Editing Is Supposed to Be Fun and Other Wisdom from a Working Writer
By Monica Prince
Writer and professor Deborah McCutchen’s manuscript, The Whale Road, was selected as one of the top ten finalists for the 2017 SFWP Literary Awards Program, a creative nonfiction book of low adventure and high science about sailing with whale researchers in the South Pacific (a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book and Pushcart nominee). Stories, essays, news articles and poetry can be found in LCRW, Fish Publishing Award Anthologies, Fourth Genre, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Rosebud, Isotope, Identity Theory, Route 9, The Café Review and elsewhere. In a literary attempt to save the world, she’s currently working on a speculative/slipstream series that (so far) include Jellyfish Dreaming, a Massachusetts Cultural Council Finalist, and its prequel Ice, winner of a Speculative Literature Foundation grant. Currently, McCutchen is a senior lecturer for University of Massachusetts at Amherst College of Natural Sciences and Associate Director of the Junior Year Writing Program. She lives on the Heraclitean shores of the Deerfield River with two brilliant daughters and a Kiwi husband, who isn’t green, but is fuzzy. Follow her work on her blog.
Deborah McCutchen. Photo provided.
SFWP reviewer and editor Monica Prince talks editing and the benefits of diverse interests with writer and professor Deborah McCutchen.
Monica Prince: How did you first get involved with writing? What does your writing practice look like?
Deborah McCutchen: For me, writing started with reading, and I read early and often. I was lucky to have a great elementary education that involved lots of creative writing. A rural middle and high school was far less rigorous. Our librarian complained to my mother once that I’d read everything in the school library. I remember reading the entire Lord of the Rings series on the bus and while walking down the halls. When I finished and came out of the fog, I was on the school bus, but had no idea if I was coming or going to school.
My mother often let us skip school for “reading days.” To be honest, I read so much I assumed I’d be a good writer, and it was rather horrifying to discover in college that my every sentence wasn’t gold-plated. I spent a lot of years learning to edit and—probably more importantly—learning to find the creativity and fun in editing. My practice now? I have a lot on. Teaching and being a mom takes a tremendous amount of the time I used to write. So, I do a lot of pre-writing in my head while commuting, practice productive procrastination by editing when I can’t face grading, and save the bigger chunks of time, winter break and summers, for creating. I can edit even when the dog is barking in my ear or with the kids interrupting with their own projects. But I need those bigger chunks of time (and quiet) to create.
MP: When you begin a piece, what propels you onto the page?
DM: My fingers. I used to feel that I couldn’t think clearly without a pen in my hand, but lately, I imagine my fingers on a keyboard holding the power to orchestrate and communicate thoughts still half-formed in my mind. My hands are where the magic is. My father was a clinical psychologist who often said fingers have memories of their own. Anyone who’s played piano knows that sometimes your fingers can remember long forgotten songs, as long as you don’t think about it too hard. Sometimes I pre-write in my imagination, but my hands are the conveyor of those half-articulated thoughts that only coalesce as my fingers fly across the keyboard—writing to figure out what I really want to say, and later editing to say what I really mean. Editing becomes something like weaving, with my fingers pulling the different themes of the story into place.
MP: What is your educational and work background? Have either of these had an impact on your relationship with writing? Do you have a job other than writing?
DM: Reading and writing was a big part of my childhood. As an undergrad, I couldn’t decide between science, literature, and music. I started out trying to become Jacques Cousteau, then shifted to lit, with music on the side. With a BA in lit, I spent the next ten years following scientists around the world as a fieldworker and writing about it. That led to a grad diploma in science and an MFA in Creative Writing. That led to a book about sailing with whale researchers through the South Pacific. And that led to a job teaching science writing at UMass Amherst College of Natural Sciences and becoming Associate Director of the Junior Year Writing Program for the whole campus. I help judge the student Best Text Contest each year. I also send out writing each year, and am working to develop an online journal of student writing. I attend writing conferences and residencies to work on my current writing. As for music? I sang a lot while I traveled, and have been in a small group called A’Cappellago for about ten years now, just for fun. Can anything one learns and practice not have an impact on writing? Probably not in my life.
MP: What are you working on now?
DM: Jellyfish Dreaming: a gender-bender, post-apocalyptic, cultural-coming-of-age series that takes a short step into the future, adds climate change, removes species—folds in a bit of magical realism and a bit of hope—and stirs. I published an excerpt as a short story in Small Beer Press’s journal, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and my daughter’s tutor read it and started illustrating it. Now we’re editing the entire first manuscript and redoing it as a graphic novel. Collaborating this intensely is new for me, but it’s great fun to see how another artist interprets one’s work, and it’s taught me a whole new form of editing.
MP: Why did you decide to enter the Literary Awards Program with SFWP? How do you think submitting to contests impacts your future writing life?
DM: In 2003, the SFWP published a short story excerpted from my first book, The Whale Road, which was published the following year by Random House New Zealand, and later Blake UK. It was an amazing experience. The program gave me confidence, a fuller publication list for a newbie writer, and between the published chapter and the book, helped me get my current job teaching writing.
These days, contests can be a way to test out material I’m close to finishing. The lovely thing about SFWP is they also publish, and they archive their online publications seemingly indefinitely, which gave me a long-term place to show off work. SFWP feels very supportive. I was so delighted after time passed, and the copyright to my first book was eventually returned to me, and I discovered it was eligible for the SFWP 2017 Literary Award and possible publication in the USA at long last. Then it made top ten finalists! It felt like coming full circle.
MP: What do you believe is a key to successful publishing?
DM: I suppose it’s different for everyone, but for me process and success are fairly synonymous in this context. I just like writing. Part of that process is embracing the dichotomy of writing at a level or in a style that satisfies me, but then finding the right home or audience for my work so I can stop editing and move on to the next piece.
MP: What advice do you have for writers just starting to make this their priority?
DM: If I were to advise myself as the newbie I was when first publishing with SFWP, I’d tell myself: Write for the joy of it. And if you happen to publish, enjoy the thrill. Then get back to your writing.
Also, go small press. It’s incredibly fun to work with people who like your writing and support you. The dream of the Best Selling First Novel doesn’t usually survive much longer than an old lotto ticket when faced with all the forms of rejection out there—and if you think about it, that’s like a kid wishing to be famous one day. There’s no substance to it. But telling stories, writing, finding the creative power of editing to shape ideas, delighting even one reader, one’s fingers on the keyboard…that’s fun.
Monica Prince is the 2017-2018 Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. She received her MFA in poetry at Georgia College & State University, and her BA in English Creative Writing at Knox College. She currently writes and reviews for the Santa Fe Writers Project, as well as reviews and edits for Aquarius Press. Her work can be found in MadCap Review, Fourth & Sycamore, The Shade Journal, Texas’s Best Emerging Poets, TRACK//FOUR, and others. Her choreopoem, How to Exterminate the Black Woman, received a staged reading as part of the Women’s Voices International Theatre Festival in January 2018, and will premiere as a full-length show in April 2018 in Selinsgrove, PA, where she teaches, writes, and performs. Keep up with her work on her website or follow her on Twitter.