I am no stranger to oddity. In the early 1970s, I was standing in a voting line in Little Rock, Arkansas, chatting with a southern lady who was in front of me. When a Cadillac, driven by a black guy, rolled by, she made a racial remark. Being from California, I know that millionaires come in all colors and sometimes dress like paupers, so I offered her my opinion that the car might not have been stolen and the guy might have a really great job. “Nonsense!” she said, and hit me with her umbrella. Ouch! Lesson learned. Not all little ol’ ladies are sweet.
Leap into the present. When I began submitting my stories in 2011, I was often surprised at the editors who accepted or rejected my stories. True, I studied the market carefully and worked diligently to match my product to each publication’s need, but there seemed to be no rhyme or reason for their decision to publish or not to publish my work. I became familiar with all the ways people attempt to take the sting out of the word no: doesn’t meet our needs, decided to pass, not quite right for our theme, hope you can find a home for this story. Eventually, it would happen, and whenever I get paid for my stories, I’m more surprised. It’s the sweetest validation there is!
Imagine, then, how strange it was for me to tell an editor,” I don’t think my story is right for your publication, please withdraw it from consideration.” The editors who had accepted my story had asked for two edits to clarify “what was going on.” Accommodation being a key to success, I happily obliged. A second round of edits, however, asked too much.
The story was about Wallace, a WWI veteran, whose post-war insanity manifests itself in an obsession with the number 137. The editors wanted to know the “meaning” of the number. Did it have something to do with the soldiers in his company, perhaps? Why that number?
I’d never thought about it. Shall we expect Groucho to explain why Harpo never speaks in the Marx Brothers movies? Shall we expect Bugs Bunny to stop mid cartoon and explain why he chooses to be Gossamer’s manicurist instead of, say, his stock broker? Aren’t Kafka’s stories filled with details of the absurd that demonstrate the meaninglessness of human meanings?
By definition, insanity is the absence of rational reasons for thoughts and behavior, and there was no psychiatrist in the story explaining line by line what was happening. Indeed, inexplicability, randomness, and chance are not only the stuff of which dreams are made, to quote Sam Spade, they are part and parcel of absurdity.
Is Wallace’s devotion to a meaningless number really a Freudian displacement; is he avoiding the reality of the destruction of the English class system by making a number the center of his existence? Does his nutty wife have something to do with it? Of course. But, no, I couldn’t annihilate absurdity on the altar of rational explanation overtly and consciously delivered by an intruding author. Sure, the reader would come to the end of the story and say, “I understand,” but completely miss the humor and pathos of the situation. We are, to paraphrase the philosophers, black boxes to each other.
I believed there was home for my absurdist little story, just not with this particular venue and its kind and patient editor. (It got published elsewhere.) So, this is not a criticism of him or any editor. Certainly s/he knows his/her audience. S/he knows what will play in Peoria and what won’t. Perhaps his audience is too young, too uneducated, or too unsophisticated. However, this particular story, written tongue in cheek, is one of my favorites. A quintessential McBrearty-ism, and if I changed it by adding rational explanations of every detail, it would become the editor’s story, not mine. Or Wallace’s.
What’s important is that the withdrawing an accepted story was an experience that jump-started some unexpected personal introspection. As a reader, I am not a detail aficionado. I don’t care what color Gatsby’s shirts are. It’s enough for me to know he has lots of them and help define his “self” for me. I routinely skip long descriptive paragraphs in many novels because I don’t care how many polka dots can dance on the head of a seamstress’s pin. I’m not going to live forever, so let’s get on with the story. That’s my MO.
As a writer, I imagine myself an eagle, surveying the panoramic picture from aloft, and then swooping down to snag a minute detail before ascending again. From the general to the specific for a few seconds, and then rising above the minutiae to the universal. I trust the reader can make the POV transitions with me. I trust the reader to “get it.”
But, what, I had to ask myself, became of me, that humble, grateful author willing to do a pretzel twist to make an editor happy? Wherever she went, the withdrawal experience forced me to think seriously about myself as a writer. My self. My stories. The realization that I have a style worthy of preservation hit me like an Arkansas umbrella. Has an experience with an editor ever taught you a writing lesson—or should I say, a writer’s philosophy lesson?