What inspired you to become an agent, publisher, or consultant?
In 1992 I mentioned to my friend and mentor, the author and poet Katharine Coles, that I needed what I termed “a community of writing and writers.” Although I was pursuing an MFA at the time, as a non-traditional, non-funded graduate student, I found myself feeling quite isolated in my creative life. Katie suggested I investigate serving on the working board of Writers at Work—and, as I tell everyone, I credit that organization for its instrumental role in helping me find my “right livelihood.” Although I’d attended the conference since its inception in 1986, I was suddenly backstage behind the scenes, working year-round with the other board members and volunteers, as well as the authors, editors, and agents who formed the faculty each summer, steeping in the inspiration supplied by people who cared deeply about literature—reading it, writing it, and teaching it. With my resumé fortified by years as a past volunteer vice-president and president of Writers at Work, I was hired as an editor at the University of Utah Press in 1997, where I remained until 2003, when I established my independent editing and literary consulting firm of Dawn Marano & Associates.
Are there any occupational hazards to being an agent, publisher, or consultant?
Every book manuscript and author I’ve worked with, every writer I’ve met in the classroom or through a facilitated writing group over the years has reminded me in one way or another that I will always be a student. While it’s true that experience helps me identify narrative achievements and address narrative challenges more quickly and confidently, I’m constantly humbled by what I don’t know, by what I still have to learn, to understand, to explain well to myself and to another. That’s because, simply put, each project, each writer is unique. The occupational hazard, I hasten to add, isn’t humility, but how easily (since I’m a lifelong editor/student) I’m able to justify the significant amount of money I spend buying books annually!: books on craft and technique, novels, collections of essays and short stories, anthologies and, occasionally, books on topics specific to the manuscript I’m going to read and edit. If part of an author’s preoccupation in his or her project is, say, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and its devastating effects on the human spirit, I might well be purchasing a book on the natural history of Prince William Sound and a text concerning post-traumatic stress disorder.
What books are you reading now?
I have eight memoirs and two short story collections, all manuscripts, scheduled for review and/or substantive editing in next five months. As far as “curricular reading”— all those books I mentioned buying every year—you’d find Alice Munro’s Dear Life, Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice, Phillip Lopate’s To Show and To Tell, and Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson’s Balancing Heaven and Earth stacked next to my armchair at the moment.
What are a few pitfalls a new writer would do well to avoid?
Creative mental health, in my opinion, begins with understanding that writing is an art form. Just because we acquire language skills by the time we’re two and start to put words down soon after doesn’t mean that writing is any different than dancing, painting, singing, or playing an instrument. The creation of transporting paragraphs, plots, and poems doesn’t come naturally to us any more than does executing brilliant pirouettes, brush strokes, arias, and arpeggios. What if a friend called you tomorrow to say, “Hey, I just bought a kit to build a piano. I’m going to learn to read music, sign up for a few lessons on the keyboard, and book Carnegie Hall for a concert a year from now—care to buy a ticket?” My bet is you’d be a bit concerned about that person’s psychological well being. And, honestly, I am concerned when a new writer has unrealistic and punishing expectations about mastering the art and craft of prose or poetry and getting published. Practice, patience, and perseverance champion the Muses and their joyfulness in creating.
What are some of your favorite publishing projects or successes?
Most of my clients are referrals from other clients or students I’ve had the honor of meeting in these past fifteen years. Since I’m a writer myself, I know how exciting it is to have a poem, essay, or story accepted at last for publication. Just today, another author I worked with, in this case about three years ago, sent me a copy of his book, which had recently been released—truly a wonderful gift, whenever that happens. But I also know what it’s like, that first time you shape a character description or a scene or a stanza of poetry, then read it back to yourself, or maybe out loud to a friend or your writing group, and know in your bones it’s better than anything you’ve done up to that point; better, meaning any number of things: truer, cleaner, clearer, riskier, rawer, funnier, fresher, more gritty, more lyrical. That moment can be just as meaningful and important as the moment you see your name on the cover of a book. At least that’s my experience; I hope it’s yours, too.
Writers @ Work is holding its annual writers conference at Alta Lodge in Alta, Utah, from June 5-9. See our conference page for all the details and register today!