On Paying Attention
There’s a reason why we call it paying attention. Obviously you, like me, have found some time for this little attention to another’s work (otherwise why would you be here?). I bet your life is pretty full, or feels that way anyway until you add some more to it. You may view these moments—moments spent looking over another reader’s shoulder into the way they read and how it opened them—as stolen. Perhaps they are. They are (probably) unpaid and largely unrewarded, though not to say unnoticed. I wonder: if we spent as much time with another’s work—it doesn’t matter whose—as we spend on social media, imagine how that might open us?
One of the things I love about the Essay Daily Advent Calendar, which is also one of the things I love about the site and its ethos in general, and to some extent all editorial work, is how by virtue of doing that work you learn (or I hope you learn: I have; I keep learning) that the act of spending time engaged one-on-one with another’s work changes you. In a small way, sure. I’ll take that. I mean, it's (probably) not life-altering, or doesn't seem so yet, or at least if it has altered your life you may not have noticed it.
And that work—the reading, but exponentially more than that if you do it as a practice and in a teaching or an editorial role—is a devotion: you know it well if you read slush for a magazine or help screen for one of the Best American series, or if you put time into designing an online journal or even reading stories for an undergraduate magazine. It’s a little different if you’re paid, because then it becomes a job, something you’re compensated for, and that’s not bad—in fact, it’s good, but it’s something different than I’m talking about here. (And honestly, you and I both know that even if it is paid, it's never paid enough.) We should all be paid for the time we spend with others’ work, but I’d like to argue for that work as worth doing in itself, even if you’re not paid for it (because let’s face it, you probably won’t be; maybe it's just easier to understand how it works this way).
I mean to say that that time I spent galleying up an Advent post, or tweaking curly quotes in an essay I'm trying to lay out for DIAGRAM, or even printing out and posting a poem on a bathroom wall at work somewhere—I mean to say it is important for what it does to us as humans and how we relate to our own language and material and stories, and how it changes our perception of what our work is worth, and in what context, and to whom (and excluding or not thinking about whom) we’re writing. Or maybe whom we want to be writing with or alongside of.
I do a lot of this (so maybe in some ways this is my own self-justification I'm working on for the light I spend this way). I read manuscripts for this site, and another called (this year) March Shredness, and another, called DIAGRAM, and another, New Michigan Press. It’s been a part of my practice as a writer as long as I’ve been a writer, this editorial work, the work of design, whether digital or letterpress. It's always been happening alongside whatever "writing" I was working on (as if writing isn't basically just design, arrangement of familiar glyphs). It’s all the same in the way that I’m subsumed by it (or I am when it is working well: it’s a sticky space in which I find myself, one that I’d like to stay in as long as I am able). It rewards me sometimes by putting me in communication with another mind and another's body.
Still, I find myself wondering about the time I spend on it some months, whether that would be better used in finishing up an essay or a book or starting something new. But then often enough I’m sparked by a thing I’m reading in an editorial capacity and with that input I start thinking differently. This is the self-fueling feeling that makes me happiest, though I should be honest and state that it’s pretty rare.
Yet I have two irritations I would like to report: writers who don’t tell you that the work they sent you, and that you’ve spent weeks or even months thinking about, and eventually accepting (or even kindly declining), was simultaneously submitted and has been accepted somewhere else. It’s a gutting feeling, out of proportion to the size of the offense (which is micro, one of bookkeeping, largely, if we’re being generous), but it’s a tough mood to be in, to be informed that the essay or poem or story you fought for against a bunch of other editors and readers and pulled out of a stack of unbrilliant work is now, after long conversations, no longer fucking available?
Two, and this is worse, and more specific. Every once in a while, maybe once every couple years, at the magazine I edit, DIAGRAM, I get an email from a former contributor asking us to unpublish some work of theirs we’ve published, typically years ago. They seem mystified by my unwillingness to do so, even when I explain clearly and as passionless as I can that even asking that devalues all of the work that every editor does, and particularly every editor of every online magazine who’s had to justify what they do to coworkers or friends or writers or readers or in grant applications, or for tenure committees, etc. A mighty fury arises in me when this happens, and I try to quell it, and usually there’s some reasonable workaround that can be achieved, like changing the name of the writer to just their initials (thus making them ungoogleable and effectively disconnecting it from their online presence, which serves what they’d like it to but doesn’t totally undermine the ethos of our [or any publishing] project).
(Please don't ask me this: changing your name, however, is just fine.)
I also have a third irritation, a little pettier than the last, I should admit, and it comes out of the genre of articles (or essays or pieces or blog posts) that insists on the value of what the writer has to contribute, and demands to get paid for their work. It's unfair of me to complain, I know. I also like to get paid for my work, and sometimes I do, and it’s easier to prioritize those projects that pay over the other projects that are in the stew somewhere in my life. So that’s a virtue, but I think it’s a mistake to only value what we’re paid to do, or to equate getting paid with the value of pursuing a thing.
It’s definitely true that the things for which I am paid do not always correlate with the things that feel most alive or important to me. There’s something in making a thing—or a space for others to send to and display their things and get them in front of other people who might like such things—that’s valuable. Or I hope it is. I believe it is.
I guess in spending time with others’ work in part I lose myself to it, and for an essayist especially, someone for whom the trade in I is easy to get caught up in, that’s a welcome reminder of why I’m here. It’s not just to assert my I or eye, as much as I like to, and to give it a voice, but also to make a space for others’ voices too, and to do what I can to get them in front of you and make them more beautiful when they are displayed.
I don’t mean to be self-aggrandizing here: it’s all work, and some of it sometimes pays, and getting paid is helpful and important, and I’m aware too that I’m writing from a position of some privilege. So maybe some aspect of spend some portion of that privilege is in devoting time to others’ work. It’s why, in part, I get frustrated when Big Name Writers I know refuse to blurb anyone’s work. As if you, sirs, were never blurbed! I know you can’t blurb everything, and maybe it’s just a pose you strike as a defense or because you think my work blows (fair enough if so: well played), but it still feels indefensible to me. A kindness (or an openness to kindness) has some benefits to the self, or the boundaries of what you perceive as the self.
Sarah Manguso says that “Those who claim to write about something larger and more significant than the self sometimes fail to comprehend the dimensions of a self.” I wouldn’t even freaking know this if I hadn’t paid attention to her work and let it inside the dimensions of what I thought constituted myself. Now myself includes a bit of Sarah Manguso, and I can use that Manguso bit like a tool.
I’m reminded of this every December when we do our advent calendar, which takes really rather a lot of editorial work (thanks particularly this year to Will, and thanks to Craig, who has pulled plenty of his weight in the past), and when we’re also publishing the attentions you pay to those other writers whose work has moved you. If they’re dead, or will never read it, that’s fine. It’s not about the attention that you pay to the living (though that is for sure particularly nice, since it can echo back a little more easily), but the act of paying attention, and writing about, and writing to and around and toward, that matters. I am trying to say thanks to the writers who have contributed to the calendar this year, and to the site in general. It's been a pleasure to spend time with your sentences and the trails of your thinking this year. But also I want to thank those of us who devote our unpaid and dwindling and precious time to others’ work and words.
I mean to say thanks to my editors at Graywolf, particularly Katie Dublinski and Jeff Shotts. (Bonus thanks to Katie, who is, it would seem, perfectly happy to do her work below the radar: I see you and what you mean to that list, and to my own work as a writer and reader). You’re paid, but not enough, and not always in the ways that matter. I mean to say thanks to the editors who’ve nurtured my work in the past, like Brigid Hughes at A Public Space, and the editors who just read something and thought, sure, fuck it, why not. Josh Foster at Gulf Coast, Christopher Chambers at New Orleans Review, R. M. Kinder at Pleiades (who published my first thing ever), Bob Atwan at Best American Essays, Jake Adam York at Copper Nickel (even though you never published me I know you spent serious time on my work, and I on yours, and I want to keep saying thanks for both that attention you paid and for the work you made), and this is just off the top of my head. I’m sure I’ll think of many more than this to regret not thanking later. Those editors who thought to ask if I wanted to send them something: Kristen Radtke, Valerie Vogrin, Nicole Walker, T Fleischmann, Beth Staples. Gotta stop since I can only name a few. The list is pretty long and I do not want to bore.
And of course what I mean to say is also to thank those of you who lurk in this space and read and write for us or just read and write us at all. I saw a note on some motivational board for the writing program at my university that read something like: I write because in so doing I can exist after my death. Yes to that. It doesn’t work equally for all of us, but it’s better than your other options. And also you know what helps? Reading and writing back to what you're reading.
I mean: I know that what you do in editing or designing or typesetting uses something up. It's not frictionless: it burns if you’re doing it right. That attention that you pay, the time you spend, there are reasons that we use the language of economics to describe it. It is a kind of reading, and it's finite, and for that I think you. Done well it gets you some little bounce back in your own sensibility of what is possible, and an excitement that you want to follow somewhere new in your own work or some space you’re making or maybe will in a few years. Maybe this sentence or another will do something of the sort for you. Knowing it consumes something of you to do, I want to say: y’all out there reading and editing and designing and typesetting and thinking and writing, I see you. All of us at Essay Daily see you (and hope to see some more of you). Happy holidays to you and yours.
Ander Monson is one of the editors of this site. His most recent book (a book of letters, no less) is Letter to a Future Lover (Graywolf).