Making Public My Own Enthusiasm ~ Eliza Borné
When I was in high school, I served as editor of the newspaper at a large public high school. I can so clearly remember the feeling of wanting to raise a little hell in search of the truth. On my watch, our editors uncovered and published reports about the school district’s student pregnancy stats. For a follow-up story, I interviewed Dr. Joycelyn Elders, former Surgeon General of the United States, who, in a conversation about reduced services at the campus health clinic, memorably quipped that “the vows of abstinence will break a lot quicker than a latex condom.” We reported on bullying and cheating, and a statewide paper picked up the stories we broke. I got an earful from administrators on more than one occasion. (If you’re the editor of a student newspaper, I figure you’re doing something wrong if you aren’t at least occasionally called to the principal’s office.) I thrived on it all: the deadline-triggered adrenaline, the collaboration with my classmates, the rush of uncovering an important story, the satisfaction that came with distributing the news. I loved seeing my byline in print. And I really loved surprising people. I don’t think anyone expected the high school newspaper to be of notably high quality, but we worked hard—often late into the night, multiple times a week—and we delivered.
And then one day, toward the end of the school year, I walked into the bathroom and saw a scrawl on the inside of a dingy stall. The words described an “Eliza” in pejorative terms that managed to insult both personality and appearance. I was the only person by that name in the school; the mean bathroom graffiti was clearly directed at me. I was taken aback. Nobody had ever said anything like that to me before—certainly not to my face, and certainly not in writing. I didn’t think I had any enemies, but I’d obviously pissed someone off. Why? I could only assume it had to do with my then semi-public role within our high school ecosystem—maybe I had been too aggressive with my reporting, or too self-revealing in my letters from the editor, or even too peevish on deadline days. Maybe I had been too bold. Too confident.
I’d like to say that I forgot about the incident, but that’s not entirely true: I still think about it sometimes. (How innocent it seems now in an era of Twitter insults and Facebook trolling!) I was eighteen years old and had received a memorable lesson: it was time to develop thick skin.
Twelve years later, I have worked my way up to the top of another masthead. I still thrive on deadlines. I feel deeply fortunate to work with writers, editors, and a team of creative folks to create an extraordinary magazine that is adored by many devoted readers. In his recent memoir, Avid Reader, Robert Gottlieb describes “the act of publishing” as “the act of making public one’s own enthusiasm.” I’ll never get over that profound pleasure. What a joy it is to have the opportunity to share stories I love with the world.
In my tenure at the Oxford American, I have grown accustomed to “firsts.” In February, our staff won our first National Magazine Award in “General Excellence.” In December, we will publish our first genre-themed music issue, exploring new territory in a beloved series—a prospect that is both thrilling and a little scary. And—perhaps most relevant to followers of the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference—I am the first female editor in the magazine’s nearly twenty-five-year history. I am honored by this distinction. I have long been bothered by gender and racial disparity in the literary arts, and I now have the power to publish a magazine that reflects the South’s diverse voices and viewpoints. As a young female editor, I am grateful for the encouragement and enthusiasm I have received from my colleagues, my city, and my peers, and it makes me happy when young editors and writers tell me that they’re inspired to meet a woman in my role—especially in a small state like Arkansas, which isn’t exactly known for its vibrant publishing landscape. Though I’ll be honest; at times, rarely (but still, I can’t help but think), I feel like I’m back in that high school bathroom—like someone is trying to put me in my place: when my photo is published online in the newspaper and I am instructed by a commenter to smile, when I am interrupted mid-conversation on the phone so someone can ask me my age, when I am mistaken for an intern by somebody who should know better, or when I am otherwise belittled in some silly but maddening way.
With experience, I have grown that thicker skin, and these small aggressions are easy for me to shrug off. Yet they remind me of the value of communities that exist to support women—places where we can talk shop and do good work without trifling distractions. Places like the inaugural C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference.