October 3, 2019 § 23 Comments
“Could you just look over my pages?” she asks.
I am delighted to help. She’s a good writer, I like reading her work, she’s read my work and she’ll read it again. I dive into the document and realize there’s a problem—not with her writing, which is solid, but with the dramatic structure. The book starts in the wrong place. I work through the first couple chapters, commenting as I go, editing a few errant sentences along the way, then think through ideas and questions and put them in an order I think will best help her. Everything gets typed up and emailed back.
In my inbox are four people who need information or a connection. I like them all, they all deserve my time. Send-send-send-send.
My husband asks if I’ll tape a voiceover for his company’s training video. No pay. The company has an office in a co-working space, and they have generously invited me to use the co-working space any time I want for free, so this is a no-brainer. I’m grateful to be able to return a favor.
And then it’s 1PM. Still on my list: the due-today manuscript for a paying client, the due-yesterday pages for a paying client, the due-tomorrow pages for a paying client. A workshop to plan. My own book to write. Kindness has cost me the entire morning.
Literary citizenship is important. It’s also time-consuming. If I work from home, I have 7 hours of working day, and I usually do laundry or vacuum in there somewhere (running up and down the stairs is also good for my terrible writing posture). If I’m in the co-working space, I lose another hour to the commute. Roughly half my workday is spent on my wonderful clients’ manuscripts and another quarter on the business of being a writer: website maintenance, social media, blog posts. The last couple hours are the time I have for my own work, which I habitually (unwisely!) put last unless I’m on a deadline. If the deadline is for a client, I don’t do my own writing at all.
I’m not quite at the stage of No I Don’t Want to Read Your Manuscript, but I did add a category to my time tracker: “Kindness.” I’ve started hitting the button to see how long I’m actually “just looking something over for a friend.”
I believe in literary citizenship, and I believe in generosity (I’m a Friday’s Child). I also believe in making deposits into the Bank of Good Will against the day I’ll need to make a withdrawal. But I’ve also started thinking about how to keep doing the kindnesses I value without sacrificing too much of my own time.
- Do Less Stuff. I’m an overachiever. But when my writer friend asks for a beta read, they probably don’t want line editing. In fact, too much critique can be worse than too little. Ask before committing: “What kind of feedback are you looking for? Where are you in the process?”
- Do Stuff Faster. Which for me is also, do it more confidently. They wouldn’t ask me if they didn’t trust my skill/opinion/voice-over ability, so I don’t need to check every step of the way if I’m doing it right. Stop second-guessing every comment. Trust my friends are grown-ups and they know my brand is “Unkind Editor,” so if some of my sentences are phrased less elegantly than I would for a paying client, they’re gonna be OK.
- Don’t Do All The Stuff. Just because I’d be good at teaching that class/responding to those pages/critiquing that website doesn’t mean it has to be my job. When someone asks if I have time, it’s OK to say “No, I’m in the middle of another project.” It’s not even my job to direct them to someone else. They have agency, too. I’m not their only friend.
- Ask For Stuff. Remember that Bank of Good Will? It’s not an immediate quid pro quo. Literary favors have a long lifespan. When I needed beta readers for my last novel, some of them were people whose book I read 10 years ago. When I needed someone with good social media to promote my writing retreat, I was glad I’d promoted that person’s work for years.
Literary citizenship runs in cycles. We spend a long time helping our friends, then one day the book deal comes and it’s our turn to ask for their eyes, their email lists or their presence at our launch party. Do favors when you have time, say you can’t when you don’t. Your writing friends will understand—just as you would for them.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Join her and Dinty W. Moore at the Rebirth Your Book finish-your-manuscript retreat in Costa Rica, May 2020.
September 6, 2019 § 36 Comments
By Mary Sojourner
No, I don’t want to read the manuscript of your novel, memoir, musings as a favor and comment on it. No, I won’t give you a few writing tips. No, I won’t blurb your self-published book. No, I don’t want to talk on the phone with you about your book. No, you can’t buy me a coffee so we can chat about your book. You are too late.
I have been a working writer for thirty-four years. I wasn’t able to start my serious writing work till I was forty-five because I was the divorced mother (and full support) of three kids. I chose to not go into academic work because I saw what was happening to good writers trapped in hours and hours, then days and days of reading student writing, good writers who were underpaid and over-worked as faculty, good writers whose words died in that airless atmosphere of low pay and high demands.
I finally gave in two years ago, thanks to the exclusive nature of contemporary publishing, and applied to the local university and local college to teach creative writing. I was told that I don’t have an appropriate degree, despite a resume that includes eight nationally published books, years as an NPR commentator, hundreds of op eds and magazine articles, being featured at national academic writing conferences – and serving as Distinguished Writer in Residence for an Arizona university.
So, no, you who are looking for a volunteer mentor, I won’t work for free. I have done just that for at least thirty years, in the spirit of kinship, in the belief that we needed to help each other, in the spirit of revolutionary literary community principles. Now? I give to my writing.
Mary Sojourner is the author of the short story collections, The Talker and Delicate; three novels: Sisters of the Dream , Going Through Ghosts and 29; the essay collection, Bonelight: ruin and grace in the New Southwest; and two memoirs, She Bets Her Life and Solace. She has written op eds and columns for High Country News, Yoga Journal, Writers on the Range, Matador Network.
August 5, 2019 § 7 Comments
By Victoria Buitron
Over the past week, my Twitter feed has been embroiled in yet another “Is an MFA really worth it?” discussion. I’ve read Tweets about how real authors would never get an MFA, posts from graduates upset that they didn’t get the teaching position they wholeheartedly expected, a few lukewarm “NO regrets!” posts, and Kelly Link’s thread detailing the staggering amount of debt people have acquired for an MFA. The figures are shocking and disheartening. But I am one of those individuals who is going into debt for an MFA program with my eyes wide open, and I’d like to share my debt story.
Think of it as a Money Diaries post except it’s only about grad school and it’s not anonymous.
I would have begun an MFA program as soon as I graduated with a BA in 2015, but I didn’t have any savings or the work experience I wanted. That year I landed a position I love as a translator and editor and began saving for grad school. Thanks to social media interest trackers, the Fairfield University MFA website would regularly appear on my browser over the following three years. I googled all the teachers and fell in love with their work. It’s a low-residency program, based in my state, and there was a list of a few graduate assistant positions. Although the opportunity didn’t mean I would get an assistantship, I wanted the option to be available.
It was important for me to know I would have a shot at additional funds. I’m an immigrant who has lived between two countries, the United States and Ecuador, for most of my life and I’ve only put down official roots in the U.S. since 2012. The only way I can save money is by doing gigs on the side: house-sitting, dog-sitting, babysitting, editing, translating, and tutoring in English and Spanish. There have been times I’ve put kids to sleep at 8:00 p.m. and then written until the parents arrived at 1 a.m. I put all those savings away for MFA application day.
I had $3,000 in student loans when I graduated with my Bachelor’s (shout out to Hunter College–CUNY) and I felt I could afford a maximum of $15,000 in student loan debt with accruing interest for an MFA program. Nonetheless, I wanted to do anything legally possible not to take out that amount.
In early 2018, once I chose three low-residency MFA grad programs, with Fairfield University as my #1 choice, before sending out my applications I requested a meeting with my boss. There was nothing in the employee handbook that indicated tuition reimbursement existed, but I had to ask. I’m a confident woman, I know what I’m worth, and if you don’t ask, you’ll never get anything.
My employer informed me they would pay up to 50% of my tuition, with stipulations regarding my grades, the type of degree I would get, and the amount of years I’d work for the company. I accepted. Afterwards, I applied to Fairfield University’s MFA in Writing and was accepted.
In the first year, my employer paid half of my tuition, leaving me with around $10,000 to pay off. I had $5,000 in savings ready to use, leaving the need for $5,000 in student loans. Towards the end of my second semester, I was informed that a new graduate student position became available to serve on the staff of Brevity. I had read the magazine religiously even before I entered my program, was a submissions reader for the magazine during my first two MFA semesters, and had been in a workshop with the founding editor. I applied and got the position, which comes with a 50% stipend for tuition.
For my last year of grad school, I won’t have to pay tuition at all. I will be working my ass off, but I thoroughly enjoy working for Brevity, and I won’t need any additional loans. I haven’t graduated yet, but my writing has already improved, I love my MFA community, and many doors have opened up for me. It’s all been worth it.
I have had many privileges that led me to low student debt. I am an able-bodied Latina who has a secure job, lives in a two-income home, no children, and I have time on my side to save money. It’s important to acknowledge there are structural economic factors that prevent many people from saving through side gigs like I do. People can’t pull themselves up by the bootstraps if they can’t afford boots. In certain cases, saving money is just not feasible and loans are the only option.
Are you considering an MFA but worry about the debt? Here are my tips for tentative grad students:
- Look up grad schools with fully-funded programs, partially-funded programs, and graduate student positions. Unless you can pay for grad school out of pocket, there should be no reason why you’re attending a school that doesn’t provide these sorts of opportunities to their students.
- Plan ahead. Years ahead.
- Figure in the loan principal and interest whether or not you will get that teaching and/or tenure track job.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for money. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you deserve. The worst people can say is no. But always, always ask.
- Apply for grants and scholarships. You’ll have a better shot at local ones than national ones.
- Google the teachers and the directors of the grad programs you’re interested in. They will be your community, and you have to determine whether you’re ready to pay to be in that community. Once you are seriously considering a program, e-mail the director or administrator and ask if you can be in touch with some current students.
- Low-residency or full-residency. Determine the pros and cons and what would be best for you.
- Go to a local library writing workshop or join a writers’ group before shelling out thousands of dollars for an MFA. Maybe you’ll realize that’s all you needed.
- Don’t compare your financial situation with the person next to you in workshop. No one else but you knows what you can afford, save and pay back in loans.
- Please don’t get into $100,000 debt for an MFA. No matter what the name of the school is.
Victoria Buitron is a writer and translator based in Connecticut. She is currently an MFA candidate at Fairfield University’s low-residency program. Find her at atravelingtranslator.com and on Twitter at @kikitraveler30.
July 16, 2019 § 34 Comments
By Sarah Anne Strickley
I recently read a piece online about how the Internet is like the industrial revolution in that we won’t understand its impact until we’ve gained significant distance. But, as an editor with more than twenty years of experience and as the current faculty editor of a bi-annual journal, I think I can say right now that the Internet has transformed the business of literary journals into a system that actively works against the practice of reading for pleasure.
For more than two decades, writers have argued the various advantages and disadvantages of digital media. Digital journals are more portable, accessible, cheaper, and more easily transmitted than print journals. They have, for all intents and purposes, won the war. Case in point: the idea of starting a new print magazine now sounds insane; only the bold, the idealistic, and the angry endeavor to do it. Shout-out to my good friends at Oversound!
The comparatively smaller monetary investment required to start an online journal means that a broader range of literary tastes are serviced in a digital publishing landscape. It also means that traditionally marginalized voices have a greater chance of circumventing those old, fusty gatekeepers. But the massive proliferation of literary journals online has, among other things, diluted the meaning of publication to the degree that we’ve clung to pre-digital hierarchies as a defense against chaos.
Despite our market-expressed preference for disruptive digital technologies, we still trust The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Paris Review, Granta and handful of other top-tier publications to tell us who is writing the most important, must-read work today. (There are notable all-digital exceptions to this rule, of course. You’re reading this diatribe on the Brevity blog, after all.) The important difference now, though, is that we don’t want to pay for access to that information, which is one of the reasons why journals like Tin House, Glimmer Train, and The Normal School, to name only a few recent (and painful) examples, are closing up the print-issue shop.
As many avid readers are quick to note, the experience of reading physical books is different enough from the experience of reading digital books to retain its value. That’s why indie bookstores are in the midst of an exciting resurgence. But there is a broader audience for books than there is for literary journals. The audience for literary journals is predominantly made up of writers. We can quibble over the reasons, but the cold, hard truth is that writers have decided that they don’t want to pay for access to literary journals. The medium has not retained its value; it is, therefore, unlikely to experience an approximate resurgence. But does that necessarily mean that it’s dead?
Only publications with established, dynamic, and diversified funding structures—and a heaping helping of straight-up grit and luck—will survive the current extinction event ravaging the literary publishing planet. I won’t sentimentalize the days of yore (journals have always been propped up by generous donors, selfless editors, and affiliate institutions), but I will say that I deeply regret the disappearance of so many wonderful and daring publications. It is my sincere belief that the world will be less interesting for the loss of them.
Like many writers who are also editors, I have the very clear sense that we are reaching a highly regrettable inflection point. As a writer myself, I know the frustration of paying journals to spend a year (or more!) not reading my work only to fire off a form rejection, but I also know what the back end of a literary journal looks like: a tiny budget, a reliance upon an unpaid editorial staff, a fraught relationship with costly digital submission managers, a shrinking audience, and an unwieldy fire hose of digital submissions aimed directly at our heads.
My experience is anecdotal, but it’s also common enough among literary editors as to be depressingly representative of the state of affairs. We know that a substantial percentage of the writers who submit to our journals do not read our journals; many of us have long-since abandoned the hope that a readership of writers would be willing to pay to sustain our literary journals; and we’re also often the targets of some writerly hostility. (Ask me about the writer who began e-mailing one of my undergraduate editors when he didn’t like the response he’d heard from me, or the writer who decided her best poems were too good for us post-acceptance and sent us three others instead.)
It’s easy to become apathetic in the face of apathy, to throw up your hands and say: what’s the point of all this? Two recent trends have convinced me that the meaning may have fallen out of the endeavor: It’s not at all uncommon for a certain tier of writer to demand as a prerequisite to responding to a query letter that an editor promise to nominate the work (sight unseen) for certain honors and awards. And it’s not at all uncommon for a different tier of writer to list the number of publications earned (sans titles of journals) in cover letters. As in, “I have published in 122 journals.”
That’s the problem in a nutshell, isn’t it? Increasingly, it’s the mere fact of the publication in the context of cover letters to editors and agents that matters, not the fact that the reading of the publication might offer a unique (and valuable) pleasure to the reader. It’s a numbers game. And, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had much of a taste for math. What I love, instead, is the thrill of discovery, the opportunity to reconsider what I know of genre conventions, the chance to lose myself in a story and wake up an hour later with my head on backwards.
Where else can you read Lydia Davis or Carmen Maria Machado published alongside writers publishing their first poems? Where else can you encounter variety within variety: a creative non-fiction category, for example, that features flash, longform reporting, and lyric essays? Or an 83-page poem published alongside a series of translations? Where else can you read literary reviews that are written in the service of explicating a book-length work in literary (and distinctly non-commercial) terms—for the sheer love of it?
The work of the literary editor is about providing a rich readerly experience to an audience that is far more likely to read a tweeted photograph of a printed page or follow a link posted to Facebook than to purchase an issue and/or read it whole. But those of us who keep on keeping on are often the ones too in love with the business to ever stop. Bringing writers together and sharing their work with others is often a thankless, soul-wearying endeavor. It’s also the most wonderful job I know.
I’m convinced that online journals have a shot at sustainability (the journal I edit is online, so I have become a digital strategizer and a shameless crowdfunder) but we appear to be reaching a point where writer/reader apathy collides with editor apathy. I fear that the tension might erupt in a conflict that precipitates yet another round of extinctions. I’m not sure how we fight back—perhaps no one knows—but I do know that it would help if the tone and tenor of the business were less antagonistic and more celebratory. We’re all on the same team, I find myself repeating to myself. And then, in my darker moments, I find myself wondering: Are we on the same team?
There are certain technologies that always endure cultural paradigm shifts and words are one them, of course. I hope we come around to discovering their value in the context of the literary journal again—and soon. With any luck, I’ll still be here. Reading the slush. Forever.
Sarah Anne Strickley is the author of the short story collection, Fall Together (Gold Wake Press, 2018). Her stories and essays have appeared in Oxford American, A Public Space, Copper Nickel, Witness, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing and serves as faculty editor of Miracle Monocle at the University of Louisville. Visit her online at www.sarahannestrickley.com and visit Miracle Monocle at http://louisville.edu/miraclemonocle
July 1, 2019 § 31 Comments
By Jenny Klion
Acknowledge that you are, in fact, the oldest living being in your class, older probably than the classroom itself, and definitely older than your eye-candy teacher.
If and when you are not the object of any classmate’s romantic or sexual affection: let it go. You had your turn, and you did it well. Remember that at one time, you too might have wondered who that random older woman was—the one looking to get laid at the summer writing workshop.
Realize you may miss out on some late night social intrigue, since you have opted out of staying in the dorms due to the nightmare scenario of shared coed bathrooms. Harken back to the time when you knew you were done doing circus work, because you ultimately couldn’t live without porcelain.
Know that your work may scream Boomer themes and concerns—your poor little rich girl saga, for example—and that your story might not be as fresh as your classmates’ stories, with their contemporary radium-filled toxic hometowns and their coming-of-age slaughterhouse sex patrols.
Comfort yourself with a lunch at the documentary-famed pint-sized burger joint in town, which traffics in cash only, offers no condiments, only tomato and onion on white bread toast, with the burger cooked medium rare, and you better not ask for anything else. Do this because you know that you are not part of the popular crowd anymore. Suffice it to say that your idea of partying involves getting a to-go cup for the remains of your one glass of sangria from the Cuban restaurant you eat at by yourself.
Bless your soul also when you admit that at one point you feel like Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, whose ability to land a doomed plane on the surface of the water was due in large part to the depth of his age and experience. And that you yourself survive the crushing defeat of a bad critique, with your head held high to boot, because you’ve already been there and done that before. Many times over. And come out with something better on the other side.
Pat yourself on the back when you exchange your campus keys for a certification of completion. You have earned serious bragging rights, and that kind of satisfaction never gets old.
Jenny Klion’s work has appeared in Ploughshares, Longreads, The Rumpus, Tonic, The Hairpin, and the anthology Flash Nonfiction Funny (Woodhall Press 2018), among others.
June 25, 2019 § 15 Comments
As online writing communities proliferate, new writers flock to groups that include members of all experience levels, asking some of the same questions over and over again. Some questions are difficult to research independently—seeking a consensus of opinion or a specific sliver of information—but other questions could, and should, have been Googled first.
Starting to write is overwhelming, I know. Annie Proulx I am not, and yet even I have been asked “how do I know where to submit my stories?” more often than I can count. Just because I’ve done it before. I suspect that new writers are often so worried about starting that they want to talk to another human being about it, even if that human being isn’t particularly impressive. In grad school, I was asked so many times where and how to submit short stories, I wrote a series of blog posts about the question and related ones. In online groups, I refer curious new writers to this series of posts at least monthly.
I’m hardly the only person to write helpful blog posts aimed at beginning writers. Any online search reveals a boatload—a yachtload—of opinions about market and submissions. Maybe this is part of the problem; maybe there’s simply too much out there, so overwhelmed young writers post “How do I know where to submit?” instead of sorting through Google results, knowing that a human will offer a narrower, less intimidating place to begin.
That troubles me. Online communities are poor substitutes for the kind of genuine mentorship that can give a young writer the aesthetic foundation and emotional stability to persist in a difficult career. Plus, dashing off a post with a broad question betrays a desire for the easiest way. It shifts the labor of research onto the answerers, rather than the questioner. It’s akin to skipping a seminar, then asking at the next class, “What’d we do last week?” It’s the student’s job to find out and make up what she missed, and—crucially—not to waste the time of the other students, who are ready to get on with that week’s class.
This is the labor underneath writing: research, trial and error, reading. Hours of browsing online content to see if your work is a good fit. Honing queries, word by word; mourning lost opportunities (and determining to do better next time) due to not reading the submission guidelines down to the last comma; poring over prize-winning collections and pieces to figure out what makes their work different from yours. Pitching and following up. Writing interview questions. Crappy spreadsheets.
It’s hard, annoying labor, but it’s not possible to outsource. You have to learn how to do it. Most of learning how to do it happens on your own.
Asking other people to do or explain the under-labor of writing will make you more helpless and, ultimately, less successful; it will mean always buying fish from the grocery instead of catching your own.
If you have no idea how to fish, then of course you need to learn from the ground up. But would you go directly to Kevin VanDam, the greatest living bass fisherman, to learn to cast a line for the first time? No, you would not. You’d probably start with YouTube tutorials, or a library book, or someone’s dad. When your skill level grows beyond what you can figure out on your own, then you seek help.
A writer asking general questions of a community of experts when he hasn’t put in enough effort to learn the answer on his own demonstrates that he doesn’t work independently very well. That’s a real problem for a mostly solo profession. It also shows that the writer has minimal understanding of the time and work publishing takes, how much research writing involves, how frequently it requires sorting through overwhelming noise for the harmonies that make the work sing. Writing is a profession like any other, and learning a profession takes time and effort. Enough lazy, broad questions online and expert writers will stop answering. Then all of us lose out on the value they add to such communities.
(Incidentally, a writer who is discouraged from asking more directed or complex questions by this message of “figure out the basics before you seek help” is missing the grit and perseverance necessary to be a writer. Feeling rejected, overwhelmed, and lost is a daily condition. Get past it.)
The early stages of being a writer are full of such uncertainty, so many questions, and it seems impossible to know what you’re doing. But no one guidebook will tell you what you need to know. No number of answered questions will prepare you for being inside the profession. At some point you have to get a rod and reel and go, learn in the moment what it feels like to have a fish on your line. That experience will only bring up a whole new set of questions, some of which might not appear to have answers you can Google as easily as your early ones. Voila, the community will be there to help.
Ask your questions, by all means.
But do your research first.
Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., the Washington Post, NPR, LARB, and many other places. Her novella, Ceremonials, is forthcoming in 2020 from Kernpunkt Press. Find her at kcoldiron.com or on Twitter @ferrifrigida.