Election 2016: On Experience vs. the Essay
October 19, 2016 § 6 Comments
By Samantha Tucker
Lately, my only urge is to rant. It may take a decade of psychic distance from this election to accurately essay, to try and understand each experience: the saturated realities of Facebook feeds, the talking heads and the buttons on lapels, the chalk messages on campus. I’m not experiencing this time with any nuance; my emotions roll like sea surges, rising, abrupt, cruel, from miles away, crashing down, unfurling shock and horror though I stayed and waited, long observed the tide gathering strength. It is not so unlike the moments after the news of a loved-one’s death, this build, this unavoidable torrent. You stand through it, or you do not, and hopefully after it resides you can be found on the ground, mostly intact.
I’ll be voting in Ohio this year because I’m currently a student and instructor at The Ohio State University. I’ve kept “The” at the beginning of the school name because 1. I am a creative nonfiction writer and teacher, thus I relish insignificant truths, and 2. It’s not insignificant. That capital “The” is not only an official word in the school name, it also signifies an essential Ohioan-ness, a common, endearing exceptionalism. This is a state full of corn-fed, routine-Americans turned Astronauts; Buckeye Beloveds become National Leaders; everyday voters predicting the future of a nation.
We’ve been discussing essays vs. events in the Intermediate Nonfiction class I teach, though I failed my students as I was mistaken: the phrase is actually essays vs. experiences. I learned this from Stephanie G’Schwind, a dear mentor and friend of mine, the commander-in-chief of Colorado Review. In an article with Essay Daily, Stephanie wrote, “I see this frequently in submissions to Colorado Review: truly interesting things—sometimes amazing things—happening to people, that don’t translate into very interesting essays. As many of us nonfiction editors have said, writers sometimes confuse experience with essay, rather than finding the essay in the experience.” But I’m even farther away, confusing event with experience, and so how far am I from the point of essay? It is not enough to capture, vividly, the moments essential to our lives. We must push farther—how do these moments resonate? In time, place, history? How do experiences add up to self? To community? And can you convince your reader your version must be recorded? I watch the first debate in an indie Columbus theatre with too many people who agree with me. We boo and hiss at the big screen. We cover our eyes with our hands, our shirts, our foaming glasses of beer. It may be difficult to know which one you’re writing, experience or essay, without a certain amount of distance, I tell my students. I call my parents after the debate, and my stepdad is weary, my mother resigned, exhausted. She has been since 30APRIL2008. What denotes an experience? I ask my students. I walk home after the debates, sob in the dark, clutching my phone like a buoy. How do we move from event to experience to essay?
If I gave into lack of nuance and time and distance, I’d stop every passerby and whisper: My brother was killed in Iraq in 2008. His name is Ronnie. I’d put my arm around their shoulder and treat them like an old friend. This experience is not precisely related to your right to vote, I’d tell them, though my mother may promise it is. Don’t you feel sorry for us now? Aren’t you interested in how I’m voting? Shouldn’t my opinion hold more sway than your blowhard uncle using memes incorrectly? Shouldn’t my rage push you farther than your Socialist undergrad roomie from Northwestern, shouting “LIVE BERN OR DIE”? I’d grip them tighter, or pull them face to face, beg their attention rather than their retreating back. Do you know someone looking to publish my tangential Op-Ed? It’s about a series of personal experiences loosely if undeniably linked to current experiences. My brother is dead, I’d remind them. Someone hear my voice.
My students are brilliant. They are intuitive, absurdly-gifted. They speak of the “I” and the “Eye” in essay, they beg for scene when it’s needed, and seek narrative interiority, the writer at the desk, when the detailed showing is weak or inadequate. They dutifully read Tell it Slant and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Eula Biss and Rachel Toliver. They are generous with each other in workshop, in peer feedback, in class discussion. This, above all else: they are generous. I am grateful for these inspiring Ohioans. Generosity is relative to hope. Hope is just the promise of more time.
In June, I went to Kansas City. I scored hundreds of AP exams with several thousand other composition instructors for eight hours a day in a concrete-floored event center. A man sat by me at breakfast. He wore a ball cap and snapped the New York Times. He was a retired prof from a small, private university in California. “You say you’re an essayist?” He seemed astonished. “Well, can you tell me what essay means?” I set down my banana and said, “Yes, I can. Because, as I said, I’m an essayist. It means to try.” This retired prof from a small, private university in California was truly delighted. “Oh my,” he exclaimed, or that’s what I want, right now, to say he did—exclaimed, oh my’d. “No one’s ever known that before! Wonderful! Enjoy your test scoring!” As he sauntered away, all pep in his step, I muse at how many people have experienced his low-key interrogations.
A student of mine keeps deleting her work. She feels embarrassed, like she overshared in one instance, or as if she has nothing important to say. Our nonfiction class is voice-focused, both in considering word choice and cadence and craft-related causalities, but also in “What does one have to offer? How does your perspective inform the world?” I tell my students the personal is political. I tell them the personal, at its best rendered, is universal. They take this to heart; they are desperately generous. I ask my student to stop deleting her work. I ask her to set, what she is unsure of, aside. I ask her to wait. Wait it out, I say. Distance is trying.
Samantha Tucker is a creative writing MFA candidate at (The!) Ohio State University. She has written for Guernica, The Toast, Bust Magazine, and has work forthcoming with Ecotone. Tucker’s first collection of essays, The American Dream Starts Here, is ready for a publisher.
The View from the Slush Pile, Part 2
November 10, 2015 § 5 Comments
Jen Palmares Meadows recently returned from NonfictioNOW, held this year in Flagstaff, Arizona, and offers part two of her two-part report on the panel The View from the Slush Pile. You can READ Part One Here.
Field Notes from NonfictioNOW: The View from the Slush Pile, continued:
Please heed the following friendly advice when observing a panel of literary beasts.
- Wear unobtrusive clothing. Avoid offensive lotions or perfumes.
- Interact with panelists by moving head up and down when they speak.
- While live-tweeting is encouraged, you might missing some nuances of the panel, or risk panelists believing you are bored and texting your bff.
- Should panel open to questions, cautiously raise hand. When called upon, speak coherently and loudly.
- To avoid being trampled, devoured, or attacked by fellow observers, refrain from mansplaining. In the event of scorn, drop microphone immediately, and seek safety outside the conference room.
- If afterwards, you wish to speak with a panelist, adopt a non-threatening stance and patiently await your turn.
- For a reasonable price, consider purchasing a panelist’s book, and ask them to sign it. Hold the book in your outstretched hand with the cover clearly visibly.
- Request a panelist pose in your selfie at your own risk.
Panelist #3: Stephanie G’Schwind
Species: Non-writing Editor
Affiliation: Colorado Review (founded 1956, published continuously since 1977, publishes 3x a year, accepts nonfiction, fiction, and poetry)
Further Reading: Essay Daily: An artful placement of needle against album
Colorado Review accepts nonfiction year round. Of the 1500-2000 submissions it receives each year, about 500 are nonfiction.
The Slush Process: Colorado State MFA student slush pile readers read first. If a work receives the thumbs up from two readers, it gets forwarded to the editor. Sometimes, G’Schwind will go directly into the slush and read first.
Almost all of what Colorado Review publishes is unsolicited, about 80-90%. Of 35 published pieces, 3 might be solicited.
G’Schwind: “We are committed to publishing the work that comes through the slush pile. If you charge a fee, you have to be attentive to that. We don’t read cover letters until after reading the submission.”
Colorado Review never knows exactly what they might like. They once published, ‘The Big Pin,’ an essay on boys’ high school wrestling, a topic they didn’t expect to find interesting.
While the Colorado Review is a traditional sized magazine, they don’t publish exclusively traditional work. They often enjoy pieces that play with form. G’Schwind enjoys longer works, 20-25 pages long.
G’Schwind: “We host experiments.” Colorado Review is not looking for perfect work, but understands that essayists are attempting/trying something. Colorado Review observes a 90% rule. A work might be accepted if it is 90% there, and requires at most, two hours of revision.
ADVICE: Don’t get discouraged. Do the work. You have to read. Read lots of magazines. Read essays. Read nonfiction. Don’t get discouraged.
Panelist #4: Ander Monson
Species: Writer, Editor
Affiliations: DIAGRAM (published since 2000, is the second oldest literary journal still publishing, released 6x a year)
Further Reading: New Michigan Press, Essay Daily, Letter to a Future Lover, Neck Deep and Other Predicaments
DIAGRAM is better known for their nonfiction, though they do not differentiate between genres. They also publish poetry, fiction, images, interactives and videos. DIAGRAM receives 200 essay submissions per year, of which they publish a dozen. 70% of its submissions are poetry, and almost all their readers are poets.
DIAGRAM does not charge for submissions, nor do they pay contributors, but they have a faster operation, and aim to reply to submissions within a month.
Monson: “I think cover letters are an opportunity for good or bad pageantry. I am prepared to like or not like your writing based on the cover letter. I’ve always loved cover letters—the bad ones are the best.”
Monson: “By the end of the page, I can reject or forward 70% of the time. You can tell if it’s going to be accepted. But we make sure a couple readers give each piece a read.”
Monson: “I look for forcefulness, particularly towards the end.”
Monson often personally responds to nonfiction submissions because he feels as a creative nonfiction writer, he is in a better position to offer advice on how to improve a work.
Monson: “It’s an honor to read it. Fire it out. Send us work.”
Advice: Don’t be too precious about the submission process. Participate in the ecosystem. Don’t carpet bomb journals. Build relationships with editors—those submissions will get read differently. Please do not send sea turtle essays.
Jen Palmares Meadows writes from northern California. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Brevity, Denver Quarterly, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, Essay Daily, Memoir Journal, and elsewhere. She is currently at work on a collection of Vegas stories.