I doubt that it was ever actually true that every five-year-old boy used to want to grow up to be a fireman and that every five-year-old girl wanted to be a ballerina. They’re both exacting occupations demanding excessive physical exertion and some degree of danger to one’s health. My grandfather, for example, as a firefighter was seriously injured in the famous Long Block fire in Utica NY in 1947. Today they’d have internet crowdfunding to help him get back on his feet. Back then he just did the best he could until he just couldn’t, which in his case was another twenty years.
I have no idea what I wanted to do when I was five, though it was probably something that could be done while sitting down. Professional televison-watching, a pursuit at which I could have been considered a wunderkind, was no option. Writing was laborious and almost excruciating for me until about age eleven. Suddenly, despite displaying the penmanship skills of what they used to call an “imbecile,” I was fluent and even verbose in my scrawls. Learning to type allowed me to skirt any possible imputation of chirographic idiocy—and I wrote even more.
So, writing—which could be done without standing, walking, or shoveling—was looking like a possible career path. And (against my natural inclination) I worked at it. So when I said I wanted to be a writer, I could brandish pages of smudgy typescript and volumes of journals written in an ostensibly human hand. Others, feeling it imperative to protect me from my delusions of adequacy, expressed skepticism. I resented the doubters. I Knew I Was Good.
And now, let’s fast-forward 40 years. As editor and publisher, I find myself encountering Born Writers, Undiscovered Literary Geniuses, Those With a Story That Must Be Told, and Those Who Were Praised in the Third Grade for a Charming Haiku. As a writer, I feel empathy for all of the above. I have been each one of them.
As an editor, I scan the submitted prose for readability and smoothness, as well as for a basic understanding of the mechanics of the English language—e.g., that an adjective is not in fact a noun. What has surprised me is the magnificence of much of what I have received. A few of the writers I have published (who have distinguished themselves in other fields) flabbergast me with their excellence and their reliability.
But as editor, I also have to be the Bad Guy. As a writer, I hate that part of the job. If a piece of writing is absolutely not salvageable (and I have been known to rescue some pretty dodgy prose) it becomes a wrestling match of me versus me as I struggle to word a rejection in the kindest way possible. There is no clear winner, especially the contributor who was expecting a response some weeks earlier. It’s remarkable that these sensitive (but otherwise incoherent) artists can find suitably direct and emphatic words to respond to my half-hearted, conciliatory, and often mumbled “I’m sorry—I just couldn’t use this.”
What else is there to say? Good writing is the essence of this paper. If you have the makings of a competent prose stylist, don’t be shy. (If you refer to yourself as a “creative writer” or a “jazz journalist” I may regard your submission with extra scrutiny.) The worst I could possibly say is No—eventually.