Two thousand, three hundred and forty-four. That’s how many submissions we received towards our upcoming print production. We were honoured.
Then we got to work: poring over 780 contributors’ stories, poetry, articles and visual work over two months of evening and weekend reading sessions. Some pieces made us giggle. Others stuck with us on the walk home. Some made us realise all the time and work was worth it.
When you’re reading so many people’s words – with lots of them coming from a raw, unprotected place – it’s to be expected (and in many cases, hoped for) that some will come off the page and affect you. As with every submission process, we’d be affected in unexpected ways: sometimes we’d react emotionally, or just feel off for a few days, or find socialising infinitely stranger. No one can predict where a trigger will come from, especially when you’re diving into over 2,000 submissions head-first.
This time around, some questions came up: firstly, how as publishers can we protect ourselves, and support each other, if we come across a work that triggers pain? Secondly, what responsibility do we have to our readers when publishing such a piece?
And finally, what responsibility do we have to the contributor? When someone has the courage to put a painful subject not just into words, but into our hands, can a simple rejection or acceptance letter suffice?
Once submissions closed, we raised these question marks at a professional development workshop funded by The Copyright Agency (CAL). Focusing on writing and trauma, the workshop was led by author Maria Tumarkin, a cultural historian and influential researcher of trauma. We were also joined by other interested literary journals, Kill Your Darlings and Pantograph Punch.
The workshop had everything: beer, snacks, tears and talk. It was only right, we thought, to pass some of that evening on.
From our impressively abundant roundtable of snacks, Tumarkin led a discussion into recent research and case studies surrounding trauma, and how these could be used to inform and support ourselves, our contributors and our readers.
“What a traumatic event does to someone is unsettle, or shatter, the very way in which they understand the world and their place in the world,” explained Tumarkin, also stressing that trauma is now considered “a completely normal response to an abnormal event”.
This is trauma we’re talking about here, by the way – not post-traumatic stress disorder, which is a condition arising from trauma that significantly impacts a person’s ability to function in everyday life.
The changing clinical view of trauma – from a ‘treatable’ condition to a natural response – is informing both psychological practice and government policy, to the extent that the Australian Psychological Association now recommends that people who have experienced a traumatic event talk to friends and family for support, rather than seeking a counsellor or psychologist right away.
Referring friends to ‘experts’, or regarding trauma as a condition that needs ‘closure’, can cause more harm than good. This is also, said Tumarkin, “a very disabling, isolating, pathologising way of thinking about trauma”.
Responsibilities for publishers
The move towards depathologising trauma can also help us, as publishers, better deal with works by writers voicing significant human pain. And voicing that pain is important.
“In your position as editors, you become whether you like it or not – and whether you ask for it or not – witnesses to other people’s trauma,” said Tumarkin, who explained how isolating that trauma can be. “You need to do the witnessing, whether you publish something or not. [The writer] has to have the experience of actually being heard – of being received.”
In this kind of exchange, a robotic rejection just isn’t going to cut it, even if this implies a much greater workload – something most overworked and underfunded literary journals tend to avoid.
When someone has the courage to put a painful subject not just into words, but into our hands, can a simple rejection or acceptance letter suffice?
But even if it’s just a sentence, said Tumarkin, the important thing is for the rejection to acknowledge the magnitude and nature of the experience being explored in the writing, as well as offering direct, honest intellectual feedback. And no “robotic referrals to experts” – something that applies to trigger warnings, too.
The way each journal operates is different, but we found a good way to go about taking Tumarkin’s suggestions on board was by marking pieces we felt warranted a personal response during the reading process. Once selections were made, we returned to these pieces when considering our responses and sent individual feedback.
Of course this process isn’t perfect – determining whether a creative work is complete fiction or comes from intimate personal experience can be difficult – but we agreed with Tumarkin that, at the very least, we could acknowledge when a piece took blood and guts to write.
As publishers, we shouldn’t be so arrogant to presume we’re immune to the pain of human existence either.
“I don’t think we need trauma counsellors; I don’t think we need psychologists and psychiatrists,” said Tumarkin. “I think we need each other. We need our friends and our family, and we also need things that work for us: music, nature, ice cream, video.
“Having said that, maybe there are some stories you should not be editing – maybe there are some boundaries you should set.”
This is a discussion Going Down Swinging thinks important, and one we’d like to keep having in the literary community. As writers ourselves, we know how much courage it takes to put your words out there in the world.
I’d also like to think that, in an industry notorious for its brutal rejections and silences, we can all learn to deal with those words in a more human and compassionate way.
Megan Anderson is the online editor for Going Down Swinging.