By Julian Borda
I didn’t know what to expect when I started as an editor for the minnesota review, but as I stepped into the press’ workspace for the first time, my circuits just about went haywire. The gears in my head had been turning mad, banging against brain cogs and mind motors out of anxiety, giddiness, and whatever other emotions you feel when you start a new job, I guess. I’d never worked for a literary journal before in the past, though I figured there was going to be a lot of reading. That was a good guess—there is a lot of reading. And when you do a lot of reading, your mind opens doors you never thought you’d step through. You walk through someone else’s world, guided along a path written by someone you’ll probably never know. All you have are the words in front of you and the voice that speaks them. Thing is? That promise excited me in a way I hadn’t felt in a very long time. How did I arrive at this conclusion when I was so nervous beforehand? A good question. Let’s investigate this a bit further.
Unlike most kids at the brat age of ten or twelve, I wasn’t dreaming of red-hot fire rescues or traveling ‘round the world in eighty days—I dreamt of being human. I dreamt I wasn’t born from a junkyard of all the wrong pieces, like rubber band seatbelts and square-framed tires; still, I wish someone would’ve clawed through my salvage. I dreamt my tiny side-view mirrors would shrivel up and dry—they had little dust drawings that spoke my great secrets—but how can you crack the glass when the glass is made of rubber? I didn’t shed skin or spill blood and I was never the right shape (more like an amalgamation). I wasn’t human, which meant I was a monster: a strange mechanical beast made from leftover metal…all the meat must’ve been used up for everyone else. So I dreamt. I dreamt and dreamt and dreamt, dreamt to be built or born or bled from a new mold, but I could never splice reality.
Today, you can call me the coping mechanic, and, chances are, you might be a coping mechanic too. If you aren’t one, you could join us! We serve any and all, no matter the make, no matter the year (so long as you know how to treat a worker right). It’s a great profession. And the best part is, you don’t even need a license!
You have questions. I may have some answers. Please allow this pile of stubborn springs and spiraled screws to explain exactly what that means.
To become a coping mechanic, you need to have something to fix, just like a mechanic fixes machinery. Thing is, I don’t like to think of it as fixing. Fixing implies that there is something wrong. Instead, I like to think of it as maintenance. Upholding. Continuing the lifespan of. That’s what a mechanic does, no? They repair and replace, sure, and one could argue that’s what coping mechanics do as well. However, as far as these titles go, a coping mechanic is someone who preserves.
When I was eight or nine, my cyborg circuits dreamt of learning how to fix myself into something “normal” because my “attraction” setting was set to M instead of F. If N and N and S and S don’t work, then M and M shouldn’t either, right? Opposites attract, not the other way around, I’d tell myself—and the voices that talked back to me were not kind. Like angry whispers that spun into mindstorms, spinning and spinning until they made me too dizzy. I tried to run but the voices would follow. They followed me through hallways, flying out of open lockers and scribbling nasty notes in my notebooks. On the bus, they cheered against the mindless chatter of the other kids, chasing me all the way home. And then they’d scramble into my house, making nests in every room where there was a glass surface. Every time I looked in the mirror I wished it would smash into shards, but like rubber, that angry reflection only bounced back.
Years went by and I realized that “normal” wasn’t possible for me. I dreamt of how to cope instead. I studied its craft and grinded it into my gears. It’s a tale as old as time. To cope means “to deal effectively with something difficult.” And we all have our methods of doing that.
When I was ten or twelve, I scooped up my nuts and bolts and went searching for my metaphorical auto shop or any place that might welcome this mecha-mite. But it’s not easy to find something when you have no idea where to look. How did I get to what would become my little safe haven? I couldn’t tell you. That was a lifetime ago and the last thing I want to remember is my preteen online search history. I did lots of basement dwelling and switching between regular and incognito browsers. I had to dig deep to find my sanctuary. My body sank beneath earth and I let the metal rust, and worms climbed inside my sockets and whispered to me their folklore, burying me in the underground—the other world.
The worms had names: Fanfiction.net, Wattpad, AO3, and DeviantArt. Weird names, right? The stories were even weirder. And as sad as it might sound, those worms were some of my best friends. We used to spend hours together, hidden under blanket forts that felt like coffins, looking at paintings of fantasies, of lives not yet lived, but one day perhaps could be. Those worms ignited my engine, the one I hid out of fear that the noise would be too loud. It was fanfiction that served as my coping mechanism and it roared me to life; I inhaled its smoke and let it fill me with validations. Not everyone gets the chance or choice to stay above, to be among meatbags, which is why coping mechanisms are important. They give us access to control when we face the uncontrollable. Yes, my coping mechanism as a kid was to read about two boys smashing their faces together in the most inappropriate way that a child probably shouldn’t have been reading. But it worked, so let’s not dwell on the details, okay? Thanks to this, I’m happy to say I no longer feel like the mechanical monster who was different in a bad way.
Wow, that’s cool and all, but how would you be a coping mechanic, you might be asking? I can’t assume that you’re speaking my same language, but I do think that everyone gives back to something that shaped who they are at present. In my case, discovering the secret underbelly of amateur authors led me to become a writer myself. Now I give back to that same community by gallivanting sweet “boy x boy” stories into the clouds for everyone to see. Fanfiction was my coping mechanism, which I now maintain by adding stories of my own. These stories can go on to serve others who feel the way I once did—like a beast lost in the moors of men. It’s a cycle.
Which leads us to our next point: what did you use? And what do you use now? It might be something you’d hardly even think about. Isn’t there a saying that often the tiniest things are the most impactful? It doesn’t matter how big or small, or how secret or stupid, all that matters is that something helped you cope with whatever problem you had or whatever problem you’re having. And then, whether you know it or not, how you continue that mechanism for others to use when they, like you, have nowhere else to go. If you’re seeing this after all, I’m guessing you’re a writer or a reader.
I’d like to close this roundabout mess with a circle back to the introduction. Literary journals function in a similar vein to fanfiction as I’ve explained it. Like a cyborg built from spare parts, literary journals are assembled with a mish-mash of potpourri. Each narrative is created by a different author and created for a different purpose. Every piece is different from the other, no one part is the same. I see it every day as I search through the slush. My time as an editor for the minnesota review has opened my eyes to hundreds of little snow globes, and I get to be the one who picks ‘em up, shakes their contents, and watches the blizzard within tell me a story. Literary journals and their promise of discovery, of knowledge, of entertainment, of vision, and of however many more things a reader gets the chance to experience while they read, excite me in the same way that fanfiction did when I was younger (and still does present-day).
Literature in general welcomes us in open arms and paints us pictures of every world that ever existed. Perhaps that’s how you’re a coping mechanic, as a writer who writes to express and relieve and converse. Or maybe you’re like me and post fanfiction online, engaging with fandoms and communities, writing for pleasure (but not that kind of pleasure,
at least not yet). Regardless of your context, you can maintain the mechanisms that keep people going, that help little tin people like me feel valid. And if you really don’t know whether or not you’re one of us, the coping mechanics, look inside yourself and see what makes that heart of yours thump.