December 6, 2017 § 3 Comments
The second installment of a series of blog essays by Stacy Murison discussing her use of creative nonfiction prompts and approaches in her first-year composition classes.
As we near the end of the semester, my thoughts turn from creation to revision as our composition students complete one last assignment: a Remediation project. This concept was borrowed from rhetoric studies, where students are asked to transform a piece of existing writing into a new medium such as a video essay, or to consider using an existing medium (Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat) to re-imagine their essay in a new format. Remediation in this case is an opportunity for revision of both form and words.
A challenge always is that students can’t imagine returning to work already submitted and graded and sometimes hope this means that they will get a better grade on their first project. When I explain that remediation is an opportunity to imagine their work in a different way, there’s some hesitation. And, by hesitation, I mean groaning. Like most of us, it’s also difficult initially to imagine exactly how we can revise and improve on our work. For me, I fall in love with the arrangement and emotion of a piece and usually have to step back from an essay for several weeks, or ask a friend to critique it, in order to see clearly revision opportunities. For students, there is some confusion (even this late in the semester) between surface-level editing and a more global revision approach, coupled with the feeling of wanting to move forward with projects, not backward.
I have also heard from students that they don’t often get to write creatively or infuse their own ideas and personality in their work at the college level. I leverage this feeling into a combination of three writing exercises to help students understand the revision process. These exercises are focused on how they tell their own personal stories, which leads into discussions later on how they can use these techniques to revise their essays for the Remediation project.
The first exercise encourages students to write a brief movie trailer about a day in their life. I use YouTube throughout the semester to show students commercials and movie trailers coupled with writing and group activities that help them identify narrative elements, audiences, and appeal techniques. After consuming this type of media all semester, they are primed to write their own trailer. The trailer I show as an example for this exercise is for Jerry Seinfeld’s movie Comedians (2002) and plays with typical movie tropes for action films; part of the humor is that the film is not an action film.
Students can use a “Mad Libs” template I provide or write their own, borrowing the elements from the Comedians trailer or other trailers they’ve seen throughout the semester. I provide index cards so they can write their trailers and set a timer for 5 – 7 minutes. Is their own day-in-a-life story a rom-com? An action film? A comedy? I give examples of a blind date gone wrong, a roommate who chews too loudly, or the pain of waking up for an 8 a.m. writing class. The audience is their classmates and me, who by this time know each other pretty well.
The template looks something like this:
In a (PLACE) where (SOMETHING HAPPENS), one (PERSON) (ACTION). One day (A TURN OF EVENTS). Coming this (SEASON), (MOVIE TITLE).
After they write their trailers on index cards, I shuffle the cards and pass them to another classmate to read. Some students insert dialog and notes on sound effects or cues for the type of music we could expect to hear as part of their written trailer for their reader. Readers will sometimes read in “voice-over” voice. We then guess who wrote the trailer and talk about the identifying elements used and why it might have been easy or difficult to guess the author. This becomes a discussion of their personal writing styles which they have developed over the semester. The exercise introduces a new aspect to consider as they revise a project—who they are in relation to the piece and, because they know their audience, ideas for how to infuse their personality and voice in a new medium.
Students in one of my sections this semester encouraged me to run this exercise as a “true” Mad Libs, where they start writing their story as a trailer and a classmate finishes it. I think this is an excellent idea—it might demonstrate exactly how well the audience knows them, or how to be even more specific in their word choices for an intended audience.
The next exercise involves writing a personal “warning label.” With another round of index cards and five minutes of writing time, I ask them to write a warning label they would wear all day to help others understand how to interact with them. I keep this exercise to 15 words or less—t-shirt slogan-length—and show them some t-shirt images from on-line catalogs such as Signals and Think Geek. We again share these as a class and try to guess who the author is. This exercise helps students distill aspects of themselves and their ideas into a few words—a seemingly impossible task made possible.
The final exercise is a further distillation—the Six-Word Memoir. I have used this writing exercise a few different ways. It works well for the Remediation project because it demonstrates the power of a few well-chosen words. I have also used it for one-minute papers (or “exit tickets”) to check in and see how students are doing in the course overall or with a specific project. For additional fun on the last day of class, I ask the students to write a new six-word memoir that encompasses their journey as a writer throughout the semester.
Re-imagining and repackaging their life stories through the exercises help students access new ideas for potential revision opportunities for their previous projects. Through these exercises, students develop a strong sense of voice, tone, audience, and word choice delivered in active and fun ways that are centered on who they are and how they present themselves. Now they are ready to revisit their previous projects in order to transform their essays into a new medium and with well-crafted and chosen words.
So, what do these projects look like? I had a student reimagine her review of a local pizza restaurant (she thought she could make a better pizza at home) as a Tasty video using her iPhone and posting the video to Facebook. She used the Tasty conventions of an ingredient list and fast-and slow-motion video capture of the pizza making. Another student loved reality television shows and reimagined her review project (a camping trip gone wrong) into a short YouTube video with her roommates as the actors. She followed specific show conventions (Keeping Up with the Kardashians) such as a staged fight and fast-motion photography between scenes. Other students have captured their work in Instagram formats creating new hashtags and writing micro-essays for their photos. Still others use Twitter for a series of connected tweets (or threads) about a specific topic. One student explored folk music for his I-Search project and wrote original lyrics and melody, which he performed in class on his acoustic guitar. Another took his I-Search project on depression and wrote lyrics and a melody, which he recorded to SoundCloud and shared with the class. This type of revision through the Remediation project gives students an opportunity to use platforms they are familiar with and use regularly, as well as showcase their talents. Even students who tell me they are not “creative” have made videos, written hip-hop lyrics, performed comedy routines, or shared photographs on VSCO, Instagram, or Tumblr. As part of the Remediation, students present their work to the class and talk about the choices they made during the revision process.
The results often surprise and humble me, and I think even surprise the students, especially when they hear all of the positive feedback from their classmates during their presentations. Through this entire process, revision is viewed less as an odious task and more as an opportunity for re-invention and re-imagination for both the students themselves and the work they have produced through Remediation.
Tarsa, Becca. Remediation. Digital Rhetoric Collaborative. 25 April 2014. Accessed 1 November 2017 http://www.digitalrhetoriccollaborative.org/2014/04/25/digital-lessons-remediation/
** Very special thanks to students Carly, Ethan, and Dmitrius for sharing your work with us.
Stacy Murison received her MFA in Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University where she now teaches composition. Her work can be found in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, River Teeth, Hobart, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among others.
December 5, 2017 § 26 Comments
Flash memoir is much more difficult than “only 750 words” suggests. As readers, we see finished pieces. Work that’s had a writing buddy or teacher or group say, “I don’t understand that bit,” or “There’s a problem there. Fix it.” But as writers, we’re wading through the murky middle, trying to believe in the Santa Claus of “All the professional writers you love write terrible first drafts! So terrible they will never show you!”
Without seeing, it’s hard to believe.
That’s where reading for a literary magazine (if we can) or reading fellow writers’ work in a group or class serves us. We get to see the pages that need another draft. As a freelance editor, I see similarities in short nonfiction-in-progress. Often, pieces don’t resolve, or don’t have the key story moments of beginning, middle and end. Sometimes the narrator tells what they experienced instead of making the reader feel what they felt. But the most common challenge in flash essays is the very last line.
About half the essays I see could cut the last line, sometimes even the last paragraph. The other half need a sharper, tighter, cleaner “button” to make even a short piece feel satisfyingly finished.
Why so many problems at the end? Perhaps as writers we subconsciously need to be certain our point is made. Maybe we’re so used to slogging forward it’s hard to stop that inertia at word 739. Maybe we honestly don’t know where the story ends. Great endings are often deceptively simple, so we may not have felt a need to work on that element of our craft.
This example is mine, for the purpose of this post—but I’m copying the structure of the issues I see most often.
[Imagine this finishes an essay about a couple visiting India, trying to get on a blocked-off beach to watch the sunset. They’ve irritated each other throughout the story in small ways; he wants to protect/insulate her, she wants to be a little dangerous/culturally insensitive.]
The policeman tried to stop us, but I’d yammered at him in English I knew he didn’t understand and ducked under the plastic tape. “He won’t shoot us, we’re tourists,” I said, and Mark ducked under, too, his face twisting into sorry at the cop and exasperated with me. We sat on piled broken concrete on the dirty beach while the sun vanished behind an oil tanker.
How can we wrap this sucker up, in a way that says something emotionally meaningful happened here, and it was a big enough deal that we bothered to write about it?
Some things to avoid:
- Don’t summarize.
The rest of our trip had been terrible, too—if only I could have made this evening work, maybe I could have made our marriage work.
That’s when I knew I had to leave him if I was ever going to enjoy my life.
- Don’t explain.
I hated that he wasn’t ready for the adventure I wanted my life to be.
Even in India, we were destined to clash, our different backgrounds never letting us truly understand each other.
- Don’t justify.
As the sun set, I realized I couldn’t stay with him—I needed a partner who didn’t judge me.
If he didn’t want to travel wild, he shouldn’t have gone with me, and I wasn’t taking him any further.
- Don’t excuse.
I wish I’d been nicer, but I was twenty, still unaware of privilege easing my way, unappreciative of what Mark meant by “relax honey, just relax.”
Thank goodness I outgrew that stage, even if it did take until our 40th wedding anniversary.
Summarizing and explaining are subconscious manifestations of our fear of not writing well enough. They tell the reader, I’d better spell it out for you in case you aren’t smart enough to get it. Justifying and excusing say, I haven’t fully examined my role in this situation; I know I’m not the hero but I don’t want to be a villain, and they tell the reader, I’m not truly ready to write about this yet.
Instead, use the last line to either gently enfold the reader in your confident arms, or rip off their bandaid. You could:
- Take one step further than the reader thought you’d go. Go to a higher/deeper emotional level.
I wished one of us would fill our pockets with ragged cement shards and step into the waves.
[NB one line too many is a challenge for every single writer no matter what level, because I originally added It would be easier than breaking up, then realized that was one too many.]
- Twist. Show us the opposite of everything the narrator has felt or done so far.
I wanted the cop to say no, I wanted Mark to say no, I wanted someone—anyone—to stop me, send me home, tell me where that was.
[I don’t love the “that” in the last line, so I’d wrestle more with that in a real essay.]
- Admit guilt/fault/complicity.
“See, it’s fine,” I said, and we both knew it wasn’t—it wouldn’t ever be.
Mark’s shadow slumped on the sand, and I missed the man I’d ruined.
I reached for Mark’s hand, and we squeezed hard, each hoping we were doing something right.
Sure, there are other ways to end a flash piece strong (feel free to share examples in the comments!) But these are some techniques to get started. Once the emotion is on the page, sharpen your pencil and ask of your last line, what purpose do you serve? Let the sentence tell you if it belongs.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She just returned from scouting locations in India for a May 2018 writing workshop, hence this example.
December 4, 2017 § 2 Comments
By Phillip Russell
The first time I met Thomas Mira y Lopez was at a local bar early on in my first semester of graduate school. We sat and talked about death and cemeteries—how strange it was to own a plot of land for eternity. Little did I know that Tommy had been finishing up revisions for his first collection of essays The Book of Resting Places, a beautiful, quiet, collection that grapples with anxieties surrounding the death of a loved one and the baggage associated with the places we end up leaving them. The book was recently released, and I had the opportunity to talk with Tommy once again:
Phillip: In The Book of Resting Places a key theme revolves around how we place our memories of the deceased into the physical world whether it be a house, tree, grave, or something else. However, the Thomas Mira y Lopez that exists in the book seems conflicted about these yearnings even though this collection, in many ways, is an artifact of that very inclination. What do you make of that paradox?
Thomas: That’s spot on about the paradox. I envisioned the book as not just being about resting places, but also as a resting place itself. The ability to apply both prepositions to book is crucial, I hope. Because where do we memorialize or elegize the lost if not in books? No resting place is eternal—each one has its half-life—and so the knowledge that this book too is a temporary object informed much of what I wrote. As soon as I granted these memories a physical space I was also, in some ways, changing them.
P: The collection deals with a lot of complicated ideas—ideas that don’t have concrete answers to find. What was your initial motive for writing these essays and how did that change once you started putting the pieces together?
T: This book started because I went for a walk in a cemetery one day in New York. I couldn’t say exactly why I was interested in writing about it, but once I started to think about the spaces I have granted the dead in my own life and what type of memories I started to preserve, the ideas kept coming. One decision I had to make was whether the book would be a tour of literal resting places or a thinking through of the death of my father through those spaces, some physical and some metaphorical. I opted for the latter, as it felt like there lied the questions I could resolve the least, so I needed to try and answer them.
P: One of the most interesting aspects of the essays is the mixing of personal experience and rumination about death with research and journalism. In the second essay, “Monument Valley,” you offer an unexpected parallel between an iPhone game of the same name and post-mortem photography to talk about the subjective perspective we have on our loved one’s lives. How did you approach weaving in these researched topics with your personal experience? For instance, did you play Monument Valley and know right away that you’d be talking about it in your book or did those connections come later?
T: Oh man, “Monument Valley” happened because I had to turn my thesis in and my partner, Sarah, told me about the game right before the manuscript was due. I couldn’t stop playing it when I should have been working and I ended up writing about the game for my aesthetic statement. My thesis advisor, Ander Monson, who champions as he puts it “the bad idea essay” suggested turning it into something. As far as the other essays, I’m not always sure how they came about. Part of it was through reading a lot in an attempt to be receptive and part of it was a mania for parallels. I like playing detective: I would come back to some little statement I had taken for granted in the past—my mom’s stated desire to be buried in a storage unit alongside her possessions like the Egyptian pharaohs—and see what leads I could follow.
P: So much of this collection is about how we remember the dead, it makes me wonder, how do you want to be remembered when it’s all said and done?
T: Part of me wants to quote Diogenes, the Greek philosopher, and say throw me to the dogs, who cares, I’ll be dead. But that seems a bit grumpy—Diogenes was a cynic, after all—and so I’ll say that I aim to end up in somewhere that allows whoever is close to me a space to acknowledge the loss and then move on.
P: This project is about endings and what we do with them. Now that it is out in the world, what’s been your biggest take away?
T: It’s a wonderful, thrilling process to publish a book and I’m lucky to work with excellent people who have guided me through it. But it’s also a really conflicted process—”you run the gamut of emotions,” someone just told me, and it’s true. With this particular book, I realized late in the game that it was a way of creating a second life for my father, and so having it out there also requires acknowledging another loss I never expected to occur. I thought publishing a book would mean keeping someone with you, but really it means letting him go. That’s been hard to reckon with.
Thomas Mira y Lopez has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona. His essays have been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review Online, and The Normal School, among others, and listed as Notables in the Best American Essay series twice. He’s received a fellowship from The MacDowell Colony and a scholarship from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He was 2015-2016 Olive B. O’Connor Fellow at Colgate University and is currently the Kenan Visiting Writer at UNC-Chapel Hill. He’s an editor of Territory, a literary project about maps, and an assistant fiction editor at DIAGRAM.
Phillip Russell is a second year Masters student at Ohio University where he studies Creative Nonfiction. His work has appeared in New River Journal, HyperText Magazine, Burrow Press, Writer’s Digest, and more.
December 1, 2017 § 22 Comments
By Marla Mulloy
Write a letter to your muse, my writer friend said, in answer to my sad, self-loathing, whine about the writing life. So I did. I was mad.
I haven’t heard from you for a long time. I wonder, are you having a nice time on your little holiday? You must be having a holiday; you are certainly not paying any attention to me. Perhaps you are on a beach somewhere in the sun, reading something that someone has actually written? Or maybe you are simply watching people cavort in the sand or wander by the ice cream store, bored silly by my procrastination and delusion. I realize I wasn’t the easiest charge you’ve had. I realize I was hard to motivate, boring to watch. Most likely, you are in my living room sitting in that chair that I placed near the small table where I put the candles and the incense and made space for my yoga mat, under the hanging branches of the Norfolk pine. You are occupying that chair that I placed in this inspirational place for the purpose of writing. Yes, likely you are there, grinning at me as I try to be a writer, waiting for me to just sit down and write. I know I need to do this every day. I know. Many great writers have told me this lately, in their own writing. It is not magic, it is discipline. It is loving the discipline and then reveling in the magic of it.
I lived in Niagara on the Lake one summer, actually two summers, but one in particular involved writing. I wrote three stories that summer. I wrote and rewrote them by hand. On paper. With a pen. I spent afternoons in the Niagara on the Lake library looking up places and facts. I did research. At a library. In books. I wrote about what I knew. Fathers and daughters. Infidelity. And the clumsiness which is sometimes present in finding balance in a new relationship. I was purposeful and true. I even brought one of those stories, submitted it actually, to a writer in residence at the Toronto Public Library – the massive downtown branch that had everything from a bustling children’s section to a reverent, silent reference section that required awe and confidence to even consider entering, as well as permission from the steely woman at the desk. It had a most comprehensive theatre section. I knew about this because my fiancé and all his theatre colleagues would talk about it when they wanted to sound sharp and academic. So I went to see the “writer-in-residence” and I cannot remember a thing he said. And then I got married, I went to work at my new job, I had children and that was that.
So now, oh muse, I must begin again. Or, rather, continue. I am trying. I am thinking about writing a lot. I am waiting for you, looking for you. And I guess what you are telling me is that I cannot wait for you to show up and inspire me. I must just do it and do it some more, actually write words on paper, and you will poke your head in now and then and encourage me. Or laugh at me. Or help me laugh at myself.
Will you steer me or simply stare me into action? I’m going, I’m going.
Regards and love,
Marla Mulloy is an aspiring writer with an evolving collection of poems and stories, one of which has recently been published in The Timberline Review. She has been a teacher and now works with refugees in Calgary. Much of her writing reflects the experience of refugees, documenting through story the paths that brought them here and how they create home in new places. She continues to share her writing through her blog: www.tossingwords.wordpress.com
November 29, 2017 § 4 Comments
By Rachael Teresa Hanel
I’m writing a book about someone who made some bad decisions. She bought a gun, kidnapped a woman, held up a bank, and on the very last day of her life shot at SWAT officers. Camilla Hall’s protest of injustice in America in the 1970s—as a member of the violent Symbionese Liberation Army—took a violent turn that put many people in harm’s way.
If you read anything about Camilla today, the story you get is one only of her bad decisions. Yet, in researching her entire life, I find myself feeling tremendous empathy for her. She grew up with three siblings, but all three had died by the time Camilla was in high school. Her parents were loving, but distant. She kept it secret from them that she was a lesbian. A bubbly personality masked intense sadness and frustration.
I’m trying to uncover who she was before she became the one story the media tell. After reading Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body:A Murder and a Memoir, I understand I’m looking for what are called “causes in fact” in legal terms. What are the possible causes that led Camilla down a violent path? Is there a “proximate cause” that a judge or jury could point to as “the one” cause? Can any action ever be explained with just one “proximate cause”? The law says yes. Marzano-Lesnevich, a trained lawyer, says, “wait a minute….”
The case that gave her pause was that of Ricky Langley, who had been sentenced to death before getting a retrial. Marzano-Lesnevich stumbled upon his case while interning for an anti-death penalty organization. She was staunchly against the death penalty until she learned about Langley. The violence he was accused of, and how it related to a dark secret in her family, endeared in her no empathy. She wanted him to die.
So she set off on a journey to explain her change of heart. What she found surprised her: the more she learned about Langley, the more she saw herself. They had more in common than she would have ever thought: alcoholic dads, a dead sibling, and families who pretended the dark past had never happened. She and Langley were two people destined to be damaged. Both lived lives that spiraled out of control. But the difference for Marzano-Lesnevich was that she recognized her self-destruction and stopped it before it was too late.
This is a story of a search for causes in fact, a search for why we become who we become. It’s also a story about humanity and understanding. Is there room for compassion in the face of evil? Is there room for empathy for the accused? Marzano-Lesnevich struggles with finding the answers to those questions for people in her own life, and she projects those questions onto the case of Langley.
This is a work of narrative nonfiction, in which Marzano-Lesnevich augments the facts with her imagination. She uses dialogue when she didn’t hear it and assigns thoughts and feelings to others. But ever the lawyer, at the end of the book she meticulously lists the sources consulted in each chapter. She makes it clear when she has basis in fact and when she’s used her imagination to make scenes bloom. For example, when writing about a woman taking a swig of alcohol: “Upon the bare information about the drink in the play, I have layered my imagination of what the moment must have been like. That said, the drink does not occur in other descriptions of the search, and should be considered disputed.” I am thankful that this lawyerly voice is reserved only for the sources consulted section. Marzano-Lesnevich the creative writer appears consistently throughout the book itself.
Stylistically, Marzano-Lesnevich uses an odd construction throughout the book that repeatedly took me out of the story. She consistently interrupts scenes from the past with future tense. In one scene showing her mom getting ready for a night out: “She shimmies control-top pantyhose up her legs. Never a bra—my mother, flat-chested like I will be, hates bras.” By page 40, it became distracting enough that I started circling each “will.” On one two-page span, I circled “will” thirteen times.
But still, I was left with a thought-provoking story that puts my own character of Camilla into perspective. We see ourselves in others, even those we may despise on the surface. As Marzano-Lesnevich writes, “What you see in Ricky may depend more on who you are than on who he is.”
Rachael Hanel is the author of We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter (University of Minnesota Press, 2013). She teaches Mass Media at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
November 28, 2017 § Leave a comment
We posted yesterday about Brevity magazine’s new availability in Chinese translation, specifically on the Chinese social media platforms Zhihu and WeChat. Today, we are happy to share four more essays-in-translation:
The Ten-Year Wake by Sue William Silverman:
The Shape of Emptiness by Brenda Miller:
Anniversary Disease by Diane Seuss:
What Bad Owners Say at the Dog Park by Lise Funderburg:
Meanwhile, If you missed yesterday’s post, the details are here:
For Chinese readers, Brevity will go under the name One Leaf. Tong Tong, part of the translation team, explains: “We intend to translate ‘Brevity’ into ‘一叶 yi ye’ in Chinese. Its literary meaning is ‘one leaf,’ and it’s an abbreviation of a Chinese idiom ‘一叶知秋,’ which means that one can sense the advent of autumn via the changes on one leaf. We think that it shows the power of brief writing. In addition, it is a homophone of ‘一页,’ which means one page of paper. We hope you like this name!”
We very much like the name, and we are happy to share the first three postings, including the editor’s introduction to our 20th Anniversary Issue:
“On Turning Twenty”: https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/31011523
And these essays:
Ira Sukrungruang’s “Invisible Partners”: https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/31011526
Rebecca McLanahan’s “The Birthday Place”: https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/31011527
November 28, 2017 § 9 Comments
We’re settled into our seats, ready to watch Meryl Streep perform in the new musical adaptation of Gone Girl (“Gone!”). We’re leafing through Playbill, counting up Oscar nominations, when suddenly Ms. Streep steps out in front of the curtain to address the audience.
“Hi everyone, I’m really excited you’re here for this show, based on the book about a woman who fakes her own disappearance and sets her husband up for a murder rap. I hope you’ll especially enjoy the scene where I write all the journal entries at the same time with different pens.”
Or she says, “In rehearsals for this show, I worked on my high E notes with a noted vocal coach at Julliard, maybe you’ve heard of him?”
We’re already here, Meryl. We’re ready to watch. We trust you to deliver. Just let us watch you–don’t tell us the story you’re about to tell us. And if it turns out the show isn’t to our taste, your pre-show explanation won’t fix that.
Reading submissions is a lot like being in that audience. Around the Brevity Podcast house, we’re settling in with pages of Submittable entries for the One-Minute Memoir episode. Each essay is the curtain going up on a show we’ve never seen before, enjoying how much humor, sadness, quirkiness, reflection, action, and adventure can be packed into under 150 words, sometimes many fewer than that. There are pieces totally unique in content, and others with universal situations but new approaches. Every author has something truly, beautifully theirs…and some of them tell us about it in advance.
Cover letters everywhere range from a single sentence of author bio to a full page of credits, context, and background information, and every variation in between. Sometimes, authors get nervous that the editors won’t get it. Or they’re really excited about their time working with a prestigious teacher. Maybe they feel like they don’t have enough publication credits, and explaining the story fills up that space. Or there’s a backstory that’s totally amazing.
These things don’t suck, but they’re not helping your submission. I don’t actively read the cover letter until I’ve read the essay–though I end up seeing some of what Submittable displays before clicking through to the submitted piece. Most editors want to come to your words as readers do: a fresh impression on the page. They don’t get to sit down and explain to subscribers what they meant when they picked that piece, why they think it’s great. As authors, we rarely get to discuss why or how we came to write something unless we’re talking about it with our friends or being interviewed. But that’s bonus material for the true fans, not a base to start from with first-time readers. Don’t give away the game.
For example, when submitting your terrific flash essay about knitting with a women’s circle in Guangzhou:
This essay focuses on the time I gave birth in China surrounded by my knitting class. I wanted to tell the stories of the amazing grandmothers I met while doing handicrafts in China. They all had children who had emigrated, and I saw how conflicted they felt.
For the purposes of submission, one sentence maximum about the circumstances directly affecting the writing (not the story).
I wrote this during my missionary work in China.
I’m a professional knitting teacher.
Will detailing parts of your story get you rejected out of hand? Not by us. In the long run, this isn’t a huge issue. For most journals, it doesn’t really matter what you write in that space–at this point in the process, they’re interested in the story and the writing. Explaining neither fixes nor destroys a submission. So don’t sweat it if you’ve fallen into this category before. Just stop doing it.
Reading your story is more powerful than reading about your story. Let us be surprised and delighted and astounded–the way we want our audience to be when they get to read your work.
Edited to add: Aerogramme offers some more terrific cover letter advice from Tahoma Review Prose Editor Yi Shun Lai.