The Promise of Purpose
by Arielle Silver
Of the responsibility wrought between author and audience, Anton Chekhov says in an 1889 letter to a fellow writer, “It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” His axiom on loaded rifles going off by the end of the play hangs in the tool belt of dramatic principles beside another cautionary command, Kill your darlings, both served alongside wine and crudités at writers’ workshops. No superfluous details, Chekhov charged. Everything with purpose. Nothing inert.
With the publication of Lunch Ticket’s seventh issue, Summer/Fall 2015, I grasped the baton passing to me from the previous editor in chief. The explicit directive was to publish content weekly, put out a full issue in six months, and, oh, don’t blow up the website. If all went well, I would presumably be asked to head another issue.
Authority is a complicated dynamic, even for a forty-year-old. Most daunting for me in this leadership position was that I would be tangential, at the least, and at times, perhaps, central to my colleagues’ MFA experience. As chief in a top-down structure, what good could I do? What harm?The unspoken complexity, however, was that though I was still a student myself, I would now serve as boss of nearly half of the MFA student body at Antioch University Los Angeles. To accomplish my directive, I would hold friends and colleagues to firm deadlines for this unpaid gig, and be dependent on them to pull their weight, despite their other obligations to family, jobs, and academic midterm-weary goals. Authority is a complicated dynamic, even for a forty-year-old. Most daunting for me in this leadership position was that I would be tangential, at the least, and at times, perhaps, central to my colleagues’ MFA experience. As chief in a top-down structure, what good could I do? What harm?
I chewed on the oft-spoken but as-yet-unwritten journal mission of social justice and community activism. If the Lunch Ticket mission meant seeking out and publishing broader narratives than those commonly green-lit in contemporary culture, we—the AULA MFA program, LT staff—had both feet in from Lunch Ticket’s conception. Yet, the two ideas, social justice and community activism, turned in my mind like a rotating light, alternately shining inward to the MFA program, out to the literary community, in to the LT staff, out to the wider world. If our mission-values were only reflected in the journal’s pages but not enacted behind the scenes, we would do some good in the world but perhaps not enough. Left unexamined, what cultural patterns might we accidentally perpetuate in our internal dynamics? Do as we say, not as we do? As the light flipped inward again, I wondered if the mission statement shouldn’t also apply to how we enact the process of publishing Lunch Ticket. Thinking of Chekhov, It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep, I wondered: Why have the crew hang a loaded mission statement on the stage and then play by different rules behind the curtain?
As I moved into my first weeks as editor, my top priorities twinned: to publish an exciting issue full of complex and well-told narratives; and to support staff members’ intrinsic goals to become better writers, develop professional skills, and contribute to the broader literary and cultural landscape. I wasn’t yet familiar with feminist scholar Julie Jung’s critical distinction between feminist and traditional teaching methods. Later, I would discover her description of the latter as patriarchal in its reinforcement of a limited teacher/student binary: teacher is the expert, dominating, authoritarian; students are novices; assignments are acontextual. Though as editor I wasn’t formally a “teacher,” the position was necessarily one of leadership and authority, and I eventually came to think of myself as a mentor in the nebulous region between student and faculty. I cared about the psychic well being of the staff. When I encountered Jung’s description of feminist pedagogy—community-based, attentive to process, and valuing of each person’s experience and expertise—I recognized the principles by which I sought to lead.
When I encountered Jung’s description of feminist pedagogy—community-based, attentive to process, and valuing of each person’s experience and expertise—I recognized the principles by which I sought to lead. Over my three issues as editor, our staff went through weddings, divorces, births, funerals, Emmy nominations, Pushcart nominations, theses and final manuscript preparations, the 2016 presidential primaries and election, the Pulse nightclub shooting, the San Bernardino shooting, the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooting, the Charleston church shooting, Philando Castile’s murder, Alton Sterling’s murder, the Baton Rouge protests…
The obligatory email check-ins with the low-residential-MFA journal staff quickly became touchstones, as discussion of these topics, and others, flowed across the weeks. Genre editors posited questions, from pragmatic to existential, in our safe, supportive community. A blogger wondered about how to handle rejection, a social media manager commiserated, and a web designer flipped it to a new perspective. When I hoped to publish an interview with a particular writer, I tapped the whole network. When fresh tragedy hit the news, the blog team designed a heteroglossic essay and solicited contributions from the whole group.
In my first few months as editor, I worked with then-advisor and an integral force in the journal’s founding, Audrey Mandelbaum, to hammer out an official mission statement. Near the end we wrote, “The name Lunch Ticket pays homage to Antioch University’s historic focus on issues that affect the working class and underserved communities… We are here to foster community and build a future with true diversity in publishing.” I don’t recall where the light shined when we wrote that—outward to the literary community? Inward to the LT staff?
At its heart, social justice is a question of authority—who has it, what narratives are valued, and whose voices are heard. If LT’s mission is to publish those narratives… my own mission as editor was to hear the narratives of my colleagues on the journal, to value not just the work they did on the journal but what they could contribute to our behind-the-masthead community.In Chekhov’s letter to his friend, he argued that a loaded gun introduced in Act One but forgotten by The End must hit the cutting room floor before curtain call, lest the broken promise of a murder rupture the play’s spell. The other writerly advice, Kill your darlings, speaks of the sacrificial altar upon which our most preciously crafted sentences or characters must perish in service to the greater good of a story. When I turn these maxims on myself, they reflect my concerns for authority-conscious teaching, and, when I was editor, my vision for the journal. ”Darlings” in this case would be self-indulgent, ego-based, unhelpful instincts that, like for so many others, were handed down to me from old authoritarian models—and if entertained, would have broken a promise of the LT mission to the very staff I hoped would be its champion. At its heart, social justice is a question of authority—who has it, what narratives are valued, and whose voices are heard. If LT’s mission is to publish those narratives, which have been undervalued by our culture, my own mission as editor was to hear the narratives of my colleagues on the journal, to value not just the work they did on the journal but what they could contribute to our behind-the-masthead community. As a community, we are stronger and more whole when we allow the complicated tangle of differences. That is the LT value behind the mission. Chekhov wrote, It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep. Everything, especially a journal with a purpose, with a purpose.