Dispatches | June 25, 2008

As a grad student intern at The Missouri Review, one of my duties besides reading manuscripts is to blog. But what? After a few false starts it finally hit me: keep it simple, stupid. Write what you know, or at least what you’re learning. Blog the day-to-day at TMR. Blog the bundle.

Now I imagine this endeavor could get boring, but I think it will serve at least one useful end: to demystify what goes on at McReynolds Hall, the place where many thousands of manila envelopes are delivered each year. Perhaps one is yours. This summer I will bike to McReynolds every Tuesday afternoon to meet with the other students enrolled in “Internship in Publishing” and then again on Wednesday to put in my office hours.

The first place we interns learned about was the mailroom, number 357 of a nondescript brick building on the northwestern edge of campus. Submissions to the magazine are delivered here and sorted by genre (fiction, nonfiction, poetry). They are then logged into the computer and bundled with rubber bands into groups of ten. A packing list is included with each bundle of submissions. The intern/reader writes a brief note about each manuscript on this sheet of paper. More lengthy critique can also be written on the submission’s envelope. At any time In the mailroom there are stacks and stacks of bundles piled a foot high and sometimes six feet long. Scores of bundles, hundreds of submissions, all waiting to be read. When a bundle is checked out by a reader, he/she makes a copy of the packing list, signs it, and drops it into a bin. This indicates he/she has taken possession of the bundle.

You’re probably thinking this all sounds very bureaucratic and inartistic. I agree, but I guess banal systems are the only way to deal with mounds and mounds of paper without fast becoming overwhelmed. The eureka moment requires a lot of patient sifting – probably why they call it the “slush pile.” When a reader finds a good story, essay, or poem, he/she passes it off to another reader for a second opinion. This process continues until either a consensus is reached that the piece isn’t up to par or until it’s passed up the editorial chain to the senior editor, Speer Morgan, who has ultimate say over everything we publish.  One of the goals of TMR is to discover new writers, and we do read everything you send us, whether or not you have an agent or a beefy list of publishing credits to your name.

But don’t fret too much if you get a rejection letter. We receive so many submissions, even superior pieces are bound to get rejected. I know this is easy for me as an intern to say; as a writer, I know the feeling of rejection, like someone has looked into my soul and said, “No thanks.” It’s really not that bad, though. Think of it more like a lottery. The stronger your writing, the more tickets you have, but your odds of winning are never going to be great. At any rate, you can’t catch a fish if your hook ain’t in the water.

That’s what I like about my work here so far: the off-hand chance that the next story I pull from a bundle will be an undiscovered gem, a new classic. The process makes me feel like a prospector. The bundle becomes my claim, my mountain stream, my sluiceful of ore. Send us some gold, people.