Friday, May 30, 2008

Help, help I'm being held prisoner by an idea

In my capacity as faculty adviser of The Southern California Review, a twice-yearly publication of poetry, essays, short stories, reviews, plays, excerpts from novels and longer works of nonfiction, I was asked for my opinion on the blog post of the managing editor (you can see John Fox's blog post if you wish by consulting the link to the right of this post, under the rubric of Friendly Venues. John is a former student in one of my classes, an elegant and observant writer, a comprehensive blogger).

The thrust of John's blog post had to do with the implications actual and potential of accepting or rejecting submissions from individuals incarcerated in jails, prisons, and other shall-we-say correctional facilities (my observation there being that very little gets corrected in such places but many things become exacerbated.)

Asked for my comments on John's blog post by the editor in chief, a thoughtful, talented, and energetic young woman I quite admire, I responded thusly (omitting some of the prologue) which I have come to think well enough to reproduce here:

...there are a great many whackos and disturbed people out there, both in and out of controlled environments. Most of those in controlled environments believe they are unfairly there or that there are mitigating circumstances. I've experienced being on the editorial end of submissions from incarcerated wannabe authors, some simply wanting to tell their story as a kind of habeas corpus writ, which by its very nature is a plea of last resort and accordingly can be accepted if written in pencil. Others simply wanted to make creative use of their time. I've also received countless manuscripts and manuscript proposals from individuals whose transgressions were less legal in nature and more of a failure to see or understand the boundaries and effects of what most of us think of as reality. To complete the picture, I've received manuscripts and proposals from individuals in law enforcement and the psychiatric/psychological professions. In every case there were some remarkably good projects and some that were remarkably awful. Indeed, as a result of one book I acquired as an editor, I was hounded by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and listed as a radical. Everything has its risks. If you are in publishing, you either have an open policy, which is to say you look at everything that is submitted until it becomes apparent that the submission is deficient, or you have a closed policy, which means essentially that you read submissions that you have invited or that have been sent you by a recognized literary agent. If you are a blogger, you have the option of accepting and posting reader comments, giving yourself the opportunity to accept or reject comments, or entirely obviate the possibility of comment. One of the more spectacularly engaging blogs from a respected photographer finally gave up because of the mean-spirited nature of some of the comments.

Written material often provokes irrational behavior and response. Written material, even from well educated individuals, often becomes shipwrecked on the seas of stodginess, self-service, and ignorance. The editor's job is to look at likely material, regardless of origin, and shepherd it through the editorial and publication process, becoming in fact a partner with the author. Some of the notable authors of all time, poets, essayists, short story writers, were in addition to their excellence of craft, manic depressive, drug addicts, bigamists, abusive parents, schizophrenic, paranoid. Norman Mailer went after a wife with intent to stab her. Samuel Taylor Coleridge did not connect his frequent use of opium with his chronic constipation. Robert Lowell was mentally and physically abusive. Irish Murdoch--well, the list goes on, but despite these consequences, we have their work. We also have our work.

Part of our work is to produce a journal of exquisite range and quality, choosing materials from individuals we often have had no previous contact with, hoping among other things to discover the ones whose work reflects a vision and insight previously unknown to us, visions and insights that will light our way through the murky corridors and dark places in the experience we call life, knowing that even as the material warms us with its inherent light and energy, it will enrage and inflame others. In voting for the things we like, we are taking chances and reinforcing our individuality. To get to the things we like, we have to put up with and go through the minefields set in place by individuals we consider lunatics.

We are involved with writing, editing, and publishing. Concerns about safety should be strangers to these worlds. Never write safe things. Never publish safe things. Never read safe things.

Thus endeth my response, but lest you think I'm lazing out by simply copying a response, I add the fact that I broached to a client of mine, a Circuit Court Judge, an idea for a book I thought he might enjoy doing and which I offer here as what I consider a first-rate idea for a book: Approach a list of ten or twelve judges at appellate level, asking them to recall two or three of the more memorable habeas corpus they received in the arc of their judicial career. A habeas corpus writ is in essence Help, help, I'm being held prisoner (against my will), and want my freedom.

With those of us not incarcerated, Help, help, I'm being held prisoner takes on a more metaphoric meaning, as in I'm being held prisoner by a poem or a story or an essay or a thought that won't let me alone until I get it down on paper, at which point, writeer that I am, I am free until the next one wants out.



Anonymous said...

A very liberating post!Especially the last paragraph which implies there will always be another '...poem or a story or an essay or a thought' bursting to see the light of day.

x said...

I have been held hostage at stop lights with cars beeping as I scribble an idea, hostage rather than prisoner because I'm not allowed to drive on until I pay the ransom, writing down the thought. I have also been known, when desperate, to write with my left hand on the wheel, writing without looking with my right. For some reason, my Muse, or perhaps Warden, lives in my car.