The Long Way through No, To a Big Short Yes

October 18, 2016 § 14 Comments

lisa-romeo-nov-2013-cBy Lisa Romeo

You know the old saw. Tourist asks a New Yorker: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Wiseguy answer: “Practice, practice, practice!”

So, how did I get published in Brevity Magazine?

Practice.

For several years, Brevity was on my list of literary venues I vowed to crack. Why?

First of all, I love reading Brevity. That’s reason enough. While I drift most naturally to writing longer essays than Brevity’s 750 word limit, over the past few years I’ve been intrigued by flash nonfiction, and have been writing more of it. To me, Brevity is the mother ship for short nonfiction. Brevity also consistently publishes writers whose work I admire; who doesn’t want to share literary real estate with the cool writing kids? Finally, once I put a publication on that “to be cracked” list (which stares at me from a whiteboard in my office), it’s game on.

Even if the game takes three years and six rejections before a Yes.

Lesson number one: Persistence.

One thing that kept me submitting was my history with Brevity—kept handy in my Excel spreadsheet—included many “nice notes”: Moved by your story…Sorry to say no to this one…Try us again…Writing is impressive, but…” As an editor at a lit journal myself, I know those salvos are only handed out when an editor means it.

Lesson number two: Believe the feedback.

Studying the rejected pieces, I saw they were all based on something pulled out of a longer work-in-progress. It’s not that I didn’t work hard at condensing/rewriting (all eventually found publishing homes). But now I understand that one big reason the accepted piece worked is that I wrote it for Brevity the first time around: it never existed as anything other than a 748 word essay.

Lesson number three: Start from scratch.

When I saw Brevity‘s themed call for works “examining lived experiences of race, racism, and racialization and the intersections between race and gender, class, dis/ability, and language,” I knew immediately what I’d write about: an incident 15 years in my past, that at times still felt lodged in my throat. I set to work immediately; I didn’t dismiss the idea before even getting started, as we writers so often do.

Lesson number four: Listen to the gut.

I tend to be an over-writer, churning out rough too-long drafts, because I’m that odd duck who loves messy brutal revision. This time, I was conscious from the start that I didn’t want to go more than 100 words over with an early draft. That helped, a lot.

Lesson number five: Shake up the process.

By the third (or was it 23rd?) draft, I experienced a familiar nah-this-stinks-forget-about-it attack. That was compounded by seriously questioning my ability to speak to the topic, which sounded like: who-am-I-kidding-who-am-I-to-write-about-race.

Then a friend asked me to read something he was considering submitting for the same issue, and that reminded me: beyond the guidelines, you can’t know precisely what editors are looking for. If you pre-reject yourself (by not even submitting), you’ve lost twice.

Lesson number six: Punch that inner critic in the teeth and carry on.

When putting the final polish on the piece, I read and re-read 15 different Brevity pieces. Yes, this is out of order; that’s the first thing a writer should do: read the journal. But I had been reading Brevity, every issue, all along. This was a double, final gut check, a slow thoughtful cruise, making sure I’d absorbed the lessons I’d learned along the way.

Lesson number seven: Read, write, repeat. (hat tip: Susan Sontag)

When I finally hit submit, it was with a mixture of familiar dread (here we go again) but also, for the first time, a hopeful sense that maybe I’d done it right this time. But then, who knows?

Lesson number eight: You can’t hit if you don’t swing. (hat tip: Dad)

When the acceptance arrived, I didn’t break into my usual dance-around-the-room jig, maybe because I was practicing a conference presentation, annoyed at myself for incorrectly ordering the slides.

Instead, I read the email on my phone, smiled, and went back to work. Because I’d submitted it exclusively, I didn’t have to navigate the tediousness of withdrawing it from other journals, or second guessing that I’d sent it to the wrong place. There was only calm, a sense of feeling both particularly lucky, and also rewarded for staying the course.

I did however visit my whiteboard list, and put a big check mark next to Brevity.

And wondered what to write next.

Lesson number nine: Rinse, repeat. (hat tip: every writer, every editor, ever)

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Lisa Romeo is a New Jersey writer, editor, and writing professor. Her work is included in the Notables Essays section of Best American Essays 2016, and has appeared in the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Hippocampus, Full Grown People, The Manifest Station, and of course, Brevity. Lisa serves as creative nonfiction editor for Compose Journal, and as a review editor of scholarly works for the Journal of Creative Writing Studies. Her blog offers interviews, resources, and advice for the writing community. Find her on Twitter @LisaRomeo.

Three Commandments for Writing About Race

September 14, 2016 § 3 Comments

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Xu Xi

A Craft Essay by Xu Xi 許素細 to accompany our Special Issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization: 

Race, unlike a monotheistic god, no longer has a singular ancestry. There are those who like to think it still has, but that paradigm shifted centuries ago.  Thus the first biblical commandment, about a god liberating people from bondage can apply to freedom from a singular notion of race, and, by extension, to writing about race, freeing yourself from the “problem” of race.

There’s a race problem we need to write about and it goes something like this: I’m better than you because I’m the superior race, regardless of how I live.  C.Y. Lee 黎錦揚 forgot about race (and even his natural language Chinese) when he first showed up in the U.S. in 1943 as an aspiring playwright.  When no one would stage his play with Chinese characters, he heeded advice to try a novel and wrote The Flower Drum Song, about people in San Francisco’s Chinatown, turning life as he witnessed it into art.  His book is funny, ironic, heartbreaking.  His early success with mainstream America did not endear him to perceived anti-Orientalist sentiments in subsequent years.  But in today’s global, hybrid world, Lee’s stories of Chinese life in the U.S., about people living a separate racial reality who somehow survived, endures.

So here’s my first commandment:

Stop writing about race and write about how people live instead.

By contrast, the multi-racial, transnational existence of many centers around race, which in the U.S. pings against religious and national identities. The third biblical commandment tells believers not to take their supreme deity’s name in vain.  When it comes to race, however, just what is supreme?  As a teenager, I loved The Supremes’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” because it pinged against the notion of barriers.

It’s simplistic to muddle race with religion and nation, even if muddled detractors insist on supreme deification.  Neela Vaswani’s memoir, You Have Given Me A Country, sublimates all three into a center through what a reviewer describes as her “big hearted” approach.  We are increasingly products of multiplicity arising from the racial muddle that is our world.  Vaswani particularizes her background of an Irish-Catholic mother and Sindhi-Indian father in a cross-genre memoir that is historical, factual, metaphorical.  My favorite sentence that opens the book — “I pledge allegiance to the in between.”

Which brings me to my second commandment:

In writing about race, never take the truth in vain.

And finally, the question of false witness against neighbors.  In writing creative nonfiction about race, we who care most about race are both observer and witness.  The human condition of the 21st century has made uneasy neighbors of many races who are still learning to speak to each other.  Writing about race is uncomfortable, especially if what we have to say about our “neighbors” is ugly, not pretty.  Yet if we don’t, we do a great disservice to our art.

Let’s consider a writer who crossed borders and wrote about another uncomfortable subject, sex.  In 1953, Vladimir Nabokov completed Lolita, his first English language novel.  He had difficulty publishing it, was even advised to use a pseudonym which he, happily, decided against.  One editor suggested he turn “Lolita into a twelve-year old lad” to be “seduced by Humbert, a farmer” and to write this in “short, strong, ‘realistic’ sentences (‘We all act crazy . . . I guess God acts crazy’)!

In his essay “On A Book Titled Lolita,” Nabokov says it took him “some forty years to invent Russia and Western Europe” and that writing this novel was “the task of inventing America.”  But the story is also about a pedophile, a reason the book met resistance.  “My creature Humbert,” says Nabokov, “is a foreigner and an anarchist, and there are many things, besides nymphets, in which I disagree with him.”  Yet this did not prevent him from fully inhabiting Humbert’s skin.

“That my novel does contain various allusions to the physiological urges of a pervert is quite true.  But after all we are not children, not illiterate juvenile delinquents, not English public school boys who after a night of homosexual romps have to endure the paradox of reading the Ancients in expurgated versions.”

Nabokov would not compromise, which is why Lolita remains one of the more important, perennially controversial, canonical works of literature.

My third and final commandment:

Never, ever bear false witness against yourself in what you observe of race, regardless.

 

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Xu Xi  許素細 is author of ten books, most recently the novels That Man In Our Lives and Habit of a Foreign Sky, a finalist for the Man Asian Literary Prize; the story collection Access Thirteen Tales.  She has also edited four anthologies of Hong Kong writing in English.

 

How We See One Another: Editors Castro and Sukrungruang in Conversation

September 13, 2016 § Leave a comment

Guest editors Joy Castro and Ira Sukrungruang discuss what they hoped for and what they learned in assembling Brevity’s Special Issue on Race, Racism and Racialization, which went live yesterday.

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Joy Castro

Joy Castro:  Editing this issue with you has been a fascinating process, Ira, and I’m really glad to have gotten the chance to read these essays.  Can you talk about why you wanted to edit an issue about race and racialization at this particular vexed moment in U.S. racial politics?

Ira Sukrungruang:  Because I couldn’t sleep. Because I felt helpless. Because I remember what the novelist Marlon James said at the 2015 American Book Award Ceremony in San Francisco, about the difference between a non-racist and an anti-racist. I was sitting there with my then-fiancé, now wife, and I was moved to silence. She was moved to silence. When a heavy truth is delivered sometimes the body freezes to let it all in. What Marlon said made absolute sense, and it was simple. Non-racists say they aren’t racist and do nothing. Anti-racists are not racist and are active in ridding the world of racism. If you are a non-racist you are part of the problem. You see the world burning, and you do nothing to stop it.

So, why not start a conversation? Why not wrestle away the talk of race from political figures who are empty in their rhetoric, or dangerous in their accusations? To me, a lot of their talk is non-racist talk. It’s pointing out the problem and nothing else. Or saying, quite plainly, we do not have a race problem, or, worse yet, people of certain races are the problem. This is scary.

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Ira Sukrungruang

My racial awareness came about through reading. What I was seeing in literature I wasn’t seeing anywhere else. The gray areas. The minute moments of inequality, the everyday lives of people of color. Those struggles. Those joys. In literature, race wasn’t about color alone. It wasn’t about difference. In literature, race is made complicated. Race is seen through a myriad of views. Played out not only through violence and hate and injustice, but love and understanding and empathy. The authors I read, you included Joy, had things to say that triggered a tuning fork in my bones. It was this reason I became a writer, to be part of this tribe, part of an ongoing conversation about race via the written word. So when Brevity asked me co-edit this issue, I couldn’t say no. To co-edit it with you, doubly so.

How about you, Joy? Why do you think an issue about race and racialization is necessary now, more than any other time in our country?

Joy Castro:  Well, I’m not sure I’d claim it’s more necessary now than at any other time, because the history of the United States has never not been racially vexed, and intervening with multiple voices on the topic of race and racialization could have been useful at many, many points.

What I do think is that it’s more possible now.  Very possible.

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Read the remainder of this conversation in the latest Brevity, and stay to read the essays as well.

 

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