Guest Post by Melanie Little

When I told friends, family, and colleagues about my upcoming two-month (yes!) residency at Historic Joy Kogawa House, the same question (after the hearty-though-envious congratulations) arose again and again. Are you going to be able, they asked, to leave your editor-brain back in Toronto for two whole months? To mute your critical mind in order to let your creative self have the space it needs to write? Everyone knew how packed my editing schedule had been over the previous few years. (I’ve never been one to refrain from complaining about my workload, and I’m afraid that tendency wasn’t exactly quashed by Covid-era online bonding sessions.) A typical week sees me in the midst of structural or line edits on a novel, a copy edit on a short-story collection or three, and a proofread of a non-fiction book; the following week might be the mirror image of that. I try to bang away at my own novel and story collection for at least a few hours in there, but, as I’m sure everyone reading this knows, it’s all too easy to put the work of others first.

I’ll admit, the question had me worried. Would my tendency to prioritize my critical side interfere with my ability to create new work, or perhaps distort my view of the work I had slated to revisit and revise during my stay? Would I be putting the scalpel to passages that needed only the merest stitch, or, worse, consigning new ideas to the trash heap before I’d even given myself a chance to fail?

Editors are, I’m abashed to say (and indeed, to have amply illustrated to this point in your day), not immune to clichés, and like any group of professionals, we use clichés a lot when we talk about our work. I often hear myself declaiming about how, when I read a manuscript or a book for sheer personal interest or pleasure, I read with my “editor’s hat” blissfully off. And about how by contrast, with that accoutrement firmly in place, I can roll up my sleeves and get down to my eagled-eyed work without a care in the world apart from the health of the final book. Clichés aside, it’s usually pretty strong talk, and it’s no wonder I’d managed to scare myself—that is, the writer version of her—into submission, if not quite silence.

Fortunately, the Kogawa House residency wisely encourages the writer to engage with the community— in part, I suspect, to keep said writer from spending two months flossing her teeth with her own tail. I therefore, this May, had the pleasure of holding a workshop/conversation on the subject of editing with the wonderful Vancouver editor Robyn So. In our conversations, both before and during our workshop, and in the thinking those conversations engendered, something new occurred to me. Sure, I may well put on a different hat when I’m editing—but if I’m being honest, it isn’t anything like the helmet of a drill sergeant or the skullcap of a surgeon. I’ve started to picture it more as one of those wide-brimmed straw numbers you might wear for tending to your garden on a sunny day. It’s a hat that lets me focus entirely on what I’m reading, one that concentrates my gaze and shuts out the glare of the world. And it lets me read with generosity.

When I’m asked by a publisher to edit a book, I take it on faith that the book has merit. When I read the manuscript for the first time, I read with enjoyment rather than judgment. That’s one of the beautiful things about being a freelancer these days, and no longer an acquiring editor at a publishing house (and believe me, you should find it in your heart to pity the agonizing decisions those souls have to make). The book I’m being contracted to edit is going to be a book—likely, it’s already on the publisher’s schedule and even boasts its own shiny set of what’s called “metadata,” ensuring that it’s percolating through the passageways of the internet as a “title,” the electronic embryo of its saleable self. All I can do is help the author make it even better than it already was when it first crossed my desk.

So I seize on the positive. I look at the strongest aspects or elements of the book and, to put it in a very reductive nutshell, I say to the author: More like this. I absolutely believe the author can do it, because the best parts of the manuscript have proven to me that she can. And I don’t falter in this conviction; my employers are counting on that title, after all. Ninety-eight-point-five times out of a hundred, but with wildly varying degrees of coaxing, coaching, and cajoling, the author comes to believe she can do it too. And, eventually, the necessary work is done. As Joan Didion has written, she came to realize that the best editor was “the person who gave the writer the idea of herself, the image of self that enabled the writer to sit down alone and do it.”

What I’ve learned during this residency—through talking to Robyn as well as to the brave and brilliant writers who showed up for workshops and writing sessions; through re-reading the work of Joy Kogawa herself and marvelling at the combination of steely determination and gentle grace that epitomizes her work; and through living amid the sunlit nooks and book-filled crannies of this place that has nurtured so many working, persevering writers—is that I owe it to my own writing to approach it with the same generosity as I do the works I edit. With the same unshakeable faith that this is going to be a book. That kind of faith can get you through the writing day no matter what hat you’re wearing.

Thank you, Joy Kogawa, and thank you always to this beautiful, peaceful, crucial house.

Jack Wang, Author

Melanie Little is an award-winning author and editor of fiction and non-fiction. Her debut collection of stories, Confidence, was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Award and selected as a Globe and Mail Top 100 Book. Her historical novel-in-verse for young adults, The Apprentice’s Masterpiece, was a Canadian Library Association Honour Book, a gold medalist at the Independent Publisher Book Awards, and a White Raven selection for the International Youth Library in Munich.

She is currently finishing a novel that draws on her experiences as an editor, and is writing her second collection of short stories.