Interview by Lara Lillibridge
Lilly Dancyger is the author of Negative Space (2021), a reported and illustrated memoir selected by Carmen Maria Machado as a winner of the Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards; and First Love, a collection of personal and critical essays about the power and complexity of female friendship, forthcoming from The Dial Press in Spring 2024. She is also the editor of Burn It Down (2019), a critically acclaimed anthology of essays on women’s anger. Lilly’s writing has been published by Guernica, Literary Hub, The Rumpus, Longreads, Off Assignment, The Washington Post, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and more. She lives in New York City.
I was curious about her career as an editor and popular creative writing instructor, and asked her some questions as part of my “writing professionals behind the scenes” series.
Lara Lillibridge: When I first “met” you online, you were the memoir editor at Narratively, and now you’ve moved on to acquisitions at Barrelhouse Books. Can you briefly sketch your professional career for me?
Lilly Dancyger: Yes, I was at Narratively for six years, and during that time I was also doing a lot of freelance writing, and working on my first book (Negative Space, which came out in 2021). I also edited for Catapult for a little while (RIP), and now I mostly teach and do freelance developmental editing, plus acquiring and editing nonfiction books for Barrelhouse, in addition to my own writing (I have an essay collection, First Love, coming out next spring!).
LL: Now, for a writer looking for help, what can they expect from working with you?
LD: My aim as a developmental editor is always to balance respect and care for the writer’s creative vision—helping them lean into the things that make their work unique; encouraging them to take the risk, try the big intimidating cool idea, etc.—with honest, practical feedback based on what I think they’ll be able to actually sell and publish. It’s a delicate balance, because I don’t want to crush anyone’s dream or ever be discouraging, but I also think it would be a disservice to soft peddle if I see something that’s fundamentally not working. It would be a waste of my client’s time and money for me to help them polish the surface of a project that isn’t conceptually there yet. So sometimes my feedback is a little bit of tough love, but it’s always in service of helping the writer find the best form for their book, and then execute that vision. Sometimes that means a pretty big pivot, and sometimes it just means pushing some elements further in the direction they’re already going. Once in a while I get a project that really does just need a polish, and nothing more. So the level and scope of my feedback is really different for every project, depending on what state it’s in when it comes to me, and what it needs. (More about that here.)
LL: Can you offer any advice about at what point someone should seek a professional editor, or perhaps, when they shouldn’t?
Definitely do not pay someone to edit your first draft! When you finish the first draft of a book, take a little time to bask in that accomplishment, walk away, live your life, and then come back to it ready to revise. Just reading through it yourself should leave you with substantial notes for revision—you know where you were holding back or where you weren’t sure what to say yet, etc. etc. So paying someone else to point out what you’d be able to see yourself is a waste, and it risks substituting someone else’s judgment for your own too early in the process, when the core of the project is still being formed.
I tell people to do at least one pretty substantial revision on their own before turning to an editor—ideally more than that. In my opinion, the best time to hire a professional editor is after you’ve tapped out your network—traded drafts with a couple of writer friends, maybe gotten feedback on a few chapters in a workshop or two, gone over it yourself multiple times. When you’ve pushed as far as you can, then bring in a professional.
I know sometimes you want a gut check earlier than that, just to make sure you’re on the right path before you put months or years into developing a project, in which case it’s fine to get professional feedback on just the first few chapters or so. I offer an option for feedback on just the first 50 pages, and I know a lot of editors offer something similar. That’s a much better approach for earlier in the project when you just need someone to say “Yes, keep going” or “Wait, have you considered x, y, and z?”
LL: I know that you teach frequently as well. Can you talk about that journey also?
LD: Yes! I teach a lot of independent classes that I host directly through my website, I tend to launch new classes seasonally and I’m always adding and swapping out the offerings. I taught almost 100 classes for Catapult before launching my own program, and I’ve enjoyed the freedom of running classes myself, though of course it’s a lot of work. In addition to these independent classes I also teach at Columbia’s MFA program, and Randolph College’s low residency MFA, and various organizations like Corporeal Writing and Off Assignment, etc.
This fall I’m launching two versions of a new class I’m calling a Generative Essay Lab—an independent study version where people can work through the written lectures (which are basically a series of craft essays I wrote about various essay forms that I love) and prompts on their own time, and a “supported” version that includes weekly Zoom check-ins.
I’m also doing a one-day session on the craft and ethical considerations of writing about other people in memoir called “Telling Shared Stories.” I taught that one over the summer and it was a hit—I think everyone who writes memoir has some level of concern about how it’s going to be received by the people in their lives, so I wanted to make space to really dig into the difference between the general discomfort that comes with being so vulnerable, and discomfort that might crop up because you’re actually crossing a line and sharing something that’s not yours to divulge.
LL: What’s your favorite part of teaching?
LD: Both teaching and editing have made me a better writer, I think largely because they both require me to break down and explain processes or ideas that might be intuitive to me or that I might otherwise take for granted. Teaching has made me understand and question my own thoughts about writing to a degree that I might never have had to otherwise. It has also pushed me to broaden my horizons, because when you’re teaching you will inevitably work with students who are writing stuff that might not be your personal favorite form or style or even genre, but you still have to figure out how to help them write what they want to write. I know there are teachers out there who will be dismissive or discouraging of any writing that’s not to their taste, but I think that’s despicable and I try so hard to never do that, even unintentionally. So I’ve had to learn the mechanics and conventions of forms that I never would have looked very closely at otherwise, because my students were writing those forms, and it was my job to help them.
LL: This may not be fair to ask, but do you prefer teaching or editing?
LD: I really like the balance of alternating between the two. I know that’s kind of a cop out! But I’m someone who gets bored really easily—that’s a big part of why I work the way I work, always juggling about five different jobs. Being able to jump from one thing to another and back again helps me stay engaged and fresh. And the types of feedback that I give when teaching vs. when editing are so different from each other, they really are completely different modes, even though both involve a lot of reading and a lot of thinking and talking about writing.
LL: I’ve noticed since the pandemic that online classes seem to be everywhere. How can a reader sort through them and figure out which is the right one for them?
LD: It’s important to get really clear on what you’re looking for, and what you have the capacity for. Are you in a rut and looking for prompts and assignments that will help you generate new work? Or are you more interested in getting feedback on stuff you’ve already written? Do you have the time/capacity for a multi-week class with a lot of homework, or are you just looking for a quick jolt of inspiration from a single session? Do you want to disappear into a crowded Zoom and quietly take notes/hear the perspective of a writer you admire, or are you craving a more intimate setting where you can talk in-depth about what you’re working on and ask a lot of questions? There are classes out there for all of these situations and more, you just have to get clear on what you want.
LL: I’ve noticed that you seem to publish every two years–Burn it Down in 2019, Negative Space in 2021, and now First Love, due out in 2024. What sort of boundaries or practices do you enact to defend your own writing time?
LD: I tend to work in cycles, so when I’m deep in a generative stage I block off a couple of days a week—ideally more like three or four days but that’s not always doable—where I just work on my own writing. I literally block them off on my calendar, so those days are taken and I can’t schedule anything else during that time. I’ve never been a write-every-day type of writer—I’d always rather have a day or two to immerse myself fully in an essay or a chapter or whatever, rather than trying to work in short bursts on days that I also have to do other work.
When I really need to focus, I’ll sometimes go to a motel or Airbnb for a few days and go a little feral, writing for twelve hours at a stretch and not interacting with any other humans. And to be able to afford those writing stints, there are also periods when I’m not writing anything, and I’m just working like a maniac at my various paid gigs, saving up for the next opportunity to go into the writing cave.
LL: How has your own publishing journey influenced your teaching/editing style?
LD: My classes are all based on challenges I’ve faced in my own writing, and things I’ve figured out along the way. I figure that once I’ve spent weeks or months or years thinking through something, I might as well try to save other people some of the trouble by sharing what I’ve learned. So even though I never assign my own work in my classes, they all originate there.
LL: Do you have any ongoing critique partners, or are you more of a solitary writer?
LD: I have a writers group that’s been meeting regularly and sharing work for almost five years. I don’t know where I would be without them. I definitely recommend finding people to consistently share work with—whether it’s a group that meets weekly like mine, or just a few different people you can occasionally swap pages with. Having people who know my work well enough to read a messy draft and know what I was trying to do and help me figure out how to do it is invaluable. Definitely the number one thing that has improved my work more than anything else, other than maybe reading.
LL: Looking back on your professional career as a writer as well as a teacher/editor, are there any things you would do differently?
LD: I’d try to be a little less impatient to publish. Negative Space took eleven years to write, and that whole time I felt like I was somehow behind schedule. I wanted so much to be done, to have it out there. But I needed all eleven of those years to become the writer I needed to be in order to write the book I wanted to write, and to figure out what that book even was. And being impatient and anxious about how long it was taking didn’t make it go any faster, it just made the process less fun. But the truth is that writing is the fun part. I tried to savor it a little more this time around.