For two nonconsecutive three-month stretches I worked as a reader at the Paris Review. That quarterly prides itself on discovering new writers from piles of unsolicited manuscripts called slush. It was my job to shovel the slush, if you will, at least through the fiction. I wasn’t being paid, but I had the notion that working hard enough might get me a paid position. So I plowed through as much of that sloppy writing as I could. When doing so, I was told to read only the first two pages of a piece unless it felt special enough to read the whole thing. So the worst stories to come across were those that were pretty good, but still didn’t work and thus wasted my time. I abused the power I had in ways that suited me. Anyone from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, for example, was automatically rejected, as was anyone who went to Harvard for any reason. I was generous enough to read the work of Columbia grad students, but found they usually involved the high drama of a stranger using the family tennis court, or worse still, were about rich kid writers living in New York City. It should be kept in mind that I was writing a book about a rich kid writer living in New York City. But this was different, I told myself, because I had suffered real pain and drama that the trust fund set could not understand, short of severe psychological problems. This was my angle, my mantle – that my mental illness and addiction recovery made work that would otherwise be trite not so.
Eventually, though, a dark emotion fell over me. It occurred to me that I had yet to write a story good enough to get by my judgments at the Paris Review. Worse still, I realized that I might never be able to write a story good enough to get by this judgement, to say nothing of the other snarky interns trying to work free jobs into a careers as I was. This was the downside of working there. The upside was that I realized that in spite of my inadequacy I was just better than ninety-some percent of what I was getting. Of course, that put me above handwritten manuscripts from prisons and vapid hipster bullshit. But I wasn’t good enough for me, and that was enough to stop showing up and start working on my own writing instead. I still have written anything good enough for them, but I am starting to write words good enough for me. There are days when I curse leaving that place where I had earned some regard to write, just as I have left every job I have ever had to write, but at a certain point you’ve got realize who you are. I am slush. Someday, with enough work, I might just be covered in it.