This Is How You Become an Editor
“I wanted to be reckless. I also needed to eat.”
A couple weeks ago, I received a handwritten thank-you card from a co-worker—the type of card you buy blank from Duane Reade or Walgreens or perhaps part of a box of thank-you cards a generous person keeps, likely because she finds herself often saying thank you with heartwarming notes—and I was about to open it in front of her. I paused, the envelope unsealed and open, but the card still untouched. I slid the entire card, envelope and all, into my breast pocket.
I know intimacy when I feel it; the card was light, but the envelope paper had some weight to it, and my name was written neatly on the front, in capital letters. I received the card because it was her last day at work, and she wanted to thank me. For what I didn’t know. Whatever she wanted to say to me, I couldn’t guess or deduce. We didn’t know each other long. I thought, “By all accounts, I don’t deserve a card, but I have one.”
We’ll come back to the card in eight years.
In 2007, I washed up—or crash-landed—on my father’s doorstep, twenty-five years old, depression wafting from my skin, a divorce in the works. I was coming back to New Jersey after four years in Georgia. I had no marketable skills, which isn’t the same thing as being unemployable. I had a work history—sporadic as it was—and, if one were to unroll my resume, a scroll pockmarked with cigarette burns and stained with coffee mug circles, the first job at the top, the most recent, would have been a “specialist” position. What I “specialized” in was the processing of insurance forms; these documents were filled out, signed, scanned, and sent from thousands of salespeople in the field to the servers in our headquarters where I worked. I had undergone eight weeks of classroom training so I could process these applications properly.
The headquarters were a sprawling campus covering 104 acres; my building featured white walls, tiled floors, a state-of-the art security system that rarely worked. I would swipe my key card multiple times, which would trigger a fifteen-minute lock-out. The smoking area was so remote it was easier to hoof it to the car for a quick drag. The cafeteria was the highlight, a food court to accommodate six hundred employees with decadent southern palates— fried foods and greasy side dishes and sugary sweet iced tea powerful enough to trigger diabetic comas.
Health insurance forms are designed to elicit as much key medical information about people as possible, in as little time as possible, so that I—frowning in my cubicle, listening to J Dilla or a mixtape of MP3s from a friend—could quickly determine if the applicant was to be accepted for coverage, or rejected. I had a quota to fill—hundreds of applications to process per hour. Each document whizzed by my eyes. I don’t remember much about this work. I remember words like “solvency” and “claimant.” I remember bosses circling the floor, their eyes perched on my shoulders as they reviewed my work. I remember having to reject people for having certain types of cancer, or pneumonia, or because they noted in one or two sentences written by hand that they had acquired HIV through no fault of their own. Or perhaps the infection was entirely their doing. Either way, they were ineligible for this particular coverage.
This “specialization,” as you might guess, didn’t translate into future job prospects. As a “specialist,” I could only do one thing, or a set of things, governed in part by federal regulations but, more importantly, governed by rules and guidelines set by a singular for-profit company. I was in a precarious employment situation before I even resigned from my position and returned to New Jersey.
But I had to quit. Life in Georgia had become untenable, toxic, a calamitous and absurd ordeal orchestrated haphazardly by a reckless man-child, brain seized by a major depressive state—my first “episode,” as I’ve come to call them. I was buying two packs per day from the corner gas station. I had spent Christmas on the couch sucking Newports, afraid that Death had shimmied down the chimney for me. I had stared into the bathroom mirror, wanting to smash my head into the glass. I wanted to take it all back. Reverse the marriage, rewind to the day we first connected; I wanted to spare her from me. So I did.
Meanwhile, I languished as a writer.
Let’s go back another eight years.
In 1999 I was in my late teens, and I was discovering writing. There was no internet as we know it now, and I had no editors to please. It was me and love in the confines of the pages of drugstore marble notebooks. I wrote on the deck of my childhood home in Newfield, New Jersey, the summer sun twisting westbound while my father picked himself off the mat post-divorce, trying to find his way as a single man. I wrote about him. I wrote about my first love, my first heartbreak, my first time having sex—all three belong to the same woman. I wrote about my mother, who I missed as she had relocated to Atlanta with my sister. I wrote about my two brothers, both in Massachusetts. I wrote about a fragmented family shattered across geography; I wrote about a loving family who didn’t know how to love each other. Warm, humid nights in southern New Jersey where I sweated while scribbling something fierce, addicted to syllabic sounds and syntax inspired primarily by hip-hop. I’m a phonetic writer; I’m a battle rapper in literary clothing. Rap music trained me, so I sat on that same deck and listened to Outkast and the Roots, believing in nothing but the ink stained on my fingers from cheap pens I stole from my high school homeroom teacher. I had a flow on the page I couldn’t duplicate verbally because of a slight stutter combined with shyness. I wrote in secret. I kept the notebooks underneath my bed, or in my backpack, or in my back pocket. I wrote about my future in my high school library, alone but a part of something larger, unknowable.
I went to Temple University as a journalism student. I went to college because that was what was expected of me; I loved to write, and journalism was, in my mind, a pragmatic profession for the writer. It was the wrong choice. Over the course of the next three years, I completed only three semesters, and one of them was spent on academic probation. I wasted time. It sounds ridiculous now, but I didn’t know you could go to college to study creative writing, to become a creative writer. This ignorance cost me about ten years; I’ve been trying to catch up ever since.
And this, I think, is what you must understand about me and my career. A creative life, one in which you can harness your creative energies into commerce, into daily sustenance, is a matter of access and knowledge. I had access, but I didn’t have knowledge. My parents, black and middle-class but with humble, meager beginnings, wanted me to work. My father grew up on a farm in New Jersey, one of nine children; my mother was raised in northern Georgia, one of five children: they both were born in the 1950s, back when the United States preferred to see my parents torn apart by dogs than for them to succeed, or even vote. They both worked.
To “work” meant paying bills, paying rent, buying food, buying clothes. Work did not mean “write.” Work did not mean “read and be well read.” The creative class is a privileged one. In part because it is whitewashed, and in part because it is secretive. Should you want to pursue a creative career, it helps to know such a thing is possible. I didn’t think it was possible for me. It is still bewildering to me.
“Do what you love” is a fantastic piece of superficial advice, but I’m more inclined to impart the following words to would-be writers and editors: be careful when you discover you’re good at something.
I was gifted, or cursed, with a brain somewhat wired for business. My father knew as much about me; when, in 2007, I said to him, “Maybe I should finish undergrad, then get an MFA,” he retorted, “You should probably get an MBA instead.” I took this advice as an insult, or a devaluing of my creative desires, but I couldn’t ignore it. I was raised by this man, directed through life as child with the goal of growing into a self-sustaining adult.
As a child, I sat on my father’s bed and watched him tie his colorful blue tie paired with a tailored black suit and crisp white shirt, as he draped the stethoscope around his neck, as he donned the white lab coat with his name embroidered in red over his right breast, as I looked at his diplomas framed along the wall, as he stood in front of me and I gave him the thumbs up. He offered himself up to me as an example of a way to live, but I didn’t want it. I didn’t want the suits, the degrees, the stethoscope. I wanted to be reckless. I wanted to stumble. I wanted to commit myself to one thing. I wanted to excel as a writer. I also needed to eat.
I had to find a way to earn a living that would afford me money and time, the twin addictions for any creative; I had to find a way to improve my writing talent on my own, because it was unlikely I would return to college. I knew that I had to work full time, which meant I could not be a full time student—it would take me even longer to finish my bachelor’s degree as a half-time student, before even getting to grad school.
So I went on a number of job interviews. In March, I applied for a temporary position at a manufacturing plant in my hometown, a block away from the first home my parents owned.
I remember Jason, the man who interviewed me. A white guy from the South—Georgia, perhaps—who dressed wonderfully in beautiful sweaters and linen shirts and expensive jeans, who rolled his own cigarettes, who wore tortoiseshell eyeglasses he often cleaned (with a cloth he kept in his pocket just for the occasion), who crossed his legs when he leaned back and spoke. He interviewed me for about an hour, me in my khaki slacks and blue sweater vest. He offered me the temporary job two days later.
And so we enter a montage as a means of cutting down on time, though I apologize for the lack of bad 1980s music and visuals. As an expeditor, I spent my day on the phone, sending emails, chasing down vendors who were late to deliver products, such as PVC elbow pipes or stainless steel junction boxes, that we needed to build and ship water filtration units to be used by local and international governments to turn sludge and shit into potable water. I had no prior experience with anything regarding this industry, or this work, so I struggled for the first month, chain-smoking in my car in the parking lot, thinking I would either quit or be fired; neither occurred, and I kept working, and getting better, and began to get to know my coworkers; by September 2007, I went from being a temp to being hired permanently as a production planner, essentially a supply chain analyst who tracks, monitors, plans, executes, and corrects any delays in the production of any number of products; by September 2008, I was manager of the production planning department, in charge of a team of eight employees all older and more experienced than I was.
To this day, I don’t know how this happened. I did the best I could, and stumbled into a meteoric rise.
My managerial role meant I worked longer hours, or it meant I took on longer hours, as if longer hours was what had gotten me the job in the first place. (On the contrary, it was my efficiency: the ability to finish as many tasks as possible within an eight-hour window so I could go home and be free.) For about a year, well into 2009, I stopped writing altogether, focusing entirely on work and my romantic relationship; watching my partner at the time work on her poems, and helping her assemble her first collection to be submitted for consideration, reminded me of my creative work, of the second part of my plan. So I rolled back my long hours, returning myself to strict eight-hour days, and proceeded to create a one-person MFA program for myself at night.
I read a book on craft—a collection of essays by writers who taught workshop classes and offered detailed, encouraging information on the elements of writing: character, setting, structure. I was writing short stories, but I didn’t understand how the pieces came together—which is to say, I couldn’t see the holes in my own work. I read Stephen King’s On Writing. I read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote—the first flicker of desire to write nonfiction appeared in my head. I read Nabokov, Octavia Butler, Morrison, Drown by Junot Diaz, Slapboxing with Jesus by Victor LaValle. I read Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. I read. And read. I read Reality Hunger by David Shields, more than once. Didion. Lots of early Didion. All of this reading combined with all the old reading, back in high school and college—Baraka, Sanchez, Hughes, Giovanni, Scott-Heron, Wright, Ellison, Hurston, Malcolm, Achebe—like a catalyst, a spark.
Another montage: I read and wrote until I became brave enough to submit my work; I joined Twitter in the hopes of finding like-minded writers; there I met people who were kind to me, and supportive of me; I submitted my work; I received rejections; soon, I received an acceptance, then another, then another; one of those kind, supportive people I met online gave me my first opportunity to write a regular column, which was my first experience with having to write on deadline, on command, no matter my mood or state of mind or “inspiration”; I wanted to edit a literary magazine, but lacking editorial experience, no one would actually give me that job, so I made one; my partner and I launched an online literary magazine, and we called ourselves editors; I had no idea how to be an editor, but I had taste, so I could at least curate or, perhaps less pretentiously, find and publish the work I liked, and hoped others liked the work too, and if they didn’t, that was okay because at least someone got published, and I published them, and someone read the publication, and this trifecta meant we have contributed to literature; my partner and I separated, then divorced (yes, my second), and her absence from my life affected me in profound, messy ways, which I tried to transform into art; I stopped writing fiction and started publishing essays, a switch I thought of as temporary that has lasted, to date, four years.
Amid the aforementioned breakup, plus the closure of the manufacturing facility that lead to company-wide layoffs, I relocated to Brooklyn. I was unemployed my first year here, buoyed by unemployment checks, until I found work within my industry again, this time with a small company in Jersey City. It was an hour and fifteen minute commute via subway--one way. Still, the job meant I could stay in the city.
As for the job itself, well, it was a depression-inducing, anxiety-riddled hellhouse from the beginning. I was underpaid. I had the workload of three full-time people. The company was trapped in the dark ages, opting to manage its business with spreadsheets instead of ERP (enterprise resource planning) software. The people I worked with were okay, despite their incessant need to overshare: my former boss with her well-known, well-publicized extramarital affairs; the lovely, brilliant woman, my smoking buddy, who settled on marrying for money by becoming the wife of one of the company’s senior executives; the creative director who was fired for stealing and selling products on the side; the janitor who was fired for stealing and selling products on the side (it’s unclear if they were partners); the employee who was fired for stealing money out of people’s purses and wallets. And there I was, increasingly morose, trapped in a grayscale cubicle.
My name is Thomas. That’s the name on my birth certificate. It’s on my bank accounts and tax documents, and it’s the name my coworkers used. I would stand outside and smoke with them, listening to them call me Thomas, and I’d laugh at something they said, respond with a joke, but curse the whole ordeal inside my head. Everything that was real about me was a secret. I wasn’t myself.
They didn’t know about Mensah, the name I gave myself when I was eighteen, and if they knew the name, they could search for me online and know everything. Know about my messy relationships, know about my politics. To be unknown by everybody, or half-known, and to have to decide who should know which half of me, but never giving all of me, not even to someone I’d share a bed with, is to be constantly half-powered, half-committed, half-ready to leave it all behind. So I would joke with my coworkers, and we would swap stories over beers or Italian at a local spot for lunch, but I lied to them. I lied to everyone. I presented one man, but I was another man.
I lived in a sphere filled with self-loathing, like a swirling fog of cigarette smoke. I did not write or publish my own work, but I did continue to edit and publish others. I watched my friends earn jobs at media companies we all know and love or loathe, and I watched people who weren’t my friends do well. I was angrily chain-smoking in the back of an apartment in Crown Heights, while my roommate, artistic in his own right, played computer games in the living room. He asked me how the writing was going— when I first met him, I told him I was a freelance writer as a way to get the apartment, since I was still unemployed at the time (and not freelancing)—and I’d shrug or maybe say, “painful.” I would sit in my room, a small space but large enough for a desk, with a window that looked down on some trees and plants, and toil over essays that bored me as soon as I started writing them.
I was hate-reading tweets and announcements about this person’s book, that person’s new editor job. I was so angry; I unfollowed friends, then followed them back later, suggesting that Twitter “for some reason unfollowed us” which tends to happen, actually. I was so angry I harbored jealousy toward my friends.
I didn’t want them to succeed, for their rise, their climb up the ladder, served as a white-hot spotlight shining on my ineptitude. It wasn’t that I’d failed; it was that I was being left behind. Everything is a race in my heart, every experience a sprint to the end. I felt I deserved acclaim for work I hadn’t done. Which is to say, I had to get back to work. I was wasting time, again.
A final montage: my friend Ashley wanted to blog more often—once a week, in fact—with no restrictions on content or theme; she asked me to join her in the exercise because, I suspect, she knew I needed the regimen, the structure. No matter my schedule, or my depression, I wrote a blog post on my Tumblr once a week, every Sunday (sometimes more often) for three months. Meanwhile, The Toast launched a vertical, The Butter, edited by Roxane Gay. On a whim, I submitted a pitch for a regular column on music, a departure from the personal essays I’d become known for, and the pitch was accepted. Writing Liner Notes every two weeks—on Beyonce or Kendrick Lamar, soundtracks or Drake—exposed me to a new, larger audience. Editors and writers who hadn’t heard of me read my column; this resulted in new opportunities with other outlets. I wrote an essay on “Literary Twitter”—the corner of the social network where writers, editors, and readers all come together—which led to more opportunities. I tweeted something to the effect of “I want to do a reading,” and my friend Alicia replied, “We should start our own reading,” and a month later, we launched LIT: A Music & Reading Series in Brooklyn. Now I was offline, in front of people, working through my stage fright. I participated in other readings, realizing that I enjoyed performing my work in front of an audience. Being onstage forced me to deal with my social anxiety; I developed tools to navigate a room full of people; I met writers and editors and agents. I became sociable. I kept writing, and I kept editing, and now I had presented myself as a real person, a flesh-and-blood representation of the two-dimensional avatar I used online. Friendships were forged, and working relationships were established. As I prepared to meet my friend for an event and dinner, I received a strange email. “A query” was the subject header, sent by Andy Hunter, who introduced himself as founder of Electric Literature, and co-creator of Literary Hub, and publisher of a new literary venture called Catapult.
And so, after time traveling eight and then sixteen years into the past, we return to the thank-you card.
Four weeks before my co-worker gave me the card, I arrived at a new office, home of this new publisher, as associate web editor (or associate editor, web; I switch the syntax depending on my mood). Everything I’ve done since 2007, and before, brought me to this moment in which I excused myself from the going-away party to use the bathroom. I washed and dried my hands, and stared in the mirror as I always do when I’m in the presence of a mirror, and I’m alone, when I get to gaze into my own eyes without judgment.
Instead, in the reflection, I saw the card peeking out of my breast pocket. I opened the envelope, and removed the card, and read it. And if I were the kind of man prone to sentimental tears, I would’ve cried. Instead, I laughed. With joy.
I’m not going to disclose what was in the card, but I will share its spirit.
I was asked recently what it takes to succeed as a writer and editor. Actually, I was being asked a more specific question: how do you become a successful writer and editor?
I don’t have the answers; I only have my life. I don’t think of myself as successful, but faux humility is a superfluous business. I’ve made peace with my occasional arrogance, because being an autodidact is, in some ways, akin to being an atheist. Just as there is no god in the mind of an atheist, there is nothing holier than the work to an autodidact. Work is god. Work is luck. Work is opportunity. I believe in the work. I believe in myself.
As a black literary writer and editor—rare combination indeed—I am usually the only black person in any given room I walk into now, certainly the only black man in many instances. So I must flood these spaces to which I now belong with people who look like me, who want to “do what they love.” I feel on display. I am in full view. I am seen. I stand out. I cannot hide. And so I stand. I feel alone, but I’m not alone. I believe in the people who’ve helped me. I believe in the black young writer I have yet to help, but will—as soon as he finds me.
I suppose I could’ve lived with my last job, the one in Jersey City. I still got paid. I still had health insurance. I still could take care of myself and my family. But what does it matter when you come home from work, and you present dead eyes to your family, the light wiped out of them, and all you can do is go to sleep and hope—hope desperately—that things will change, that the absolute drudgery, the hatred you feel whenever you enter that cubicle, will somehow lead you back to the light?
I’ve come to associate depression and listlessness with the offing, a dark, distant point in the shark-infested sea, where one is inclined to feel lost and confused by mirages of firm ground, of open, friendly arms. Out there, I felt abandoned. There is no space for imagination in the offing. The ill intent of depression is to steal light, to crush lives, to waste time, to kill. I am terrified of death, and the ill intent knows this, so it is my daily practice to find the light, to grasp it, to never let go.
Beyond the words, I found light in the thank-you card, which now sits on my nightstand. I stare at it every night before bed, never picking it up as it leans against the stack of books I plan to read. That thank-you card made me want to cry, but instead I laughed, because this publisher was looking for me. They didn’t know it, but they searched for me. The beauty, the wonder, of being found is nothing less than salvation itself, or confirmation. I was always meant to be here. I was never lost. Perhaps I wasn’t found, but rather—I arrived.
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