Writing 9-11: The Costs and Benefits of Saying Yes

September 11, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Jessica DuLong

“What about another book?” The editor’s email subject line announced her overture. Who would turn down such an offer? Still, I hesitated.

She was encouraging me to expand the piece I had published about the spontaneous boat evacuation of nearly half a million people from Manhattan on September 11, 2001. I knew turning that into a book would require immersing myself for many months in the suffering and fear of a dark day in American history.

It would mean putting myself into the heads of people like ferry captain James Parese, whose over-and-back routine suddenly shifted that day from ferrying passengers to rescuing them. Instead of staying put on the safe shores of Staten Island, he made the choice, again and again, to drop lines, pull out, and steer his boat straight toward the incomprehensible hell unfolding at the tip of Manhattan.

I was wary of taking this on. A decade after the terrorist attacks, I still struggled with the psychological fallout from my service at Ground Zero.

For four days, I had worked as a marine engineer aboard fireboat John J. Harvey. After the planes struck, the retired 1931 FDNY vessel was called back into service to supply water to firefighters at the World Trade Center.

A pontoon boat operated by merchant marines had rushed me to the site. There, I spotted the Harvey among the assemblage of workboats stationed along the seawall. The outmoded, historic fireboat that had stolen my heart was back, pumping river water up through her deck pipes, doing the work for which she’d been built.

I warmed at the sight, but also braced myself. Once I’d set foot in that dust-coated lunar landscape, nothing could ever be the same.

A day after both towers collapsed, firefighters continued battling the blazes that would rage on for months. Ironworkers cut away at what had already been dubbed The Pile. They pulled up sections of steel whose molten ends, exposed to air, flared up once more.

Reporting to the captain for duty aboard Harvey on that late summer day, I saw snow. Powdery ash had settled on every surface. Paper, plastic bags, and debris had tangled into nearby trees—some standing, some toppled. Responders in hard hats, coveralls, turnout gear, and blue and green scrubs rushed around in this blizzard. It made no sense. That day, that dust became a part of me.

Ten years later, the editor’s book invitation left me torn. My work at the Trade Center still haunted me. Yet, as a journalist, a historian, a responder, a witness, and a patriot, I felt the weight of responsibility. The boat lift story is one of grace in response to brutality. This history matters. I felt obliged to collect and share it.

I knew well the deep immersion that book writing requires. At the time, I still felt depleted from writing My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work that Built America and the two years of book events that followed. That book had called upon me to merge memoir with 400 years of Hudson River history. Naively, I supposed that writing about the September 11 boat lift might be simpler since the events took place on a single day.

I accepted the editor’s offer. The writing took a toll.

Reporting on topics like violence and human suffering has consequences for the mental health of journalists and historians, a fact that has become more widely recognized in recent years. Organizations like the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, established in 1991, continue to assemble and share additional resources like these: Resources for Journalists Coping With Trauma.

I’ve now spent a second decade swimming in the trauma of terrorism, reliving awful close-ups of the World Trade Center catastrophe at every stage of reporting, interviewing, writing, and revising. Some days it’s been hard to see past all the horror.

I wish I could say I took advantage of Dart’s resources and found constructive ways to cope. But that wouldn’t be true. In reality, this project has exacerbated existing anxiety issues and left me reeling through difficult periods of PTSD.

But… I’ve also relished the gifts it’s brought. Document this history has granted me the privilege of discovering how new, often unlikely, alliances formed between people who worked together to help.

Now, with U.S. society newly sensitized to the ruinous costs of erasing or eliding our brutal histories, I feel heightened urgency to share the generous efforts made by all the helpers that day. The remarkable choices they made reveal the power of collective action, make evident the force of good.

Somewhere in the middle of writing Saved at the Seawall: Stories from the September 11 Boat Lift, I discovered light amidst the darkness. Chronicling the series of lifesaving, selfless acts performed by countless everyday people revealed the reflexive human drive to aid those in need. Memorializing the maritime evacuation as a landmark event in our history is critical to our understanding the hope and humanity that so often comes in response to disaster. Stories of how people rallied together with the simple, clear recognition of human interconnectedness show us who we can be again. Seems like a good time to remember that.

Saved has come out in time for the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. The process of drafting the preface while struggling through the pandemic left me raw. But I hope this anniversary will be the one where I let go of some of the awfulness and embrace the good.

The boat rescues that grew into the largest-ever maritime evacuation upend common assumptions about human limitations. Mariners who improvised this massive, unplanned, successful effort showed who we are when we’re at our best. This antidote to divisiveness and fear offers an enheartening message for right now.

Recognizing the large-scale compassion and creativity that occurs in response to hatred and evil has expanded my belief in human potential.

Saying “yes” to that editor is what gave me that chance.

_______

Jessica DuLong is a Brooklyn-based author, editor, and collaborator/coach who helps writers develop a wide array of narrative nonfiction books. SAVED AT THE SEAWALL: Stories from the September 11 Boat Lift is the definitive history of the largest ever waterborne evacuation. MY RIVER CHRONICLES: Rediscovering the Work that Built America won the 2010 American Society of Journalists and Authors Outstanding Book Award for memoir. A USCG-licensed marine engineer, DuLong served aboard retired 1931 NYC fireboat John J. Harvey for two decades, 11 years as chief.

Getting Over Over-Editing

August 31, 2021 § 11 Comments

I love being an editor. I love pointing out craft fixes that immediately make this book and all an author’s subsequent writing better. I love pointing out major structural overhauls…and inspiring them to do that work. Most of all, I love how analyzing other writers’ work helps me improve my own.

How did I get to be an editor? After an MFA and years of tidying friends’ work for free, I hung up my shingle and congratulations me, I’m in business. While there are certificate programs for copyeditors and online courses for story and structure editors, we’re not like therapists or dentists. There’s no licensing to give us permission—and no regulatory board to make sure we’re honest and competent.

I’ve heard from plenty of authors who’ve had bad experiences with professional editors or writing coaches. The scammed/mistreated/poorly edited authors aren’t usually willing to speak publicly, and I don’t blame them for being embarrassed or intimidated. But plenty of authors have told me privately about money lost and feelings bruised. Since I can’t out specific people (hearsay), I’ll tell you my own editing sins—and how to avoid them as a client.

Overwhelm. Early in my editing career, I tried to fix every single thing that could possibly help a manuscript. Pages went back crawling with red ink and hundreds of margin comments. No no no, Previous Me! Editors should do one stage at a time. Feedback on commas comes after story and structure. In a developmental edit, I’ll point out some repeated sentence-level mistakes for the author to fix globally, but it’s my job to limit the amount of editing to what an author can handle in one or two more drafts.

Don’t let this happen to you. Know the difference between developmental editing, line editing, copyediting and proofreading. Be honest with yourself about what your work needs, and specific with the editor. It’s OK to say, “I only need feedback on the story,” or “What I really need help with is making my sentences stronger.” The editor may say your work needs a different level of editing, and you’ll be able to decide if you agree.

Over-criticizing. Editors don’t just point out what’s wrong; they reaffirm what the author is already doing beautifully and inspire them to build on those strengths. Unless you’ve hired a straight copyedit or proofread, your editor should recognize moments like “this sentence is great” or “the way you handle this theme works well because X.” Now, my own editorial cheerleading balances out comments like “WHY DOES SHE GO BACK SHE KNOWS HE’S TERRIBLE HUGE LOGIC ISSUE HERE!!!” but I was a lot worse at that balance ten years ago.

Don’t let this happen to you. Get a free or paid sample edit. Look for the editor’s tone—how does it make you feel? If your sense is, “Wow, I didn’t see that and boy is fixing it going to help!” this might be your editor. If you feel discouraged beyond that initial “Crap, there’s more to do than I thought…” (which is very normal!), think about whether this editor is the right fit. Try applying fixes they suggest in the sample to your whole book, and see if that feels like improvement.

Over-ruling. There’s grammar, and there’s writing in your natural voice with consistent word patterns that make sense for the character, situation and setting. “Rules” against run-ons, comma splices and ending sentences with prepositions can help readers smoothly navigate your prose, or they can make your natural voice sound stilted and prim. Finding my own barometer for voice—“Like you’d tell a friend, but better”—saved myself and my clients hours of analyzing commas and awkwardly reframing sentences. “Correct” is only useful when a grammatical convention serves the book.

Don’t let this happen to you. Learn enough grammar and punctuation so that when you violate a convention, you’re doing it on purpose. Identify key elements of your own voice and amplify those as you gain confidence in your work. If an editor strips away your phrasing in the name of “correctness,” you’ll know it’s happening and be ready to push back.

Over-scheduling. Yeah, I still suck at this one. I’m often late returning manuscripts, compensating for my guilt by trying to do an extra-good editing job. I’ve learned techniques to speed up line editing, make margin commenting faster, and communicate better when I’m running behind (most clients aren’t mad, they just want to know what’s happening!), but I could still allow myself more cushion time.

Don’t let this happen to you. It’s OK to nudge your editor! More than once, even! Email a week or so before the deadline to ask if they’re on schedule, giving them an opening to tell you up front if they’re not. Let them know if you have a planned retreat, time off work, or a deadline.

My clients have given me grace for my mistakes, and I’m honored to be a small part of their journey to publication. Improving author communication, setting clear expectations, and educating myself to deliver useful, encouraging and thorough editing are daily practices, ones that serve what truly feels like my life’s work. I’m grateful to be able to do it.

Ever thought being an editor could be your life’s work, or even a pleasant sideline? Want to be a better editor or better at the business? Join me for a three-webinar series, Build Your Developmental Editing Business, beginning October 20th.

We’re Not Going to Talk About It

August 11, 2021 § 36 Comments

By Victoria Lynn Smith

Shame is visceral.

An essay about a pivotal moment from my childhood had been declined. In the rejection letter, the editor wrote:

Thanks for sending us more of your writing. Regretfully, we won’t be able to publish your work this time. As you know, only a fraction of what we receive is selected for publication, so even very good writing must sometimes be left out.

We’re grateful you chose to share your creativity with ________ again. Effective simile: ‘You both pump and fly through the air, back and forth, like the metronome on Grandma’s piano.’ Muscular description: ‘you descended, the poles pounded to earth, and you dragged your feet across the ground…’ Outside our zone (violence against women): ‘punching her, knocking her down, kicking her.’

That last comment, “Outside our zone (violence against women): ‘punching her, knocking her down, kicking her,’” was difficult to hear. Outside our zone? The submission guidelines hadn’t listed any such prohibition.  

“Punching her, knocking her down, kicking her.” My words accurately described my father beating my mother. I could’ve said he pushed her around or he roughed her up a bit. But I couldn’t because he didn’t push her around or rough her up—he punched her, knocked her down, and kicked her.

I cringed. Why had I written the essay? How could I have been so callous? Why did I send it?

Shame kneecaps.

One morning the boy next door said to me, “Your parents really went at it last night.” I was in ninth grade and crazy about that boy. I said nothing.

Shame silences.

Many times, my mother has said, “Maybe it was partly my fault. Maybe if I’d kept my mouth shut.”

“No,” I have said, just as many times. “No one gets to beat you because they don’t like what you say.”

Shame eats autonomy.

Then I got angry. Then irate. Then pissed off. About the rejection letter.

Why had I written the essay? It’s my flashbulb memory. It changed me. I still think about it. Writers are told to pay attention to stories that play in their heads, to write about them. They may become inspiring essays. And, not writing about domestic violence won’t make it go away. It’s still going to happen.

How could I have been so callous? I wasn’t. The editor was. Perhaps there was a better way for the editor to reject my essay. But I can’t think of one. The standard spiel “not a good fit” would’ve sufficed. Sort of like, We don’t have any record of your room reservation. Or, We don’t have any tables at this time. Not publishing an essay about domestic violence won’t keep it from happening. It just remains a dirty little secret.

Why did I send it? Because it’s a good essay. Because sharing lets others know they’re not alone. And because I don’t like to share my story. It took me twenty years to share it with a good friend. She told me her daughter kicked out an abusive partner. He was sorry and wanted to return. The daughter was wavering. I listened but didn’t share.

Shame isolates.

The guilt of complicity gnawed at me. The next day I called my friend and told my story. My friend asked, “Can I tell my daughter about your childhood?”

“Yes, that’s why I told it to you,” I said. “Tell your daughter it will get worse. It will become harder to leave. The children will suffer.” The daughter didn’t let her partner return. Did my story influence her daughter? I don’t know. But my friend told me how much my story meant to her. That’s the power of story.

I’ve been a lover of story all my life: fiction, memoir, nonfiction. Story exposed me to the ugliness of racism, sexism, genocide, war, violence, abuse, poverty, prejudice, intolerance—experiences I didn’t have in my white, middle-class sphere (except for domestic violence, which travels everywhere). Story makes me walk in other people’s shoes, enter their worlds, feel their humanity.

I remembered my mother’s words about blame and applied them to myself. Maybe it was my fault for submitting it. Maybe if I’d have kept my essay shut up in its file. No, I told myself. No one gets to sweep your story under the rug.

The ideal rejection from the editor would’ve read, “Thank you for your submission, but we have to pass at this time as we’ve recently published a thought-provoking essay on domestic violence. Please submit in the future.”

__

Victoria Lynn Smith lives in Wisconsin near Lake Superior, where she recently started paddle boarding. She writes fiction, creative nonfiction, and articles. Her work has appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio, Twin Cities Public Television’s Moving Lives Website, Brevity Blog, Better Than Starbucks, and in several regional publications. Her flash essay, “Cloud Like a Lamb,” which is the subject of this essay, recently won third place in the Jade Ring Contest sponsored by the Wisconsin Writers Association Her dream is to one day visit the Shetland Islands. For more visit https://writingnearthelake.org/.

And, In Closing

August 2, 2021 § 5 Comments

By Kathy Stevenson

Bogged down in the minutiae of researching pertinent life events for your memoir? Stalled on the third chapter of your novel? Perhaps it might be helpful to set aside all those notebooks and research materials and skip right to the most fulfilling part of writing your book: The Acknowledgement Page.

After conducting an informal survey of my friends who are writers, I was heartened to know that I am not the only person who starts reading the end of a book first. And by the end, I don’t mean the final chapter or last page of the book itself. I mean, of course, the Acknowledgements. The part of the book where the author is obliged (“has the opportunity”) to thank each and every person who contributed to the planning, execution, and publication of his or her book.

Each and every person.

Because if you leave someone out of your acknowledgment page, there will be blood. Well, maybe not blood. But hurt feelings, and maybe lasting grudges. And whining. Certainly blood, hurt feelings, grudges, and whining are all states of affairs we writers hope to avoid at any cost.

The purpose of the acknowledgement page is to display a final appreciation, basically by sharing the names of those who contributed to your (hopeful) success in bringing your book to fruition.

There is a hierarchy of name-dropping in the best of these acknowledgements. Kudos to you if you attended Bread Loaf or had a residency at Ragdale or Yaddo, and can thank the overlords of those institutions for giving you the space and time away from your annoyingly demanding family and job.

If you haven’t been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship or even been a top-twenty finalist in an essay contest sponsored by your regional newspaper, don’t despair that you have nothing of note to put in your acknowledgement page. Your work should speak for itself, or at the very least Twitter will.

Next in the hierarchy of thanks might be your agent (although he or she might be first, depending on how high up the agent food chain they are). This is the person who discovered your talent, nurtured it, and believed in you, even after you secretly began to hate them for all their whiny, nit-picking demands. (Line edit a third time? Really?) Try to avoid groveling or too much familiarity (“I’d like to thank my new bestie, my brilliant agent Maureen, who I am now naming my firstborn after”) in your thank you – a cool detachment is best.

If your book required research of any type, this is also the place to thank the staffs of the libraries, websites, history centers, coffee shops, and chocolatiers who provided you with nurturing and even nourishment during your ordeal. How would you have brought your book into the world without quiet carrels and caffeine? Without the barista who understood your need for the quiet corner table by the window, and who kept on an eye on your laptop while you used the restroom?

This is the time to really lay it on if you had encouragement from, or took an MFA class from, or attended a lecture (that you paid for as part of a conference) by anyone in publishing with name recognition. Just don’t veer into crazy stalker territory. Though the words of a well-known writer or teacher may have changed your life, that person (amazingly) might not even remember you from the residency you had together in 2008.

Sincerity and gratitude are your bywords. But unctuousness is not.

You might start by writing an exhaustive list of those you want to thank in your acknowledgements, and then winnow that down. You don’t want to end up gushing like Sally Field in her Oscar acceptance speech, but you definitely don’t want to leave an important person (like your mom or spouse) out.

On second thought, maybe you should gush. After all, you published a book, damn it. A real book with words and paragraphs and chapters that you dreamed up and sweated over and made fit together in a way only you could have done. And if you want to thank everyone from the doctor who delivered you to your seventh grade English teacher to your great Grandma, then it’s your time and place to do so. And I will read it all first, before I even start with Chapter One.

_____

Kathy Stevenson’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, The Writer, Philadelphia Inquirer, and many other publications including – of course – the Brevity blog. Her short stories have appeared in several literary journals. Follow her on Twitter @k_stevenson01 or her website www.kathystevenson.com

I Just Didn’t Fall in Love

July 27, 2021 § 18 Comments

By Daien Guo

“I’m sorry. I just didn’t fall in love.”

The email landed in my inbox with a dull thud. I stared at the words over and over, hoping their meaning would change with each reading.

What about that first tentative sloppy kiss on the stoop of my graduate student apartment in Morningside Heights? Five years ago, when I still had long hair and I thought you were some surfer dude from California because of your sea-shell necklace and laid-back vibe? Then I learned you had graduated from Harvard with a degree in sociology. That shouldn’t impress me but it did.

Or the first time we traveled to Europe together, wandering through the streets of Milan giddily licking our second shared gelato of the day?

The weddings we went to in Napa, watching the sunset over the vineyards while clinking glasses swirling with amber chardonnay. The late-night check-in calls and texts. That time you bought me a pair of cashmere-lined leather gloves from Bloomingdales.

I’ll never forget the first time I met your sister at the family Thanksgiving. She gazed at me with her kind brown eyes and whispered conspiratorially, “He is my best friend.” I looked at you from across the room and our eyes briefly met – a zing of understanding and chemistry shooting across the family parlor like a superpower in a Marvel film. A superpower that I thought would last forever.  

I thought you would propose. I thought we would honeymoon in Lake Como. I thought our first-born child would have lovely warm brown eyes with flecks of grey, just like you and your sister.

Instead, you wrote to me in a freaking email, “I’m sorry. I just didn’t fall in love.”

I’m just kidding.

The email came from a literary agent, with whom I have no personal history.

I have always wondered when this phrase – I just didn’t fall in love – became a standard well-accepted way of politely rejecting querying writers? Why evoke such a crazy intense, intimate and emotional scenario when a more cool and objective one would suffice?

It might be kinder to just write dispassionately: “I don’t think your writing is good enough.” 

Or: “This book idea is boring.”

I’m no stranger to rejection letters. I’ve received them and I used to dole them out myself. Almost 20 years ago, when I was in college, I was a summer intern in the editorial department of Simon and Schuster. My cubicle was just outside the office of Alice Mayhew, a petite woman with a spritely gait that reminded me of my grandmother. She cracked pithy jokes with the gravelly voice of a life-long cigarette smoker, though I have no idea whether she smoked or not. Michael Korda with his British accent and bespoke three-piece suits was on the other end of the hallway. I wondered if they got along. They didn’t, people whispered. To my young eyes, both of them resembled eccentric elder relative characters out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel. The hallway was lined with oversized posters of New York Times Book Review covers that spilled out of the available wall space in Alice’s office – she had a lot of books that made the cover. 

My main responsibility was to read the slush pile and draft rejection letters. I used my literary gifts, meager as they were, to imitate the rejection letter in the style of each editor along that corridor. The editors in the middle of the hallway had direct impersonal styles – “Thanks for your manuscript. I enjoyed reading it but this is not right for our list at this time.”

Michael Korda’s were succinct and dry. “I’m sorry, but this is not my cup of tea.”

I forget how many rejection letters I wrote/imitated that summer. I don’t recall ever saying that I “didn’t fall in love,” but perhaps I used the word “love” in more insidious and thoughtless yet well-intentioned ways.

As an aspiring writer myself, I tried to respect the slush pile, reading through the first few chapters and identifying something positive that I could put in the letter. I would write one or two sentences of praise – “I loved this character” or “I love your lyrical descriptions” – before getting to the apologetic rejection.

Now I’ve gotten those letters myself and they are the worst. “I loved your voice… I loved the concept…” Love. Love. Love. My eyes scroll down the email and the longer the compliments flow, the faster my heart sinks.

It’s like a man who – during a clammy humid night – confesses ardently that he loves your earlobes and your toes and that mole on your left hip. All the insignificant body parts. But he just doesn’t love you.

How can you use love as a verb if it all sputters into nothingness?    

Rejection will always hurt. It will always send writers into a whirlwind of doubt and despair. But I propose that we tamp down the emotion and take the “love” out of rejection.

There is only one scenario in which a literary agent should use the word “love” in an email to a writer. The template is below:

Dear Writer,

I just finished your book and I love it! Please let me know if you are available tomorrow to discuss representation.

____________________________________

Daien Guo is a writer based in Washington D.C. She has published her writing in Lunch Ticket, Show Us Your Wits, Furious Gravity: DC Women Writers, Little Patuxent Review, 3Elements Literary Review, and Columbia Journal of Asian Law.

What The New York Times ‘Guest Essay’ Means for the Future of Creative Nonfiction

July 23, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Zoë Bossiere

In April, The New York Times announced that the paper’s “Op-Ed” opinion section, established in 1970, would be rebranded as “Guest Essays.” This seemingly small change, made with minimal fanfare, actually marks a momentous shift for the creative nonfiction essay. The essay has existed much on the fringes of literary writing and journalism since Michel de Montaigne penned his Essais in 1580. Famously, even he thought them a waste of time, warning readers, “I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.”

While the essay as a form— a written attempt, an experiment, a method of discovery through the process of the writing, itself—is now centuries old, in the publishing world it has only officially existed since 1983, when it was placed under the umbrella term “creative nonfiction” for the purposes of National Endowment for the Arts fellowship category and university course programming. But far from the dry research papers most students associate them with, the essay is alive with the obsessions, anxieties, and jokes of the day.

When one teaches and studies the essay, as I have devoted my academic career to doing, one begins to see it everywhere. In addition to those essays that might appear in venerable literary publications such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, or The Sun, increasingly the essay also pops up in our social media feeds, sometimes in the form of Twitter threads on depriving one’s daughter of beans, or rehoming the demonic Chihuahua from hell.

Social media in general has contributed to the ascension of nonfiction in popular culture—our insatiable appetite for true-to-life stories told by real people. However, as NYT editor Kathleen Kingsbury observes in her explanation of the new Guest Essay, “What is disappearing [online]…are spaces where voices can be heard and respected, where ideas can linger a while, be given serious consideration, interrogated and then flourish or perish.”

I tend to agree with her. The breadth of perspective that can be conveyed in a single social media post is limited. As we spend more and more time reading shorter and shorter paragraphs of text, our attention spans are shrinking along with the size of the posts we consume—a condition that’s been exacerbated by our increasingly-online pandemic lives. Not every issue can, or indeed should, be elucidated in even the longest thread of 240 characters or less.

The “Guest Essay” rebrand provides a subtle but important distinction. More than the simple expression of opinion, an essay is rhetorically savvy and, often, emotionally affecting. Now, as the issues of the day become increasingly complex and multifaceted, the essay can be an important way—perhaps the only way—to navigate nuanced, complicated, and seemingly contradictory perspectives. (Which is not to say all viewpoints are ethically equivalent.)

As a writing teacher, I encourage my students to view an issue not as a double sided coin—a two-dimensional “for” or “against”—but as a prism with multiple stakeholders and rationales. The essay allows the writer to engage with her subject on a deeper level, to get at the heart of an issue and take the reader on a journey that isn’t fueled by the immediate emotional reactions—such as outrage—that many shorter “takes” engender.

In addition to teaching the essay, I am also the managing editor here at Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, where we exclusively publish short nonfiction essays of 750 words or fewer. The essays submitted to us touch on a range of experiences by writers from all walks of life—women writers, BIPOC writers, trans and queer writers, and disabled writers, to name a few groups. Far from Montaigne’s original assertion that the self is “vain” and “frivolous,” the essay has become the mode du jour of contemporary thought in a time when the personal is inevitably determined by the political.

Though essays are written for a myriad reasons and in many varied forms, the common purpose of the contemporary essay in the public sphere is to foster well-informed critical thought and radical empathy for perspectives not our own. To provide readers a window into the proposals, interpretations, and aspirations that shape our diverse world.

The birth of The New York Times “Guest Essay” places the nonfiction essay firmly into the spotlight of socio-political discourse just when we as a country need it most. In the ensuing decade, we will need to read essays by the trans folx whose rights are in danger of being legislated out of existence, by the undocumented immigrants and their children who have been detained in cages at the border, by the many communities who continue to be devastated by gun violence and police brutality, and far too many more to list here.

Because at its heart, the essay speaks to those quintessentially human parts of ourselves that colder, jargon-laden editorial and journalistic articles can’t quite replicate. Though the NYT’s track record is far from perfect, the emergence of the essay in the world’s most widely-read newspaper comes at a crucial time, offering potential for a new era of empathy and reflection in public discourse.

____

Zoë Bossiere is a doctoral candidate at Ohio University, where she studies and teaches creative writing and rhetoric & composition. She is the managing editor of Brevity, and the co-editor of its anthology, The Best of Brevity (Rose Metal Press). Find her online at zoebossiere.com or on Twitter @zoebossiere.

Giving Up on Giving Up

July 20, 2021 § 10 Comments

By Kirsten Voris

Photo by Bill Hatcher

Five rejections in two months. I should be congratulating myself. It’s simple math—submitting more = more rejection.

I still find the stream of “nos” dispiriting. And draining. I was at the bottom of the drain, and calling a summer submissions break, when I attended How to Publish Your Writing in Literary Journals. The editors of Radar Poetry, Rachel Moles and Dara Shrager, appeared as part of a free monthly Zoom series on writing and publishing, offered through Authors Publish Magazine. (Which, by the way, is a great resource for fee-free submission calls.)

I was looking for surefire acceptance tips. What I heard was more math. The “pandemic effect” meant submissions to Radar Poetry’s 2020 summer contest were up by 50 percent from 2019. Increase in competition = higher bar = more rejection. I felt a touch less dejected.

Then Rachel and Dara shared the news that there are different kinds of rejection. That rejection is nuanced. Sometimes, they said, rejection is an invitation to try again, with a different piece of writing.

I’d imagined rejection emails were boilerplate assigned at random each time the editor pressed their big, red “no” button. Some are short, some have two paragraphs. Some describe the sheer volume of spectacular essays cascading through the submissions window. Some wish me luck, elsewhere. All of them amount to the same thing. Or so I thought.

Not so. Rejection, it turns out, is tiered. The difference between a standard rejection and a tiered rejection is encouragement.

A tiered rejection may not refer to the name of your piece. But if the editors have read your work with interest, enjoyed your writing, and/or encouraged you to submit again, this is good news.

Google “tiered rejection” and you’ll find increasingly granular breakdowns. Here, I offer a simple, three-tiered cake:

Top-tier rejections come with suggestions for improvement, praise of particular elements, encouragement to resubmit.

The middle tier includes the invitation to resubmit, perhaps praise for your story, and regret that it’s not the right thing for right now.

Standard rejections are a brief statement of polite regret, scrubbed free of reassurance or praise. And, like the foundational, bottom tier of the wedding cake, most of us get a slice of this.

Rejection is part of writing for publication. Sadly, my usual reaction doesn’t reflect this understanding.

I internalize rejection as an erasure—of my person, my sensibility, my ability to string words together. I cop an ungracious attitude. Get resentful and act like a baby– in front of my cat. This has nothing to do with journals or editors and everything to do with the climate of my upbringing. Thankfully, amassing rejections has made it easier for me to see this pattern. Which means I can change it—at my leisure.

Here is where I admit that I haven’t actually read my rejections. I skim. Absorb the sting and try to forget. Which cuts me off quite neatly from actionable information. What would happen if I went through my Submittable queue? Dug out the most demoralizing rejections and read them? What, I wondered, is actually in there?

The contest rejection that felt so cold? “Judges change every year, we hope you’ll consider submitting again…”

The third rejection of a piece I love? “You’re a good writer and this is a difficult task…”

Armored in a new mindset, I began to see the difference between “Unfortunately this is not a fit” and “We read your submission with great interest.” I begin warming to my oft-declined pieces, because maybe they weren’t so terrible. Maybe it is the math.

Even better, I found myself interacting with my rejections. Responding, instead of reacting. And one potential response to a tiered rejection is to resubmit.

When you resubmit, choose a new piece; then help the editors remember how much they liked you. Duplicate the language of the tiered rejection, and reference the previously submitted work in your cover letter.

For example if the rejection said, “We read your work with interest and hope you’ll consider sending us another piece,” you could write “Last year you read Y with interest and said you hoped I’d consider sending another piece.”

Some standard rejections always invite resubmission. If you’re not sure where your rejection falls, head over to Rejection Wiki, where you can search for sample rejections by journal, to determine whether yours is standard or special.

Radar Poetry’s Dara and Rachel wanted us to know that the editor who sends a tiered rejection is overwhelmed with submissions. They have day jobs, their own writing projects, small children. Despite this, they took time that they didn’t necessarily have to send you a personal message of hope. Because they think you have promise.

The fact of tiered rejection blew open my all-or-nothing thinking.  Knowing the nuances is compelling me to read my email. To give up on giving up. Rejection, like everything else, is complicated. In fact, it may actually be a little cheer for you and your beautiful writing.

Kirsten Voris is an essayist and co-creator of The Trauma Sensitive Yoga Deck for Kids. She’s on draft two of her stage psychic bio and looking to connect with women writing about the history of magic and mentalism. Find her on IG @thebubbleator and Twitter @bubbleate.

Small Press vs. Large: One Size Does Not Fit All

July 7, 2021 § 11 Comments

By Christina Consolino

My debut novel, Rewrite the Stars, launched in March with a small press. Reviews have been generally positive, something for which I’m immensely grateful, and some readers have even been so kind as to reach out via email. They’ve taken the time to say how the story has touched them or to commend me on the research I did to adequately portray a character living with PTSD. These emails breathe life into me. As an introvert, with a screen between me and the correspondent, it is easier to engage with my readers, and I enjoy the interaction.

Sometimes unexpected reviews arrive in my inbox with words that surprise me. Case in point: a message from a fellow author that said, “Wow. Your book is really well written.” Said author went on to imply she’d not expected a well-written book to come out of a small publisher.

Why not? I thought. I put as much (or more) time and energy into that book as any other author, including those published with the big houses.

That particular comment made me wonder about the viewpoints of other authors with respect to small publishers, and I took to observing questions and comments in various author-centric online venues. Multiple attitudes stood out to me:

  1. Small presses are fine, but I have more potential than that.
  2. Small presses are for authors who can’t find an agent.
  3. Small presses won’t do anything for your career.

I didn’t make any comments in those forums, but here’s what I might have said in response to those points of view:

  1. Readers and reviewers judge our stories. Go write the book that lives up to the potential you believe you have.
  2. Agents pass on a lot of good books, and agents don’t always sell books they’ve taken on. Agented authors often still publish with small presses.
  3. The first book is published, and I have that work and experience to point to if I want to pursue a bigger publisher next time. It’s my choice.

The author’s comment (and those views I found online) reopened my eyes to the bias people still hold against work published by small publishers. Somehow, we’ve convinced ourselves that the large publisher is still the gold standard. Want to read a book with great writing? Try one released by a large publisher. Want to read a novel with a compelling storyline? Make sure the author is agented. It’s the same bias I continue to see against those authors who choose to self-publish. It’s a bias that shouldn’t continue to stand. And yet, it does.

Why?

I don’t have a good answer, but I might have a good reminder. We’re all unique human beings with individual stories to tell. We each have different perspectives and experiences, and only we live our particular lives. When I sit to write in the mornings, I don’t share my table with anyone else but my cats (usually Benedict and Arnold, but sometimes Heathcliff wanders by that early too)—and they don’t write (at least not yet). So what’s put on my page comes entirely from my mind, through my own lens.

Later, as my stories go through revision, that process will be unique too. Perhaps I make entire passes or tackle one chapter at a time. Maybe I look for one character and revise their arc or check on setting and description. But again, I’m working with my lived experiences to inform that revision, which are unique to me.

And finally, as I ready my work for possible submission, that journey will be all my own. Other authors can have similar stories to tell, but they did not receive the rejection from the agent that said, “Not for nus [sic]” or the acceptance on the short story that talked about the “urgency in the character’s actions.” They didn’t juggle sending out submissions while taking care of my four children, working multiple teaching jobs, and dealing with my aging parents, one of whom has Alzheimer’s.

A question interviewers like to ask debut authors is: “What can you tell us about your journey to publication?” Writers jump on those stories, finding camaraderie in the similarities and marveling in the differences. If we’re so willing to consider that the journey can differ for anyone, why can’t we accept that the end publishing goal might also differ?

But that, my friends, is the beauty of the current publishing world. What works for me might not work for you, and that’s okay. Just because some of us willingly choose to publish with small presses (or self-publish) does not necessarily mean that our work is inferior. “One size fits all” doesn’t apply here, and it’s time for us, as writers, to realize that.
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Christina Consolino is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in multiple online and print outlets. Her debut novel, Rewrite the Stars, was named one of ten finalists for the Ohio Writers’ Association Great Novel Contest 2020, and she is the co-author of Historic Photos of University of Michigan. She serves as senior editor at the online journal Literary Mama, freelance edits both fiction and nonfiction, and teaches writing classes at Word’s Worth Writing Center. Christina lives in Kettering, Ohio, with her family and pets.

It Can Happen: Rejection and Other Good News

July 2, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Jenny Klion

Another day, another essay rejection. I rarely respond to rejection e-mails, unless they read clever or uplifting, and this one was same-old, dry but polite. “Thanks but no thanks, send us more work if you think it’s a match. Good luck placing that essay we don’t want.”

Here is how I’d like to respond:

“Oh hi Lit Mag, 7 months later. A lot has transpired since we last communicated, when you moved my submission status to ‘in progress.’ Thanks for that and also your note but I recently got a 6-figure book deal via a high-end lit agent, so reject away! I’m only bothered a little bit.”

Dare I press send? What terrible thing would happen if I did? Told the truth with a capital T, which I thought CNF was all about? Do I really have to keep being so proper and well-behaved all of the time? 

It’s this book deal! I’m feeling since like nothing can touch me, like it’s my birthday, every day, except I’m getting younger, or have more future ahead of me, though of course that’s not true. And also that I want to use this good news as a weapon, to point at certain specific someones. Yes, I’m that shallow, and in fact nothing has changed day to day, really. Except that a window is open, at least for a short while, and there’s a wonderful view, which is very satisfying after having had so many doors closed in my face. Also that high price per word, if I’m telling truth with an upper-case T, as in possibly TMI, even after the skim off the top and the split down the middle and the step payments, plus the taxes and what not, that is my best yet!

Over the years I’ve written thousands of words, hundreds of thousands, millions of words. Essays, and more essays, pieces of essays, ideas only, flash, memoir, all of those drafts, and more drafts, some that have seen the light but most have not. Plus cover letters and artist statements, residency and grant applications. The readings and prompts, and classes, endless classes, assignments, and newsletters, tips, how-tos, freebies, and the failures to boot. I once wrote in Brevity Blog about padding one’s word count, as if I needed more words! And then there’s the stuff I barely remember writing. 

Now I see, decades later, that my moment of Zen turned out to be the most petite of flashes—a kids picture book I wrote with someone else—for those in the buying position to sit up and take notice. Also, my writing partner here, my lifelong BFF, happens to be a successful film producer, with enviable representation. Also, I am aware of how gestalt can happen, and I’m just proud enough to take it however I can get it! It was a two-and-a-half-week whirlwind of agent and pub meetings, a book auction OMFG, offer/love letters my shrink suggested I turn into wallpaper, and the realization that I need zoom makeup, badly, which I got for Mother’s Day, along with a tutorial from my proud daughter #amcrying, and a month later I’m still floating back down to earth….

Ah look, here’s another essay rejection rolling in. I won’t say a word, like a good writer shouldn’t. Instead, let me pop it like a balloon and pin up the remains on my new wallpaper, because one couldn’t exist without the other. And get back to work on the next book, for which my partner and I have a ‘first look’ deal. 

It can happen.
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Jenny Klion’s work has appeared in Ploughshares, Longreads, The Rumpus, The Hairpin, The Nosher, the Woodhall Press Anthologies Flash Nonfiction Funny2018, Flash Nonfiction Food, 2020, and more.

Tomato Ready: Publishing, Patience and Pleasant Surprises

June 29, 2021 § 11 Comments

By Andrea A. Firth

My goal for this summer: to get published more. My husband’s summer goal: to grow heirloom tomatoes. In the writing world, we’d call that a metaphor.

We love heirloom tomatoes, the funny shapes, the rainbow of colors, the earthy smells, the taste—sweet and smoky, complex like wine. We buy them at our local farmers’ market, but my husband dreams of having his own tomato plants, ready to pick, and I’m game to help. After watching a YouTube how-to last fall, I harvested seeds from five heirloom varieties, let them dry and stored the tiny seeds in envelopes labelled red, yellow, orange, green, and cherry. In mid-May, he recycled some cardboard packing as planting pots, added soil and a sprinkle of seeds. He was tomato ready.

How does this connect with my publishing goal? All journals want to publish your best work, carefully edited, polished to a shine—like those perfect tomato seeds. With the writing done, the next step is to get tomato ready:

Be Prepared—the first step is READING. You need to read literary journals. I write nonfiction, but the same applies to fiction writers and poets. You read to find a good fit. What kind of writing does the journal publish? Consider genre, style, length, content, structure, form and tone. Does the writing in the journal sound like your writing? Consider published writers who you can follow and model. Where they have been published? When you read an essay, story, or poem that you admire, look at the author’s bio for where she has published. Go read those journals. Make a list of journals that fit.

Read the submission guidelines and follow them to the letter. Fifty percent of the submissions editors receive do not fit the journal or don’t follow the guidelines. These submissions are rejected outright, not because the writing isn’t good, but because it’s a bad fit. Read before you submit—be tomato ready.

Back to the seedlings. Early summer temperatures in northern California can drop into the 50’s, so we’ve been hauling the trays of tomato plants inside at night and out each day. As we moved the tomatoes once again, I asked my husband. “Do you really think this is worth it?”

He smiled and handed me a tray.

Growing tomatoes from seeds takes up to 80 days, almost the entire summer. My husband has always been patient, a quality essential to getting published.

Be Patient—submissions are a long, slow process. Journals take 2, 4, 6 months or more to respond. Most journals allow simultaneous submissions. Up your odds. Submit each piece to 3-5 outlets at a time. Keep writing. Once you have another polished piece, submit to 3-5 more journals. Keep the cycle going. Submitting is doing a writer’s work.

Four weeks in, the best of the tomato plants was only 3 inches tall. My husband called the master gardener, who suggested: change the plant containers (maybe the cardboard contained chemicals); more shade (maybe the seedlings got scorched in the recent heat wave); and give them time. My husband got off the phone and said, “Smart gardener.”

Be Smart—Rejection is part of the process. Learn from it. If you get a personalized rejection, like we are quite interested in seeing more of your writing and hope you’ll send other work—jump on it. Busy editors don’t often send personalized rejections. Submit a new piece (that fits) straight away. Note the editor’s words in your cover letter: I appreciate your positive feedback on my story “The Struggling Tomato.” If you don’t have a new piece that fits, write one. And submit your original piece to a couple new journals.

If you get several standard rejections, take a fresh look. Ask a writer friend whose instincts you trust (your master gardener), to read your piece. Consider the feedback. Make some tweaks. Send it out again.

As we hauled the seedlings inside last night, I said, “You know, we could buy some established tomato plants.”

My husband shook his head. “I’m going to stick with it.” Patient, determined—and stubborn.

Be Stubborn—My graduate-school mentor, Marilyn Abildskov, has been published in The Best American Essays and long list of elite journals. Marilyn once told me that she submitted an essay 40 times before it was published.

40!

“I believed in the piece,” she said, “I knew it would find a good home.” Stubborn.

I’m patiently waiting until August to see how many tomatoes we will harvest this summer. I look forward to biting into that first homegrown heirloom. I think I will be pleasantly surprised.

Be Pleasantly Surprised—Recently I had an essay published, the story of my father’s protracted death braided with the story of a rangy coyote. Another metaphor. I believed this was one of my strongest essays; it was rejected seven times. After the first three rejections, I re-edited and took a closer look at the journals I was targeting. I got personalized rejections from the next four journals. Encouragement. I submitted again, and the essay found a fine home in The Coachella Review, the literary arts journal of the University of California Riverside–Palm Desert.

I was pleasantly surprised.

Andrea A. Firth is a writer and journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area and the co-founder of Diablo Writers’ Workshop. If you are trying to navigate the literary journal publishing process, there is a lot more you can learn and do. Join Andrea on Thursday, July 15th for How to Get Published in Literary Journals (and more). 5 PM PST, recording available if you can’t make it. Details and register here.

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