Trapped in the Amber.

By: Jen Shoop

*Image via the delightful Instagram account @whereiwouldliketoread featuring the home of George Nakashima, 1946.

My first meaningful professional job was copy-editing for an academic press while in graduate school. I’d held many prior positions, mainly intern-level, that had not called upon any differentiated skill. Most of my high school and college summers involved manual data entry into database systems at various cultural institutions. Just after college, I took a full-time position at a small government consultancy, but the tasks there were simian, too: my principal responsibility was calling government agencies asking for details on bid opportunities for potential contractors and filling out various fields in a database with the information gathered. The only positives I can offer about the work I performed over the course of that year and the summers prior were that they cultivated work ethic and humility. It was probably also a blessing in disguise that I’d had to actually call and speak with strangers on the phone while working for the consultancy, as I was horribly shy at the time. These were not just any strangers, either. These were terribly bored and unimpressed contract officers responsible for terribly boring contracts — like phone systems for government buildings downtown, and obscure parts for aircraft — and our interactions ran across a narrow gamut of tones: from arid to prickly. Still, this was the first instance I can recall in my life in which I’d really had to put myself out there, and it was then I began to develop the armor plating I would later need while dabbling in entrepreneurship.

In graduate school, I applied for and earned a position copy-editing an academic journal on Middle Eastern affairs. The work was tedious but I took pride in it. It felt good to be needed for a very particular, niche prowess: I was viciously attentive to MLA (a set of formatting and style standards exercised by many professional journals), and was quickly recognized as a gardienne of its guidelines. I would later take on other copy-editing roles, eventually expanding into line-editing and even a bit of ghost-writing working from the notes and outlines professors provided me in a small editing practice I ran on the side.

I was reflecting on this the other day, and the fact that I recognize this role as the first meaningful bit of work in my career feels slightly ironic, as these days, I spend as little time as possible in editing. I estimate I spend about 90% of my time in a creative or generative mode, and maybe 10% in revisions. This is in part the blessing of my medium (academic journal writing it is not) and in part the near-frenetic pace of publication I’ve arbitrarily set for myself. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but my writing goals at Magpie have always prioritized practice over perfection. I would rather write voluminously, make mistakes, test new techniques than produce one high-stakes piece. I think I developed this orientation while teaching writing to college undergraduates, who tended to flail against a deadline for a paper that would constitute a third of their grade for a given course. If I communicated anything at all to them, I hope I encouraged them to think about writing as a process that can be improved with time and repetition rather than a series of static productions around which we hover like fruit flies. Then again, perhaps it has always been my way to be profligate with words: I have been writing things (books, poems, screenplays) since I was a child. In this way, it is fortunate that my medium is so forgiving. (What if I had been born a sculptor, for example? I can’t fathom the patience.)

The other day, I was reading about the way Frances Potter structures her time, and she shared that, in the mornings, “I prioritize the obligation that requires the most attention or is the least pleasant to fulfill. The goal is to get the hard stuff out of the way while my energy is fresh and I am least apt to cut corners or make mistakes.”

This made me pause and think about editing, which is certainly less pleasant for me than writing. When I edit my own work seriously, I read the essay from top to bottom at least five, six, ten, twenty-two times, line-editing my way through at each go. It has to be done wholly, in full gulps, because sometimes the rhythm of words at the top echo something at the bottom in either a pleasing or displeasing way, or the last sentence simply does not hang right, and I would never know if I did not read from start to finish each time. This repetitive process does not account for the hours of inactive thought between readings. I was made aware of this earlier this week while editing (for the thousandth time) the short story I just published. My creative fiction is invariably subject to editing — serious editing — for weeks and even months on end because it is not my native medium and it requires much more of me. When I am writing fiction, it is as though I am a golfer with a new set of clubs, or perhaps a ballplayer asked to bat left-handed. The movement and environment feels natural but there is something uncoordinated about my navigation of the space. Editing assuages the yips that can develop when I begin to contemplate publishing my work. Anyhow, as I was editing this most recent piece of fiction, I realized that while I had spent hours at my desk engaged in line-editing, I had also accomplished a lot of the work extra-curricularly, while doing the dishes, taking a shower, driving, even eating dinner. I found myself sprinting from the shower to make an edit that had been nagging me while shampooing. When I am engaged in this kind of focused editing, I can often recite word for word the entirety of the essay or story, and will then rehearse it in my head while falling asleep, while laying in bed in the morning, while running, etc. It is as though the words must run through me over and over again, even without my conscious convocation of them. When my sister was learning sign language, she would often rehearse the movements of the alphabet beneath the dinner table. I one time asked her what she was doing, and she looked surprised. “What do you mean?” she asked. “What are you doing with your hands?” I prodded. She looked down in shock. She hadn’t realized she was practicing, so fluid had the movements and the instinct become. I used to do the same thing rehearsing piano exercises. I would be sitting in the car tapping out the scales or drills on my legs without even thinking. Editing calls forth similar, almost “background” recitations.

In writing this piece, I have learned something new, though. I edit more than I think. It may not be the all-consuming line-editing that accompanies fiction-writing, when I sit down with intention, but I have gone back recursively re-reading each paragraph as it’s emerged from my finger-tips as I’ve sat here at my desk for the last two hours, dropping in new punctuation, dividing sentences, extracting the superfluous. In fact, perhaps it is fairer to say that I spend 60% of my time writing and 40% of my time editing. Or maybe even half and half. The fact that I was not fully aware of this extemporaneous style of editing until writing this piece about editing makes me realize how much I owe to my earlier career in professional editing. Here, again, another moment in which the discordant jags of my life dissolve into a smooth narrative. Here, again, a case of generative archaeology: the longer we look at our life experiences, even the ones we discarded as “steps” or “interims,” the more we find trapped in the amber.

Today, I want to invite you to reflect on your first meaningful job — maybe even your first non-meaningful job. What did you learn? What did you carry with you?


+Words that help.

+A great class I took at UVA.

+Confidence is quiet.

+When are you most creative?

Shopping Break.

+This terrycloth romper is adorable. Don’t miss this brand’s epic sale section, which is currently an extra 30% off! Consider this reversible suit — I own this exact style in two colors and LOVE the fit. This knit dress is also a total score!

+These Natives in the hot pink are on sale for $14 when added to cart! The entire sale is section is an extra 30% off and worth digging through — I also found Kissy Kissy for around $20 and a Petite Plume nightgown for $25 (worth buying now and stowing for next winter).

+Chic white shirtdress (under $100). The longer back hem makes it feel higher-end / designer.

+Fun $30 tote – love the stripe of course, but the patchwork feels very Ulla / on-trend.

+Great pair of raffia mules for under $100 — wear with absolutely everything this summer.

+I own this dress in a different pattern and it is SO flattering. This brand is brilliant at silhouettes. Speaking of Saloni, this exceptionally chic, straight-forward LBD is currently on sale for around $200 — run!

+Another fab LBD to have on hand — this one under $100.

+Grace shared these over-the-shower hooks — clever solution if you’re short on towel storage or need a spot to hang loofahs! Can’t believe the price.

+On the subject of hooks: every time I share these lucite robe hooks, they are very popular.

+This blouse is crazy chic, and on sale for $112. Love the idea of tucking into a white pencil skirt.

+Hard to estimate how much time I’ve spent in stain removal on my hands and knees on our rugs. This Bissell contraption has helped.

+Ulla vibes for $110.

+In my cart

+I recently updated my Bridal section!

+Big impact outdoor dining chairs at a reasonable price.

+Why do I need this Paris hat?

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2 thoughts on “Trapped in the Amber.

  1. One of my high school/college retail jobs had an explicitly stated ethos of “ask for forgiveness, not permission,” which has always stuck with me. When you let people breathe a little and release them from fear of messing up/being punished, everyone has more latitude for growth. It was quite empowering, especially for a teenager.

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