River Diaries: Getting Lost in the Issue

I am not sure how they do it. Those who are endlessly productive, who make excellent things, and who still somehow have the energy to tell about it on a regular basis. On social media, in blog posts, at online events. It is a good skill. My telling tends to be very irregular, too wordy and – it’s been suggested more than once – peppered with more honesty than is entirely necessary.

Anyway, here I am. At the very pointy end of Wonderground Issue Two production, realising that perhaps it would be a good thing to share a little of what has been going on over the last few months in my tiny studio by the river. Ever since I put my head underwater and forgot to bring it up.

The making of Wonderground Issue Two began in June. We sent out a call for submissions, which felt a bit risky at the time, though I’m not sure why. I think I was worried we’d get none. We got many. So many. Which of course, means many hours of reading and sorting and thinking and fussing.

The theme for Issue Two is Lost. Yes, there’s some gut-wrenching stories within its pages, but there’s also some gloriously delightful tales too. This balance between lost and found, shadow and light, was something I kept a close eye on when sorting through the submissions and selecting a shortlist.

Wonderground issue two will be released at the end of October. Pre-order here.

Tanya Patrick, Wonderground editorial assistant, and I read all the shortlisted submissions, and then spent a day workshopping. How would the stories fit together, what purpose would they fulfil, what point were they making? Is a story provocative, does it present a new idea, does it touch hearts, is it entertaining, does it say something profound? I can’t remember the exact wording of our questions, but each of the shortlisted pitches had to tick at least one of these boxes, preferably two.

Accepting pitches and sending out commissioning agreements is very exciting. It’s like planting a mystery seed. You have an idea that it’s in the Myrtaceae family, and probably some kind of tea-tree, but you’re not entirely sure how it will grow. You plant it, give it some water, and then leave it to develop by itself. Will it sprout, if so, what will it look like? Will it be tall and leggy, reaching airily for the light, or squat and multibranched and dense? I love surprises, which is probably why I love both gardening and editing. 

Once the external pieces are commissioned, we look to see where the gaps are. I usually have a few stories secured ahead of the submissions – for this issue, for example, I knew I wanted to speak with Sue Stuart-Smith, author of The Well Gardened Mind – but the rest are often a result of looking to see what else needs to be said or explored, that isn’t already.

I was about to write that this is the time that it all feels a bit shaky. When stories are just ideas floating around in the ether, untethered to a page. When you hope the rabbit holes you’ve ended up going down take you somewhere worthwhile and interesting. But, in all honesty, it feels shaky all the time. There are glimpses of satisfaction and excitement and relief, but like all creative endeavours, there’s nothing that is fixed. And like all creatives, I always think things can be better. I guess it comes down to this: if making a print publication were an easy and straightforward process, I wouldn’t be interested. I’d shelve it, find something else that scared me, and do it instead. Before chiding myself for taking the hard road. Go figure.

One of my favourite times throughout the entire production process is the day the commissioned stories are due. They drip drip drip into my inbox and no matter what else I’m doing that might be more pressing, I open them for a quick read. The mystery seeds have sprouted. It’s always exciting.

Of course, it is not as simple as flicking quickly through the stories before sending them to Leta Keens, the sub-editor. For some, it is. But for most it is it is back and forth and questions and clarifying. I love the process of working with writers to understand what is being said, and how the words might be ordered and shaped in a way that is clearer and deeper, more resolved.  

Once a story is in good shape, and both myself and the author are happy, it gets sent to Leta for subbing. She tidies it up, fixes spelling and grammar errors, tightens up the flow if required, and double checks all references. The story is checked again by me, and then moved from the Draft to the Final folder. Another of my favourite moments.

Ordering/shuffling story order for Wonderground Issue Two.

There are 22 pieces of content in Issue Two of Wonderground. Three of these are poems, one is an excerpt from Amy Leach’s new book – The Everybody Ensemble. The remaining 18 have gone through the above process. Back and forth and back and forth. It takes time. Weeks, months. It could, I’m sure, be done faster. But sacrificing quality and depth for efficiency is unlikely to result in the kind of publication I want to make.

In between working with others’ words, I’m wrangling my own. I love writing for print. It feels necessary to push myself, my thinking, my prose. For Issue Two of Wonderground I write about something I’ve been thinking about and writing around for many years. This: What it means to be a childfree woman. A woman who cares, but not in the ways that are expected and accepted. It was a hard story, requiring many drafts before getting it right, and my hope in writing it is that it starts conversations we need to have about motherhood and kin, care and nature. 

Alongside the words are the images. There are emails and emails with authors and photographers and artists. Images are shared and sorted before meetings with photo editor Daniel Shipp to discuss each story and how to best illustrate its intent/meaning. Wonderground is not a glossy magazine. It is about words first, and the images need to pull their weight. They need to offer something to the reader that helps them better understand and engage with the story. If not, they’re out.

There comes a day when the folder titled EDITORIAL – FINAL is full. Stories are edited, images have been selected. I press the button, sharing the folder with designers Evi O Studio and the layouts begin taking shape.

Design began about two weeks ago. We’ve had many back and forths since. Moving or swapping images, changing titles, shifting layouts, playing with colours. I’m a fussy client. I know what I like, always have. When the layout is resolved, it goes back to Leta for checks, then off to Diana Hill for proof reading. Many, many eyes pass over this publication before it reaches your hands, your eyes. 

This morning, a glimpse of light. The tide is high, the breeze gentle and the river outside my window shimmers. I am up early, as usual, but there is nothing to do. All the fiddly bits – captions, subheadings, contributor bios, imprint page blurb – are done.

The journal is currently being proofread, and I am sitting here looking around my shed in a kind of stunned awe. This state will be short lived, I know. But by god, it’s welcome.

I’ve been wading through a swamp of words and images and ideas and timelines and printing quotes and mailing costs and advertisers and permissions and budgets for months. This full immersion – combined with all the big weighty and clunky things like fears, insecurities and enthusiasm – seems to be required to make something that feels right. To grow a Wonderground. It is lucky I have a tolerant partner and a penchant for swamps.

It is unlikely I will ever have enough energy to poke my head above the surface for regular status updates, except for windows like this morning. When the mud has dried and turned into dust. My 1433 word, highly irregular status updates are why I am not on Twitter, why social media is sometimes a stretch.

Here’s a final tweet: I painted the inside of my little boat (we call them tinnies in Australia) the same shade as the mangroves and invested in a very small, very quiet electric outboard motor. Now that my business with words is done for the day, I am off to the river. Seeking out swamps.

Wonderground Issue Two: LOST will be released in late October 2021. Pre-order your copy now.

Electric Rhonda, the tinny.