On writing...and editing Posted by Sarah Marrs April 11, 2011

I’ve heard that all editors are writers but I’ve always wondered if that goes both ways. Are all writers editors? If they’re not, they should be. Editing for the Labletter has been one of the best experiences I’ve had as a writer. It’s certainly made me a better writer—I can never get upset at my own editor because I know her edits aren’t personal and that the most important thing a writer can do is not get too attached to her own work because odds are, some jerk editor is going to want to change it.

The process of choosing stories to publish in the Labletter is easy—pick the best stories submitted. The action of choosing those stories is rather a bit tougher. For the 2011 edition, it was even harder because of the sheer number of submissions. Not only did we receive over three hundred submissions, but many of the writers were MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipients, O. Henry Award winners, Pushcart Prize finalists, published novelists, and writers previously featured in publications like The New Yorker, Zoetrope and McSweeney’s. How do you begin to process all that?

It starts with me staying up very late, reading stories. It continues with me reading more stories. Eventually our managing editor, Robert Kotchen, will ask me how it’s going and if I need help. The answer is always “terribly” and “YES PLEASE” but I tell him that it’s fine and that I have everything under control. The truth is, while I respect Robert very much and he probably has better taste than me, I don’t want anyone else messing in my sandbox. Fiction is my section—if I have to read five hundred stories I’ll do it because it’s ultimately my decision and I want the fiction section to reflect my taste and my taste alone.

And that’s the key to editing for a journal like the Labletter. It’s all about individual taste. Each section reflects that particular editor’s taste and interests. It can be really intimidating to read stories from writers whose accomplishments outrank mine, who are likely older, wiser and better educated than I’ll ever be. I just have to remind myself of the thing that I think every editor says to herself: “I’m responsible for this. Whatever it ends up being, I’m responsible for it and I have to think that it is the best thing ever.”

The first story I landed on for this edition was Rolli’s “Chimpanions”. I was halfway through the story when I put it aside and shot off an email to Rolli telling him we’d be publishing it. I allow for simultaneous submissions, so I didn’t want to risk getting a message from Rolli, in the few minutes it would take me to finish his story, that another publication picked it up. Once I had “Chimpanions” in the bag, the task became about finding a story that would partner well with it. I came across Daniel Pearlman’s “Canine Virtues” with about a hundred stories left to go and set it aside. I loved the story but it was a bit long, a little daunting given that word count is important with the Labletter. But after reading all the stories I didn’t like any of them as much as “Canine Virtues” and so I just made it work.

Because that’s what editors do—make it work. I didn’t initially start out to pick two stories that had animalian themes but that’s what I ended up with. That’s what the two best stories submitted ended up being. They worked well together, they appealed to my literary and humorous sensibilities. The quality of the writing was excellent. So of course, as a jerk editor, I wanted to change it. Most of the edits were limited to syntactical changes made to smooth out the flow of the stories. With Rolli there was some word-choice wrangling—he’s Canadian and he used a couple words that aren’t familiar to American readers. The upside of having so many, and such quality, submissions is that I have the luxury of pulling out stories that are so good they require little interference. I’m hard on my authors—I think their stories are the best thing ever and I will push and argue and demand until we make those stories as good as they can possibly be.

You can read an excerpt from “Chimpanions” here, but to read both stories in their entireties, please visit the Labletter store to purchase a copy. Also, you can like us on Facebook—being liked is nice. I’m very proud to present both “Chimpanions” and “Canine Virtues” in the 2011 Labletter. I believe these are the best stories we’ve published so far, and I hope you enjoy them.


Reflections on our first three public editions, part 1: a bridge between the Lab and the Labletter Posted by Robert Kotchen December 11, 2010

Our 2009 edition—our first public edition—holds a certain charm, more for me than it will for others. For ten years, the Labletter had been a magazine printed and bound at a copy shop like OfficeMax or Kinkos. Those covers are all solid colors—a different color for each year—and until the magazines are opened, the fronts can't be distinguished from the backs, the tops from the bottoms. Now we had a magazine professionally printed, with a cover designed by Guy Hundere, a thin volume that would prove a hybrid between the eclectic nature of the work that had been presented in the first ten editions and the quality of work that would emerge in the next couple of editions. One of the highlights of that edition is the CD that accompanies the magazine of songs recorded at the Oregon Lab, and in particular, a song called "The Tide".

Most of the songs on the CD were recorded in the sharing ceremony, during a time when the Lab was at its most vibrant. The Lab would meet once a year for a week, and on the last night of the week we would all gather after dinner in a common room—often a group of eight to twelve people—and everybody would take turns presenting work—reading an excerpt from a manuscript in a process or a journal, presenting a short play or monologue, sharing or talking about photographs or paintings, playing music and singing songs. The sharing ceremonies of 1996 and 1997 were exciting. In both those years, everybody who participated in the Lab found something during the course of the week, had an experience of tapping into the work, the work getting better, and being moved in the process.

Eliot Houser has a gift conducive to that environment. Part of his gift is music and laughter that bring people together. And part of his gift is the ability to work with other people, to create the spark that allows them to find something they otherwise wouldn't have found and to allow what other people have to offer to move what he is doing. At the beginning of the week, he would let people know—people who are not musicians by trade—that if they wanted to write a song and had a clear idea of what the song would be about, he would work on the song with them. The results: a beautiful song with lyrics by Dan Robb

I have done my share of ramblin' round
Following my heart from town to town
I think I've made my peace with this old land
And I think I've learned something about being a man
And I believe I'll recommend, I believe I shall attend
That I stay right here with what I know's all right
And I'll keep on standing up for that light
–from "Standing Up For That Light"

a raucous song with lyrics and vocals by Brian Weir

We're parked side by side in our double-parked garage
My Volkswagen Bug's making your Beamer look large
The neighbors are worried, they're all in a tizz
Cause they've never seen license plates that read his and his
–from "Moving In"

a relatively (think Einstein) imaginative song with lyrics and vocals by Michael Heelan

In America
You can buy crackers
Shaped like fish
That taste like cheese
–from "Blackie Wants A Cheese Fish"

and a song that Eliot had written on (as he puts it) one of those Nashville winter days when it's drizzly and it's been overcast for two weeks and it makes you want to write something forlorn and heartbreaking. He worked on it after writing it, and it wasn't happening—so he thought it wasn't very good and he put it away. At the Lab he brought it out again and played it for Trace (Trace Turville), and he credited her with turning it into something beautiful and giving him confidence in his work. There was something about where we all were, individually and collectively, something a recording could never capture, in our response—deep and shared—to the first time Trace and Eliot performed "The Tide" in 1996.

Trace and Eliot performed "The Tide" again in 1997. The performance was less emotional and more even, and the recording quality is better.

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