Finding inspiration to write an article about finding inspiration is particularly hard because I’m not really a writer.
I’m an editor, a die-hard reader. Along with Patrick Mullins, I edit Burley, a thrice-yearly publication of work by Canberra writers. Burley has published two issues so far, with a third in the works and submissions being accepted for a fourth. Before Burley, we both worked on a similar creative writing journal for several years called Block. Finding inspiration as an editor is a little different to finding inspiration as a writer.
Burley itself was inspired by the need for a print publication that highlights the terrific amount of creative work happening in Canberra. Through Burley, we wanted to tell a story about Canberra, about the secret creative lives of its inhabitants that is in stark contrast to its bland reputation. It’s been wonderful to see how many writers, readers and bookshops have embraced the project, and by spreading the word are in turn helping new writers find new readers.
I don’t always know where our writers find inspiration. Some seem to take inspiration from Canberra, and the fact that Burley is very local publication. It’s quite lovely to read a story that paints a description of a familiar place and allows one to see it through fresh eyes. Nonetheless, Burley is not just looking for stories about Canberra; we accept stories on any theme. This poses its own challenges.
Finding inspiration as an editor of journal that is not dedicated to a single issue or theme or genre largely involves finding these common strands between stories and poems to create a single publication. Sometimes, strange similarities in stories emerge. One issue of Block was jokingly referred to as the ‘sex and the sea’ issue, because just about all the stories we received were either incredibly explicit and/or about the ocean. We’ve only received a few stories about bestiality (which haven’t been published), but when we did, they all arrived at once. The writers of Canberra sometimes have a very strange hive mind.
When we have read through all the submissions, we sit down to figure out what goes into that issue. Often we’ll agree – a story, essay or poem will have grabbed both of us and there’s no question it will be published. There’s no single factor that determines what makes a great, no-questions-asked piece. It needs to be well-written (obviously), have an interesting idea or conceit, take some joy in language, rather than plodding along, and be internally consistent. You can usually tell that these pieces have been carefully edited by the author, as there are few typos and the structure is tight. Sometimes we’ll fight over pieces, which often comes down to a matter of interpretation. Sometimes one editor of will think a piece does not feel complete while the other thinks it’s an interesting vignette. These fights can go on for some time as the tea gets cold. Often, if the piece has generated interesting argument it will be published, as if it can inspire such strong feeling in one of us, then there are likely readers out there who will agree. It’s interesting to receive feedback from readers about which pieces they particularly like or don’t like – it often reflects the arguments Patrick and I have, which in itself is reassuring that at least we’re giving people pause for thought.
Inspiration does not only come into what we choose and why we choose particular pieces. It is also extremely significant when it comes to making edits to individual pieces.
When editing someone’s work, you have to have a sense of the spirit of the piece, so as to help it find its truest expression. With stories, this can sometimes mean suggesting the odd structural change to allow it to flow better. It can sometimes mean word changes if something stands out and interrupts the reader’s experience in a manner that does not seem intentional or thematically necessary. Poems are particularly tricky to edit, with so much significance condensed into a single word, pause or full stop. I don’t tend to intervene heavily in poems, only suggesting the odd extra word, punctuation or deletion where it seems to interrupt the flow or the meaning.
Finally, there is the cover of the journal to consider. This is particularly important because even if you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, a great cover inspires a potential reader to pick up the publication and have a closer look. The two issues we’ve published so far have been wonderful – the designers have taken the idea that Burley is a Canberra journal that is not just about Canberra and run with it, producing covers that really reflect Burley’s personality. The first issue’s cover by Christopher Thorpe appears to be a purely graphic series of black and white lines that on closer inspection reveals a topographical map of Lake Burley Griffin. The second issue is an illustration by Felicity Case-Mejia of a cluster of locally recognisable but not famous Canberra architecture, grouped into an imaginary CBD.
The wonderful works we continue to receive for Burley and the feedback we receive from readers means that despite the number of volunteer hours Patrick and I put into Burley, we keep coming back to it, and producing new issues. So I hope, writers, you are feeling some inspiration from this article, because Burley will be waiting to read you in 2013!
For more information and submissions guidelines see: Burley journal.
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