Asking the Question I Can’t Answer

January 11, 2021 § 20 Comments

By Rae Pagliarulo 

As the Associate Editor of an online nonfiction magazine, I manage the incoming flow of submissions, and work with a team of 12 smart, capable, and opinionated people to determine which pieces we should publish in the magazine. As we read submissions and try to make thoughtful choices, we come up against a seemingly simple question over and over again – why? When we’re reading submissions from the slush pile, we’re always thinking about the intersection of two critical factors – how skillfully a story is told, and how meaningful that story is, both to the narrator and the reader. Why, we wonder as we read submission after submission, was it important for the writer to tell this story? And why, we yearn to understand, will this matter to our readers? 

The factor of skill has been debated and quantified for years, and I’m sure if you’re reading this, you’ve got dozens of books on your shelf that painstakingly outline precisely how to do this well. There are a million ways to go about it, but we can look at our favorite writing – at the online essay that stole our attention last week, at the anthology of flash we return to over and over again – and see these ways at work. We pay money for workshops and degrees that will help us answer this question. We talk about it over email, in writing groups, at conferences. 

But that second critical success factor – the work of taking the story of what happened and making meaning of it – or said differently, making the reader understand not just what you are saying, but why you are saying it, is so elusive. It’s personal. It’s deeply intimate. And I’m not sure it can be taught, or explained, or diagrammed. 

I’m also fairly certain that in everything I’ve written recently, I haven’t been able to do it. 

What does that mean for me as an editor? According to the publishing power dynamics that be, I am in a position to decide what gets accepted by the magazine. I have a team of very thoughtful and diverse individuals who share their amazing insights with me on every single piece that gets submitted, but even with their voices in the mix, the act of choosing what stays and what goes is inherently subjective, and therefore, inherently imperfect. It’s the question I’m sure many editors ask themselves – Who am I to pass judgment? But I’ll add this qualifier – Who am I to pass judgment, especially when I have trouble doing the exact thing that I expect the writers I publish in the magazine to do well? 

Perhaps this conundrum is proof (and comforting proof, I hope) that the act of learning how to do a thing well never truly ends, and that the work of seeing, understanding, and recognizing a thing may not be inextricably connected to one’s ability to produce it. In this moment, am I struggling to write things I’m proud of, things that are worthy of a home in online magazines like the one I dedicate my time and effort to? Yes, I am. 

But that doesn’t mean I can’t figure it out, and more importantly, it doesn’t mean that i’m incapable of recognizing the elusive, personal, hard to illustrate why in the writing of others. I see it every single day in the slush pile, and I’m reminded that not only is the why attainable, it’s abundant. Meaning is everywhere, if you know where to look for it. And so many writers, whether by sheer universal accident or dogged practice, prove time and time again that they do. 

The slush pile is a place that reminds me that in so many cases, experience + distance = meaning.  We cannot report on the storm from inside of it, and perhaps that’s what’s at play as I struggle to make meaning in my own work. The year 2020 was its own unique struggle (though I am deeply fortunate to have been less affected than so many others), but inside of that flaming container, I’ve had personal difficulties and demons to grapple with. Grief, heartbreak, depression, anxiety. Things I yearn to make meaning of, but things that ultimately color and influence my ability to do so. They shorten my vision, cutting off the big picture and only allowing me to see the next few steps. They numb my creative fire, tamping it down into an ember that barely keeps me warm. 

The truth is, my work as an editor keeps that ember alive. It reminds me that every single day, people are writing and putting themselves out there. Every single day, we get more and more distance between us and the moments and incidents we long to talk about. Regardless of how my own writing continues to develop, I remain romanced, driven, and enchanted by the why, and my team and I make it our mission to elevate the voices of writers who answer it brilliantly.

And perhaps that’s the best way to deactivate the self doubt that has been plaguing me, the frustration I feel at not being able to answer the very question I ask of every submission I read. Perhaps I need to reframe the work I do as an editor, not as picking and choosing or passing judgment on what’s good, but as finding moments of meaning, moments that say something about what it means to be a person in this world, and to shine the biggest light I have access to directly on those moments. To be a steward, a celebrator, a champion. A human and writer and editor who, like everyone else, is in the constant process of learning how to not just recognize a thing, but to do it well. Why not? 
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Rae Pagliarulo is the Associate Editor of Hippocampus Magazine, and earns her living as a resource development consultant. Her poems, essays, and articles have been featured in Full Grown People, bedfellows, r.k.v.r.y quarterly, Cleaver, POPSUGAR, the Brevity Blog, and many others. She is the 2014 winner of the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry, and earned her MFA from Rosemont College, near her lifelong home, Philadelphia. Find her at raepagliarulo.wordpress.com.

On Playing Cards and Literary Rejection: Betting on the Come

May 31, 2019 § 10 Comments

zz_kathyby Kathy Stevenson

I come from a family of dreamers, wishers, horoscope readers, and gamblers.  Which turns out to be the optimal background for a writer.  When Dad went to the track on Saturdays (if he had the day off from one of his three jobs) my five younger sisters and I never knew if he was going to show up at home after the last race with a carful of groceries, a new bike for one of us, or for that matter – a new car.  Or, conversely, nothing at all but a hangdog look that meant we were going to be eating grilled Velveeta cheese sandwiches on the thinnest of store-brand white breads until the next payday.

I also come from a family who loves to read and write.  Teetering stacks of library books could be found in nearly every room of whichever rental home we happened to be living in.  Even when we lived up at the top of Lookout Mountain, just west of Denver, we had access to books, thanks to the big blue bookmobile that lumbered along the winding hairpin turns.  (Dad even drove the bookmobile one summer when he needed extra cash, probably for the track.)

My sisters and I wrote elaborate plays and stories, mostly featuring princesses, or pioneer girls captured by Indians.  Of course, as oldest, I was the director, the final editor, and always took on the role of Queen – my sisters existing only to do my bidding.

Neatly folded and annotated stacks of Racing Forms and glossy past copies of Blood Horse magazine were stacked neatly near my dad’s easy chair.  The Racing Forms were a crucial part of Dad’s “system,” a system that we understood had been calculated by Dad to pick winners.  He and his race track buddies refined and compared these sure-fire schemes to outsmart the other system – that of the owners, jockeys, track conditions, and horses themselves.

One day, my dad got an idea in his head to write a story.  He loved to read, and he had this idea for a story about a tout, which is someone who will share solid tips on upcoming races for a portion of any winnings.  He called his story “The Tout.”  I have no memory of the story’s plot, and am not even sure if I ever read it.

But what I do remember about it is the dramatic impact it had on our lives.  Suddenly we were all invested in “The Tout.”  My mom typed it up, and off it went in the mail to Playboy.  If Dad was going to write and sell a story, he was going to sell it to the highest-paying market.  Which, at the time was Playboy magazine.  I don’t recall ever seeing a Playboy in our house, but obviously Dad had some inside knowledge about such matters.

We all waited for the acceptance letter and check in the mail, with a hum of excitement that thrummed through our family like a low-grade fever.  Once Dad got this first acceptance and check, he would write more stories, and the Big Money would be rolling in.  He started buying newspapers from Phoenix and Los Angeles to check on jobs and home prices, because if he was going to be a writer, he wasn’t going to suffer through one more winter in Colorado, damn it.

The inevitable rejection did come, and as far as I know my father never wrote another story.  He did, however, continue to gamble.  Always the horses, but also casinos, which my family loves for their “free” slots cash and buffet meals featuring crab legs.

Later, in my thirties, when I started regularly publishing my own work, I often thought about (and still think about, now in my sixties) how with writing I am betting on my own version of “the come.”  In card playing, betting on the come is betting on cards that may come in the future.  This can be based on a bluff or a calculation, and can involve odds, probabilities, and strategies.  Sending my work out to various publications and literary agents often reminds me of a gamble.  I’ve done my best to calculate the odds, and even though I often come up short, I have enough wins in the plus column to keep on trying for the Big One.

 Urban Dictionary defines betting on the come as, “You don’t have what you want or need at the moment, but you are betting or hoping you will have what you want or need when the time comes.”  Synonyms like wishes, daydreams, fool’s paradise, and pipe dreams are also offered up.

Oddly enough, any one of those phrases describing a gambler’s life, a life that I wholeheartedly rejected, could accurately describe my life as a writer.  And, also oddly enough, I wholeheartedly embrace that life.
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Kathy Stevenson’s essays and short stories have appeared in an eclectic array of newspapers, magazines, and literary journals including The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Writer, Red Rock Review, Clapboard House, Tishman Review, The Same, and the Brevity blog.  She has an MFA from Bennington College and has lived in New Jersey, Colorado, California, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Illinois.  She does not gamble, unless you count the rare Wednesdays that she takes her mom to the Senior Center for Bingo.

Is the Pushcart Unplugged?

January 9, 2012 § 2 Comments

Travis Kurowski offers up a compelling critique of The Pushcart Prize – Best of the Small Presses 2012 over at Luna Park.  Travis, as we do, values all of the work Bill Henderson has put into the series over the years, but worries about a bias against online work:

The problem was the severe limitation of the anthology’s scope, an anthology ostensibly offering up the “Best of the Small Presses.” This is a shortcoming most significantly represented by Henderson’s disparagement of any and all online and electronic publishing venues. (Only one online publication was chosen from for this 2012 anthology.)

..

When the Pushcart Prize began in 1976 it was the anti-establishment (for lack of a better word). Anais Nin, Buckminster Fuller, Charles Newman, and Ishmael Reed were all prominent supporters from its inception. Maybe today things have changed? Not only are electronic and online publications nearly missing, but so are most cutting edge literary magazines and presses—Conjunctions and n+1 are about as avant garde as it seems to get this year. The anthology begins with work by Steven Millhauser and John Jeremiah Sullivan, two stunning authors, but also ones we can easily find in the glossies. Most of the publications with work chosen from them are largely mainstream, lit mag industry staples: Georgia Review, Harvard Review, New Letters, New England Review, Poetry, Third Coast, Tin House, and so forth. Again, these are largely great magazines; what’s lacking in the anthology is greater diversity and real coverage of the best being published in the indie presses.

Of course I’ll buy next year’s anthology, and the following year, and the year after that. And if I run into Henderson I’ll try to remember to introduce myself and thank him for all the great work he’s done for literature over the decades. The Pushcart anthologies are overall great publications, probably the best out there for representing and promoting what’s going in indie literature. I’m just hoping for a bit more electricity in the future.

You can read his full post here.

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