An Aesthetic Meeting of Minds
• July 20, 2017
In 2015, A Public Space Emerging Writer Fellow Jai Chakrabarti embarked on a mentorship with writers Elizabeth Gaffney and Mary-Beth Hughes. His fellowship story, "A Small Sacrifice for an Enormous Happiness," was published in APS No. 24 and was later selected for the O. Henry Prize Stories. Here, Jai and his mentors trace the Fellowship's timeline, from Jai's impressive submission to the award-winning final version. The trio, and story, illustrate how the editing process is not a series of surgical cuts, but a conversation—writer and editor learning from, and surprising, each other.
At First Glance
: I remember the immediate pleasure of reading about the house. Something ancient on an old street, with old practices and familiar—to the main character, Nikhil—sounds. An artful stack of traditional handmade sweets is arranged to please a lover who will arrive soon, as he does each week. The feel of the place and its rituals was so rich and Nikhil so happily anxious: he has an exciting new idea to propose, something very out of the ordinary. All of this was magnetic.
The tower of sweets Nikhil has made by hand and presented to Sharma is devastatingly poignant—at once a gift that is accepted and a bribe that is rejected. There is tension and a precarious power balance at work here all along, which gives the story huge momentum.
Also, Jai has such an attentive shrewd tenderness for his characters, their foibles appear comic while their concerns have real weight. This balance was very seductive. Like the house and the street, the dialogue—the nicknames, the fond or impatient phrases—seemed to express a kind of sensual use over time.
From Edits to Influences
We initially met to discuss Lorrie Moore’s story "Referential," as I’d mentioned that Moore was a writer I loved, and used it as a framework for beginning to discuss my story. As we met, we continued to talk about published work, including Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero
. All the while, I shared revisions on “A Small Sacrifice.” It felt to me like a combination of a master craft class alongside an intimate story workshop.
It was sort of an aesthetic meeting of minds. I think that once we'd all heard each other come forth with some literary opinions about other works, we were capable of a truly useful discussion of Jai's story because we understood one another's sensibilities.
The Critical Conclusion
I had a question about the way the end is resolved. I suggested the story might go on a beat longer. What Jai did in response was tweak the moment slightly, but not extend it. It was perfect. I love it when the editorial question triggers a change not thought of by the editorial voice. It shows how important an outside reader can be but also the integrity of the writer, the inviolability of the writer's voice.
Elizabeth helped me elevate the ending of “A Small Sacrifice”—there was the matter of a necklace that Nikhil, the protagonist, had given to his lover, and she helped me see how this object might benefit the story’s climax while allowing Nikhil’s future entanglements to retain a sense of ambiguity or mystery.
Mary-Beth Hughes on Editing
MBH: I have a writer friend who insists that being edited is always akin to putting your baby through the bars of a gorilla’s cage! That hasn’t been my experience for the most part. I’ve had editors who are skillful at saying just enough to send me back to the manuscript a little more receptive.
I did have one gorilla, though. I took a class with an editor once who returned my story with black diagonal slashes through the pages and little explanation. My practice in revision was so entrenched that I resubmitted the story revised, not to his pleasure, maybe, but definitely to his surprise. "Now, this is a writer!" he said, holding up the latest disaster. Meaning the dogged willingness to revise, revise. I want to say now that I don’t think his cuts were unwarranted. The story rambled. And taking everything out as he suggested revealed a straighter line. Anyway, the story still lurks around my office…
But it’s something I think about when I work with students, or when reading for a friend. I want to emulate the editors who open up the world of a story, who point to possibility. It seems a fruitful approach to say: here! and here!
To read work by Jai Chakrabarti, Elizabeth Gaffney, and Mary-Beth Hughes, browse our archives.