Just because I don’t “look” like an editor...
I remember the first time I went to pick up the mail from our post office box, when I was the managing editor at Room magazine, and was told by one of the post office employees that I didn’t “look like an editor.” She told me that she wasn’t going to hand over the mail, and I found it concerning because I presented her with identification. It was such a strange experience. Maybe I was in shock, maybe I wasn’t, but I left feeling like I had done something wrong and that maybe … I should have presented myself better. Whatever that meant.
At the time, I was confused, unsure of how to respond, and I’ll be honest, a wee bit shaky. When I told other folks about what happened I was told that I “must have misunderstood” or that “maybe they simply didn’t have an updated list of account holders” and I believed this narrative for a while. It took a couple of days for me to process how wrong that person was, and that no, I didn’t have to cover up my tattoos, bun my unruly hair, or throw on a blazer to appease this ridiculous notion of what an editor ”looks like”. But I am grateful for these types of interactions because they remind me of the issues in the industry and beyond, and why I am willing to work so hard to change things. I wanted to reimagine the publishing industry.
Sadly but not surprisingly, I’ve had quite a few interactions like this and they’ve occurred inside publishing and outside publishing. But what I have learned from these experiences is that in order for me to succeed and not constantly pile more unnecessary emotional labour onto my shoulders, is that I had to slow down. I had to assess the situation, prepare for every situation and consider how and what I wanted to carry into 2021 with me.
On slowing down
Looking back at past panels and events, I recall how I used to rush my words. I was worried that I would take up too much time and space if I actually paced myself and held onto my answers a bit longer. I used to think I had to move as quickly as the fastest person in the room. Earlier this year, I started to slow down. I moved with intention. I negotiated. I fired back. I considered the outcome, I weighed my options.
On prepping for everything
Why give folks a reason to further discount you? We all have unconscious biases and we make assumptions about folks before they even enter the room. No one is exempt from this. But over time I grew increasingly tired of walking into meetings, Zoom sessions, panels, workshops, conferences, and more, feeling as though I didn’t belong or deserve a seat. Although I was always prepared, I could often feel the weight of being immediately perceived as inexperienced or lacking something valuable to contribute, just because of a mold I did not fit. Oh 2020 has given me fuel folks!
In an attempt to combat this act and to begin to control what I could control, I realized I just needed to prepare my thoughts and speak strategically. Although I have always done this, I had to take it to another level. No, I won’t ever be that eager beaver at the back of the room waving and thrashing their arms wildly hoping the instructor will call on them to share their genius answer to a question, but I will always put forth my best self. I move with intention and decision-make in the same way. If this means I have to cancel, back out, or reschedule because I am not at my best, then so be it. This also ties neatly to wellness in publishing (a passion of mine) and how BIPOC creators need to focus on self-care in a very different way in order to sustain long-term careers in the publishing industry.
Making mistakes, what are the stakes?
Part of that need to step back and slow down when things aren’t going as planned or if I am not at my best is based on the knowledge that there is no safety net for me. There is no parent’s basement to set up shop in while I “learn the ropes or figure things out”, no inheritance, no soft landing, should I fall. I think about this every day. If I don’t protect myself and stop to nourish when I need to, I run the risk of burning out and/or giving up, which I have worked incredibly hard to prevent (for myself and my peers). I plan to remain in the industry for as long as I can, and I’ve planned for all the care I can offer myself to make sure that it happens. This includes showing up as myself and saying no to preconceived molds.
Not too far off in the horizon I peer into 2021 and think about all the fantastic things I have in the hopper. I reflect on all that I have learned this year and how thickened and non-porous my skin has become. I’ve worked hard to take what I have learned and can’t wait to continue to pay it forward.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Chelene Knight is the author of the poetry collection Braided Skin and the memoir Dear Current Occupant, winner of the 2018 Vancouver Book Award. Her essays have appeared in multiple Canadian and American literary journals, plus the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. Her work is anthologized in Making Room, Love Me True, Sustenance, The Summer Book, and Black Writers Matter.
The Toronto Star called Knight, “one of the storytellers we need most right now.” In addition to her work as a writer, Knight is managing editor at Room, programming director for the Growing Room Festival, and CEO of #LearnWritingEssentials. She often gives talks about home, belonging and belief, inclusivity, and community building through authentic storytelling.
Knight is currently working on Junie, a novel set in Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley, forthcoming in 2020.