In the earliest days of publishing my writing, before I had really figured out who I was as an artist, when I was willing to submit my work far and wide without much consideration, I realized I had a natural inclination to pander toward style and subject matter I thought were more likely to get my stories picked up. I intentionally wrote within patterns I implicitly understood to be marketable, which often meant modeling from what I read and trying to find space for my own imitations nearby. I thought my writing had to resemble an acceptable existing trend in order to find a nonexistent universal audience. This is to say I was foolish enough to believe good writing could be reduced to an equation. In trying to find my voice, I was willing to let others find it for me. I certainly don’t think this way anymore, but I know falling into this trap is not unique to me, especially when so many artistic opportunities outwardly appear to be correlated with already having a long list of publications and connections.
Of course, writers have always been known to artfully borrow (steal) what works. This in my mind is slightly different, at least ideally. To borrow and learn from an ever-expanding canon has been part of literature since its origins, but to alter one’s writing from the onset, to write away from one’s true interests and artistic desires in an attempt to achieve a specific byline feels more creatively defeating. I continue to steal all the time, but I don’t worry about the endgame. It’s for this reason (and many others) I still don’t necessarily consider myself a strong writer, but I do think I have an above-average willingness to learn, and a sense of ambitious curiosity that is perhaps what first drew me to become an editor.
As I’ve grown older and more experienced, my approaches to both writing and editing have integrally changed. I’ve begun to consciously identify when I’m writing out of convenience rather than intention, or when I’m leaning into what I think a reader or editor might like rather than what I actually want to say. This change has especially revealed itself in my creative nonfiction, of which much explores my Armenian ethnicity. Years ago, I grew fatigued from rehashing the same history and talking points even if I still found them meaningful and important. I realized I had a multiplicity of stories to tell. It’s neither that I wanted to abandon my past work nor arrived at the conclusion I would not at some point revisit the same subject matter in the future, but I worried about a singular aspect of my research and identity becoming my calling card, that too much of one thing would make every story and essay feel predictable and quantifiable, something to be asked for and purchased like a faddish collectible. I was also increasingly cognizant of how I critiqued and commented on work I selected and edited for literary journals. I no longer thought of submissions as finished or unfinished, no longer craved work that met more traditional expectations, but instead began intuiting artistic vision and opportunities for development. I thought of writing—mine and others’—in terms of possibilities, in hopes of collaboration, rather than meeting or not meeting some nebulous idea of perfection.
Today, in my own writing, I find myself most inspired to explore subject matter disparate from what I’m often commissioned to write or teach. I want to focus on the environment and moving back to my Midwestern hometown and picking up basketball in my thirties and anticipatory grief and food systems and a million other things. For a long time, I wondered if other Armenian writers felt this way too, that inexorable sense of being pigeonholed, or if they felt similar self-inflicted and commercial pressures to write about a singular subject matter, or if they felt pressured to write about various subject matters in a singular way. (I’m avoiding the word Genocide here, but you know that.)
Three years ago, I first pitched the idea for what is now We Are All Armenian: Voices from the Diaspora, an anthology of creative nonfiction by diasporan Armenian writers. From the get-go, my editorial goal was to create a space where the writers would not have to adhere to the narrative patterns and expectations that are often inescapable when recounting their experiences. I had a strong editorial vision and believed in it, but there was much I didn’t know about putting together a book, especially with an academic press, and countless hurdles along the way filled me with unshakeable imposter syndrome. I had neither put together a book proposal before nor experienced the rigors of peer review and faculty advisory committees. During the earliest stages, I was still working toward my PhD, and prioritizing my many responsibilities was complicated, so I would solve one step in the long process toward defending my dissertation and apply any relevant findings to the next step in finishing the anthology, or vice versa, usually right before a given due date. The first reader report I received was scathing from start to finish, and (from my reading) accused me of having no idea of what I was doing. I missed a major error in proofing that kept me up for nights on end, only to eventually call my copyeditor in a panic to find there was still time for it to be fixed. I incessantly worried about letting down the eighteen authors who had trusted me with their contributions. With slowdowns in production during the pandemic, I watched the publication date get pushed back several times, always blaming myself, convinced that if I had just sent an email or finished a task a few days earlier maybe there wouldn’t have been delays.
I was constantly panicked and anxious, an acute feeling I had learned to handle in much smaller doses in the days leading up to publishing a new issue of TriQuarterly or the Southeast Review. The panic undulates depending on how close I am to the launch of a project, but I’m always waiting for someone to call me out for winging it, for missing a glaring typo, for formatting a poem incorrectly, for not having read that foundational novel or essay or article, for not exhibiting the perfectionism of a true professional. By way of omission, I try to hide my questionable understanding of most grammar rules. I worry about unhappy writers and readers. The editor in me knows the writer is smarter. The editor in me knows that the reader is smarter too.
In a recent essay titled “On Editing,” Dan Sinykin argues, “No one knows what editing is, not even editors. There are few courses on the topic, and only a couple of useful, if scattershot, handbooks. Knowledge is usually passed along through apprenticeship. Or editors figure it out as they go.”
In my own experience, this is true. I’ve worked beside colleagues who would not take a story unless it was in need of nothing more than a thorough proofread. I’ve worked with colleagues who I’ve watched slice up stories to the point of rewriting them, so that by the end it’s nearly unreasonable that they are not listed as a co-author. In my own writing, I’ve experienced both sides of this too. I’ve had stories cut and Frankensteined to pieces. An editor, in the most pseudo-polite track changes I’ve ever received, once condescendingly tried to explain adjectives to me. Once at AWP, an editor told me, “Oh yeah, you’re the story that didn’t need a single copyedit.” Another editor at AWP tried to convince me I could invest $1,000 of my money into contests and I would only need to win one for the finances to even out (to be clear, this is terrible advice). Some editors have asked me what I want to change and others have told me. Often, I’ve taken what I’ll call the Matt Bell approach, and accepted all the changes in a document before reviewing them, seeing what I catch as I reread, an efficient means for reevaluating what is in fact important to me. Sometimes that leap means letting go of a thousand words, sometimes it’s nothing more than a single semicolon. There’s the editor as trusted reader, as cheerleader, as word doctor, as life coach. I’ve played all of these roles, but no matter the approach, I perennially feel like a phony. The imposter in me winces as I write this, convinced other editors will scoff at my naivete. The writer in me is convinced every sentence is hokey and uninspired.
There’s an abundance of great writing. I know this because I read thousands of submissions every year and because I review books. There’s something very humbling about understanding the limits of your own craft, how for every idea you have there are a hundred people who have already done or are doing it better. I try to bring this humility into my editing too. I recognize that my decisions are subjective and only one of infinite possibilities. By this I mean that of those thousands of submissions maybe 20-30 percent are easily identifiable under the vague category of “publishable,” but there is not realistic time or space to accept everything, meaning that editors have to go with their gut and personal interests. At TriQuarterly, we received as many as 5,000 unsolicited short stories a year (and I imagine that number has gone up), but only had the budget and editorial capacity to really invest in about 10-12 of them. The numbers at Guernica are similar.
Over the past month, I’ve been asked to sit on a number of panels with titles like “When Your Work is Ready to Submit” or “Intro to Publishing Your Work,” and the majority of questions always boil down to two things: 1. What goes on behind the curtain? 2. How do I beat the odds? For many writers, I imagine the selection process feels mysterious and unpredictable, or worse, appears rigged to favor those who are already on an upward trajectory. I can’t say for certain this isn’t part of the decision-making process; after all, known names help attract readers. But the editors I’ve worked with across a multitude of literary journals are consistently seeking out emerging and unpublished writers. In many editorial meetings, I’ve uttered some version of “if we’re not sure of this story we should pass because this writer will certainly get it published elsewhere.” When broached with the suggestion of conspiracy, I often come back to this quote from Roxane Gay:
Most editors are not thinking about writers when they consider submissions. Editors are thinking about WRITING. That distinction is really, really important. At PANK, we’re too small, we’re too passionate about what we do, and we’re too busy to sit around with our thumbs up our asses playing bullshit games. You can believe that or not but as long as you obsess about conspiracy theories as to why you’re not being published and why other writers are being published instead of concentrating on your writing, on your craft, you will likely not find the acceptance you’re looking for.
When I participate in publishing panels, the only answer I consistently provide is to ask lots of questions about where, why, and how you want your work to be out in the world. It should not be a matter of accruing merit badges for a CV. Working with a new editor will be different every time. Ask questions about money, promotion, mission statement, editorial processes, and so on. Be honest about your finances and goals. Know editors make plenty of mistakes too. Frequently, I’ve realized stories we turned down have been published in more prestigious outlets, won major awards, or gone viral. The intuitive curation that occurs is part group project, part personal preference, and part timing and luck, but before all of that the writing has to be exceptional, the best it can be. Editing is the cliché of an art and a science, the hackneyed leap into the unknown, and so all you can really do as a writer is consistently strive to improve your craft and processes.
In my various roles, my imposter syndrome has never really left me, but it is easiest to assuage when I ask myself what is essential to my editorial decision-making. I consider, why do I want to publish this work? What is my editorial philosophy? How am I contributing to my team? What can I do to help this artist? Am I giving this writer as much time, space, and thought as I can offer? Where am I altering the work to satisfy my own ego rather than their artistic vision? The same strategy works for me as a writer. The questions compound until they are nearly overwhelming, but then I break through to what I actually want to say and what I’m hoping to accomplish.
Over the past three years, this is the only way I managed not to give up whenever the manuscript that would become We Are All Armenian felt like it would never come to be, that I would somehow fail along the way. Now that the anthology is out in the world, I’ve accepted that my imposter syndrome will likely never go away. If anything, I can see it growing as time passes, evolving and taking on new iterations, but seeing the anthology reach its readers, seeing its contributors hold the book in their hands, has been overwhelmingly rewarding. I’m still figuring it out as I go.
We Are All Armenian: Voices from the Diaspora
Edited by Aram Mrjoian
University of Texas Press
Published March 14, 2023
Aram Mrjoian is a visiting assistant professor in creative writing at Pacific Lutheran University, an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books, an associate fiction editor at Guernica, and a 2022 Creative Armenia - AGBU Fellow. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Catapult, Electric Literature, West Branch, Boulevard, Gulf Coast online, The Rumpus, The Millions, Longreads, and many other publications. Find his work at arammrjoian.com