brilliant editor: “Perhaps I need to reframe the work I do as an editor, not as picking and choosing or passing judgment on what’s good, but as finding moments of meaning, moments that say something about what it means to be a person in this world, and to shine the biggest light I have access to directly on those moments. To be a steward, a celebrator, a champion. A human and writer and editor who, like everyone else, is in the constant process of learning how to not just recognize a thing, but to do it well.

  • That you are seeking to place insightful humanity above, or even on par with a cooler scrutinizing perspective of the critic is heartening. One can only hope for such a priority for all those who are tasked with determining the “Yea” or “Nay” of any of the arts after the maker-creator has long worked to hone the craft. Thank you for a fine essay.

  • Lisa says:

    Yes, yes, yes: “It reminds me that every single day, people are writing and putting themselves out there.”

  • Margaret says:

    I have spent my career editing documentaries, presentations, reports, and sometimes even emails. My job consisted of putting other people’s ideas in order and trying to draw out the crucial points. Now that I’m retired I can finally turn my hand to my own creative endeavours, only to find that I don’t seem to have one single original thought in my head.
    I loved your piece but wonder if I have the courage to really put myself on the page.

  • dhaines54 says:

    This is so good, Rae. On levels: you as editor actually offering useful info about that context and you as writer, so simply and clearly describing our process as nonfiction writer. Thank you! And thanks to Dinty for publishing this.

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