An Editor on the Work and Power of a Themed Collection
By Erin Wood
See her work in WTP Vol. V #1
In 2011, I had an idea for a book about scars. I had no idea that it would eventually take the form of an anthology, nor that in many ways, the experience would (re)write me personally. I am pleased to share some things I learned along the way, especially with those who may be considering similar projects.
Physical scars have played a prominent role in my life, the first of my twelve surgeries occurring when I was twenty-four hours old. I had written some about scars and had used “write about your scar” as a teaching prompt, but longed to delve deeper. Then our daughter was born at a threatening twenty-three-weeks gestation and bore many scars from her 128 days in the NICU and beyond.
By 2012, I’d come to appreciate scars as much more than the marks that appeared on my own and my daughter’s skin: scars can prove meaningful to others in ways I couldn’t imagine simply because those meanings were beyond the realm of my own experience. So, I set to work on an endeavor that would eventually become a multi-genre volume (essays, poems, interviews, a photo essay, a theatre review, and a play script); would include the work of thirty-eight contributors; and would take more than three years from conception to publication.
Begin with an Energetic Curiosity:
You’re about to dedicate significant time to this endeavor, and the odds indicate you’re unlikely to be financially compensated for doing it, so be certain that it calls to you. Loudly.
Perhaps you find that mentioning it to others in conversation excites them, too? I was on a panel about themed anthologies at the 2016 Louisiana Book Festival with New York Times bestselling author Daniel José Older, who shared that his anthology, Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, was born of a Twitter conversation. Older and his co-editor turned to crowd-funding to support the anthology, making both the origins and the sustenance of the project great cases for how momentum soars when energy and curiosity are exponentially increased by the power of interested community.
When you feel that tension, that desire for inquiry, that humming curiosity inside yourself and among others, you may have the makings of a great anthology.
Get Names on Board:
At one point about a year into the process, I was ready to give up. I had three women with name recognition and impressive experience who had said yes, and they were my cornerstones. But promising submissions were slow coming. I knew no one who had done this before, and felt I had no one to ask for advice. I was climbing a rope ladder that I was fashioning as I climbed. I was insanely frustrated and exhausted. I went to bed one night thinking it was all too much stress, but woke the next morning thinking how could I let down these three incredible women who also believed in this project? If I didn’t follow through, who else was going to put together another project like this? (I thought of the Martha Graham quote that I keep paper clipped behind my desk: “There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression becomes unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any medium and be lost. The world will not have it.”)
Call on All Networks:
That morning, shooting from my bed possessed by new-found energy, I began calling on all networks. At AWP 2017, I had heard Vanderbilt professor Piyali Bhattacharya say this about her own process as an anthology editor: “You have to make yourself a psychotic nuisance to be heard.” During her most intense anthology work one fall, she was sending 50–100 emails a day, some days topping 200. My process became similar—I brainstormed how I could manically pursue my own connections. I needed cost-free/sweat equity options (although, if I had it to do over, I’d probably invest in classifieds like those in New Pages, Poets & Writers, and The Writers’ Chronicle). With no idea how the book would sell, I couldn’t offer anything in return except two gratis copies (which is a little embarrassing when trying to court more prominent authors, and I’m humbled that so many agreed).
I decided to run a contest. We had a winner (and earned a bit of funding for the book’s production costs), but although the winning essay was exciting, no additional submissions fit. Meanwhile, I placed the call on several listservs (a Google search, for example, for “Humanities Listservs” pulls up many options, and you can certainly tailor your listserv search to any subject matter). The Literature and Medicine listserv yielded numerous submissions! I placed the call in a Facebook group for women writers (with more than 30,000 members) and several more came in. I emailed department heads at my undergraduate and graduate alma maters’ related departments and to those of probably more than 50 universities; reached out to writers who’d been instructors at retreats I’d attended; researched books on scars and accidents and surgery; emailed authors and artists and others; wrote to physician authors and then just physicians; emailed friends and former students with whom I’d remained in touch; begged former professors and even neighbors for contributions. If they said no, or didn’t answer, I followed up and asked again. I thought of people who didn’t consider themselves writers, but whose stories I wanted, and I interviewed them instead (a friend who’d gone through a gender confirmation surgery with unexpected consequences, a brilliant visual artist working with tree resin and sutures, my Ob/Gyn cousin who’d operated on an orangutan for the Little Rock Zoo).
Slowly, great pieces started to trickle in and my confidence increased. I worked up the courage to email Jill Christman, whose essay “Burned Images” I had previously taught in my composition class. A friendship was born. That essay leads Scars, and Jill and I have been able to see each other twice in person over the last couple of years.
Whether you are reaching out for submissions, trying to find a publisher (who is probably convinced that anthologies a little out of the mainstream are not marketable), and/or trying to promote your book, get ready to reach out to everyone who might be vaguely interested or be able to put you in touch with someone who may be interested. Make lists. Pick your friends’ brains. Get researching. Don’t be shy. The more you click and type, the greater your odds for a response.
The Editorial Process:
If I were to edit another anthology, I would consider a co-editor, if we could agree wholeheartedly on the anthology’s aesthetic. Editing the work of thirty-eight authors—all at different emotional points in their often traumatic journeys, including in my case one with a traumatic brain injury and others with post-traumatic stress syndrome and chronic health issues—can be wrenching and overwhelming to say the least. I was also a contributor, and working through my own issues alongside this. At times, it would have been nice to have some help, but of course such pairings can raise their own stressors as well.
Editing is such a partnership with writers, and can extend far beyond the page. Editors can steer a writer in the wrong direction, or even hurt and offend. Writers may be unwilling to make changes that you feel are essential to the quality of the piece and its ultimate message within the context of the anthology. These interactions can be tough, and must be handled with care and reverence.
What it can all add up to:
When I reflect on the many benefits of editing an anthology, I think about rich and surprising perspectives; the intense power of collaboration; and perhaps most importantly, a glorious new community with contributors. That contributor community will most likely lead to your connecting with other communities, all of which can only broaden your audience. Putting together an anthology is a serious chore, but if your schedule (and budget) permits, press on, friend. It will start conversations. It will agitate and elucidate your beliefs. It will strengthen existing relationships and build new ones, further expanding as this new community experiences the joy of acknowledging each other’s achievements and publications beyond the original collaboration, and even spawning other collaborations. An edited anthology is something to share in celebration with others, reminding all involved that sometimes we can say much more together than we could alone.
Erin Wood writes and edits in Little Rock, Arkansas. She is editor of and a contributor to Scars: An Anthology, which assembles thirty-eight contributions on physical scars. Her work was chosen as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2013, and has appeared in Psychology Today, Ms. Magazine Blog, Entropy Magazine, The Healing Muse, Tales from the South, and elsewhere. Her essay, “Tissue: A Scar Story” previously appeared with The Woven Tale Press. Visit her at woodwritingandediting.com.