Friday, February 24, 2012

Slush Pile Empathy

Why does it take so long to hear back from an agent/editor?

Most of us know the short answer.  They get bombarded with tens of thousands of manuscripts every year, sometimes more.  Sure, my intellect gets it.  But this past month, I had a wave of empathy and a new level of understanding for why it's so damned hard to get out of the slush pile.

Every month or so in my third and fourth grade class we have a Publication Celebration, where all my students share the final copy of that unit's writing project.  These pieces involve a lot of work and revision and editing on their parts, weeks of planning and exploring and rewrites.  The celebration is lovely, with parents, friends and family members plus fancy refreshments.  Then I collect all those wonderful results of their hard work in my cart full of papers to grade.  And there they sit, sometimes for weeks on end.  Why?

It's not because I don't want to read them.  I do.  It's not because I don't care about them.  It's because I care too much.  I know that when I sit down to grade those papers, I want to give my students' writing the attention it deserves.  I can't just grade it while I'm watching TV or when my brain is fried at the end of a long day or while I'm squeezing in some extra work in a 15 minute chunk of time at recess or between after-school meetings.  I need a long stretch of time, in a quiet place, where I can focus fully on the words they (hopefully) chose with such care.  I need to think carefully about all the elements - ideas, organization, sentence fluency, word choice, voice, conventions.  I reread each piece several times, with a different lens each time.  Some give me great pleasure to read, but others are brutal, painful even.  I have to blink, breathe, sit back, take a break.

Unfortunately, the thought of that level of concentrated attention and care multiplied by 33 is a little daunting, which makes it, I confess, easy to put off the process, which I do, again and again until now, I have a backlog, 2 separate pieces to read from every student, instead of just one.  I sit down for a couple hours with a cup of coffee and work my way through 5 or 6, feeling proud of my progress, until I look at the pile and realize I'm not even halfway through.  Then some other element of my schedule calls and the window of opportunity for extended attention slams shut again.

This past weekend, as I sat facing that pile of beautiful, wonderful, all-over-the-map earnest efforts by my students, I realized I was, in fact, facing my own personal slush pile of sorts.  Of course, I have a different goal in mind than all those editors and agents.  But I also have a much smaller slush pile, with much shorter pieces, and I know all the authors personally and have a vested interest in their creations.

But maybe, just maybe, one of the reasons it takes those agents and editors so very long to get back to us is because they, like me, care so much about the writing.  They, too, want to give our words the time and attention they deserve.

It's a nice thought, anyway.

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