Fear of Flying: Inside the Memoir-on-Submission Wind Tunnel

September 5, 2017 § 17 Comments

By Cameron Dezen Hammon

“What is it Mama?” my daughter asked, her so voice so hushed I could barely hear her. “What did they say? Mama?”

My daughter is not a quiet person. When she speaks, she’s usually heard. Maybe she was afraid of my answer. Or maybe I couldn’t hear her over the rush of blood in my ears, the slap of my palms on the hot steering wheel, the tepid air conditioner in my ancient Honda, barely keeping out the one-hundred-degree Texas heat.

I was in a Starbucks drive-through, my 11-year-old watching slime videos on her phone in the backseat. We’d just come from iFly, an indoor skydiving place on the Interstate 10 feeder road. My agent had sent my memoir out in early July to 45 editors, and since then I’d become an expert at choosing activities–like indoor skydiving—that prevented me from obsessively checking my email. I’d taken a two-day road trip through the desert with no cell service. I’d made a vision board (ok, I made three.) It’s hard to check email with glue on your fingertips. And I discovered flying. iFly offers two minute “flights” in a 90 mile-per-hour wind tunnel. Two-minute intervals during which I couldn’t do anything but focus on keeping my body steady, my mouth closed (no one wants wind-tunnel cheeks), and chin up. What better metaphor for the process I was in.

“Mama?” my daughter asked again from the backseat.

“They said no, baby,” I replied, surprised by the catch in my voice.

When my agent first sent my memoir out, a couple of editors reacted almost immediately with good news. They were taking it to editorial boards, getting additional reads. My book, This Is My Body, is about my conversion from the Jewish agnosticism of my New York upbringing to the Southern evangelicalism of my husband’s. It’s about the romantic and political turmoil that followed (hello, Trump,) causing me to strip my beliefs to the studs and re-build from the ground up. Because it’s a book about love that also deals heavily with the evangelical subculture and what it means for women, I knew it wouldn’t be a cakewalk. Spirituality isn’t exactly the bread and butter of New York publishing. But I dared to hope.

Idling in the drive-through, full of post-flying false confidence, I unwisely checked my email. “It was a classic editorial vs. publicity stand-off,” my agent wrote. “Publicity won… There’s a lot of consensus about your writing… but there’s a disconnect with the business brass about how to reach readers.” This was one of the few progressive religious publishers brave enough to take on books dealing with controversial, too-often ignored issues in the evangelical church. Their mission statement read like the mission statement for my life. And the editor had loved my book, loved my writing. They were—my agent thought, I thought—the perfect fit.

I felt a tide of emotions when that email came in. Shame. Anger. Fear. Embarrassment. I’m a writer; I know rejections by the boatload are part of this life. I’ve had rejections by the boatload. But I’d developed—or so I thought—a way to avoid being paralyzed by them. This one hit me with the force of the iFly wind tunnel. It took my breath away.

No one knows what goes into writing our books quite like our children, our lovers, our partners. Our butts get numb and our health suffers, maybe we lose our hair, keys, minds—while glued to the computer screen. But they lose us. Or mine did, at least for a time. For six months last year while juggling three jobs and somehow managing to not tank my marriage, I’d taken a collection of fragmented essays and turned them into a book, a book I’m proud of. My daughter—in her last year of elementary school, her last year of being a kid before entering that netherworld of pre-teen—patiently withstood my divided attention. She pulled me back—to her after school activities, her latest math test, her plans for the weekend—when I got that far-off look in my eyes that meant I was solving some timeline, dialogue or structure puzzle in my mind. But she also celebrated with me. We jumped up and down in our socks, sliding on the wood floor when I found out I’d placed an essay with a dream publication. We toasted with Sprite at our favorite neighborhood restaurant when I finally finished the first draft of the book, and secured representation with a fancy New York literary agent. What took my breath away was not only the loss of this and other opportunities to see my book born into the world (35 more publishers had also passed, my agent included in the email) but that my daughter, my cheerleader, nervously sipping her black tea lemonade as we pulled into traffic, was also experiencing that loss.

It’s true that it would been nice to impress the “business brass,” those people with the power to write checks that could potentially replace the crumbling siding on my garage, or upgrade the ancient Honda. But that’s not why I started writing. I started writing because the terror of not writing was greater than the terror of writing. Because the joy of writing something new, of applying ass-to-chair and performing the mystical alchemy of revision, of seeing a project—like this essay—from start to finish, that joy is better than almost any other I’ve known.

“All is not lost, baby,” I said a few minutes later when I caught my breath between traffic lights.

I know that,” she said, with her characteristic half eye-roll. As if nothing could be more obvious.

I choose to believe the right editor for my book is still out there. In the meantime, I’m writing. That’s what my daughter sees. And for now, that’s enough.

 

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Cameron Dezen Hammon is a writer and musician whose work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Brooklyn Review, The Rumpus, Ecotone, Guernica’s “The Kiss” series, The Literary Review, Houston Chronicle, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Seattle Pacific University, and is at work on a memoir about religious and romantic obsession.

What Do You Love More?

July 18, 2017 § 109 Comments

Not even her best backbend

Before I was a writer, I was an acrobat. Not the kind that flips through the air–the kind who holds up other smaller, younger acrobats who look better in the same spandex costume. A “base.”

I loved it. I loved being the one who makes sure everyone is ready, calls the move, Hup!, then adjusts while the flyer holds still. Stay straight, tight and trusting. Don’t balance yourself, let me balance you.

I loved that I could lift men bigger than me and women in acrobat class who were also bigger than me and had spent years not letting anyone lift them because they felt “too heavy.” That I could grab someone the right size and move them through a basic routine right away, as long as they did exactly what I said. I got really good at giving directions, verbal cues, nudging with my toes, letting flyers know, I got you. You can trust me. You can fly.

My last and best partner was (and is) small and beautiful and flexible enough that even circus people admire her backbend and over-splits. A pleasure to lift, a joy to try new moves with. Between shows in Canada, we stood on a stretch of lawn next to a giant parking lot and worked on a new move, one that scared her, that she’d fallen out of before. “I’ve got you,” I said. “The only thing I can’t save is if you bend forward hard and fast–there’s not enough leverage to stop you–so use your hands if you start falling.”

She bent forward hard and fast and without her hands, and her head slammed into the ground. We got ice and a shady place to sit and she said, “I’m just so scared of that move. I want to do it, but…”

I said, “Well, when you decide you love doing the trick more than you love being scared of it, you’ll get it,” which was callous and hurtful, and she was indeed hurt, and unhappy for an hour until we did the show and our routine and my hands and feet told her again, I love you, I respect you, I’ve got you.

What I said was mean. It was also true. Acrobats must love the flight more than fearing injury or literal death. Not instead of fear–just more.

My writer buddy wants me to blog about going forward after bad feedback. About what it’s like to finally put out a piece you like, that your friends have given good criticism on and said “It’s ready,” and then receive literary magazine criticism so sharp and painful it makes you want to curl up and cry and never write again. Certainly, you never want to submit again. You may even start thinking that all the strangers who criticize and reject are right and the friends who read your work are only pacifying you, saying to each other behind your back, “We’d better not let her know how bad she really is.”

I think about writing on that topic, and I think about how many rejections I’ve gotten, and the painfulness of criticism not only by email and form letter and Submittable, but also in newspaper reviews of your self-written solo show, and to your face from people who are sober and sane but still need to say how much they dislike you. I remember that time I got yelled at on Dragon’s Den and cried and me being yelled at and crying made the network season promo and is still well-known enough in Canada that people come up to me on the street and say “Don’t let anyone shit on your dreams!” Or that time Howard Stern got an entire audience to stand up and boo me, personally, in my hometown. (Reality TV, good times!)

Why did I still perform? Why do I still submit work? Why do I write deeply personal essays and send them into the world to get back the stab of “Sorry this does not meet our needs at this time”?

Because I love being published more than I love protecting myself from being hurt. Not instead of–just more.

There are tricks to make it better. Every agent rejection after a request for manuscript pages gets a one-line “thanks for taking a look!” email. When I performed in theatres, I wrote paper thank-you notes to all reviewers regardless of number of stars. To even the guy who said my performance was meh, “Thank you for taking the time to share my show with your readers!” Writing back, saying thank you, I’m a person, makes me feel like a participant in the artistic dialogue, someone with differing taste instead of a victim of judgment.

And it does get easier. The more I submit, the more likely I am to feel a brief sting and move on, like brushing against the oven door. An hour later, I’ve forgotten. The more I submit, the less any one place feels like my “dream” venue or agent. The more likely I am to think, “Welp, sorry this wasn’t for you–who’s next on the list?”

In order to keep sending out work, I have to love being published more than I love not feeling shitty about rejection. Applying this idea to writers struggling with their own rejections is cold and callous and hurtful. I feel mean when I think it or say it. But it’s also the truth, and it’s a decision we all get to make:

Publication or not getting hurt feelings.

What do you love more?

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching a Self-Editing intensive and offering one-on-one feedback meetings at Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference, September 8-10 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

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.

Know When To Fold

October 6, 2016 § 9 Comments

Never count your money when you're sittin' at the table

Never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table

“Ready to submit” rarely means “doesn’t need any more revisions.” Thankfully, most literary journal editors are able to help refine accepted work until a piece is the best it can be. I’ve gone back and forth for word choices, tonal missteps, and fact-checking/legal ass-covering. Sometimes a magazine accepts a piece with tremendous potential they think is worthy of a deeper edit to become publishable.

It’s often a pleasure to dive back into a “finished” piece with the help of fresh eyes, and fix tiny moments–or even giant structural issues–holding the essay back. It’s also natural to feel defensive, even hurt, when receiving edits. Natural enough that when I send an editorial letter to an author, I always include,

Remember, you don’t have to agree with my diagnosis of a particular problem, but it’s worth examining the section to see if you think it’s a different problem or one that should be solved in a different way.

Even with my longtime editor who has massaged some of my favorite work into being, my process still includes a sulking day before begrudgingly starting the next draft. But then the feeling changes. I have moments of Yeah, I thought I’d paper over that, but I didn’t, and Oh, yes, that will be better!

It’s almost always worth sucking up hurt feelings and moving forward, even if taking a perverse pleasure in rewriting differently from the editor’s suggestions.

Sometimes it’s not worth it.

What if you think an editor doesn’t “get” your piece? If you’ve received edits that make you think, Did you agree to publish the piece I wrote, or the piece you would like me to have written? How can you distinguish wounded author feelings from genuine incongruence of vision?

Don’t be precious. Every writer will be edited someday. Editors do their best to help you realize your vision, but they also need your piece to fit their magazine. Take a day or two to breathe, and come back to revisions in a hopeful mood. You know how your friend shows you their finished essay and you can still see improvements? That’s where you are right now. Let yourself be OK with it. Writing is a process, and editing is part of it.

Weigh the benefits. Where are you in your publication career? How much money is involved? What about prestige? Where are you with this piece? If the New Yorker wants edits, I will be lining up with the scalpel or the axe, whichever they decree. If I’m being paid mass-media rates, or writing work-for-hire, fine, let’s chop and change, no skin off my nose as long as the check clears. If I’ve been submitting this piece for months, maybe this editor finally figured out what’s holding it back. Those trade-offs are harder if the journal is smaller or lesser-known, if they don’t pay even an honorarium, or if the essay is brand-new/without previous rejections.

Phone a friend. Determine your level of touchiness vs. the usefulness of the edits by showing a trusted writer friend. Where do they agree? Where do they shake their head and say hmmmm, I don’t know about that one? Do they agree where the issues are, even if not what they are?

Due diligence. Look up the editor. What have they written? Do you think it’s good? What writing have they championed on their social media? Do you like their taste? Read more of the magazine. Can you see your work fitting in, or is there a disconnect in tone, style, mood, voice, structure or content?

It takes two to make a bargain. As writers, we often feel powerless to influence the publication of our work, and grateful for any opportunity. But not every opportunity is the right one. If this is your dream venue, then even a heavily edited piece is a foot in the door and a nice credit. If not, and you’ve truly confronted your own reflexive defensiveness, and genuinely considered the points made, it’s OK to withdraw your piece. Send a polite note, and take the blame on yourself. You’re out of time this month for the work this journal deserves. The piece needs a bigger rewrite than you’re able to attempt right now. You’ll submit another time with a piece that’s farther along.

I got some edits recently I disagreed with. I gave it 48 hours. I showed two writer-friends for their input on what feedback seemed most useful. I went through and responded to each comment from the editor. Then I sent that back to a friend to make sure I didn’t sound snippy.

A second round of edits came. From the email, the editor had indeed found me snippy (sorry! I really did try!). I still didn’t agree with the edits. I sent the piece to a writer who didn’t know me well (less context to paper over problems) and asked her to specifically address questions the editor had. The new suggestions didn’t hit the same points–but they did give me the Oh, yes, that will be better! feeling.

Then I realized I’d spent six hours agonizing over a piece I wasn’t going to be paid for, for a magazine I didn’t know much about. That they’d seen something in my work I didn’t see, and I wasn’t able to find their point of view. They weren’t wrong, or horrible people–we just had different visions for the essay. And sending an email to withdraw felt like Oh yes, that will be better!

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines.

Just Keep Knocking

May 14, 2015 § 16 Comments

Just keep going, buddy.

Just keep going, buddy.

Once or twice a year, I take a month and send out a submission to a journal, literary website, or a radio show every day. Thirty or thirty-one submissions (choosing February seems like cheating), formatted and cover-lettered and sent, click, click, click. I’m all about the scattershot approach — rejections drift in slowly over the next six months or so, and by the time my next submission blitz rolls around, I don’t even remember what got turned down where (God bless spreadsheets!).

But what about the persistent, single-minded submission process? At The Missouri Review, Michael Nye writes about seeing stories come in from the same authors, over and over, and hearing an intern ask,

How does someone keep sending work to a magazine that keeps rejecting the work?

Assistant editor Evelyn Somers spoke up at this point, explaining that getting rejected by a magazine repeatedly and then, finally, getting work accepted is, actually, fairly normal. It’s a little frustrating for an editor, she said, when a writer submits to us five times and then just stops and we never hear get the chance to read the writer’s work again. To emphasis this point, she noted that TMR has published several writers who sent manuscripts to us for over a decade before we published their work.

It’s a fascinating article, with some great behind-the-scenes information about the submissions process. But it doesn’t end with, “And this is the time we finally published them!”

Which makes me think, it takes more than ordinary persistence to keep sending out work in the face of form rejections and silence. It’s hard for a writer to know if they’re just missing the mark, or not playing in the same league.

How can you tell? How do you figure out where to submit your work more than once?

Check out Michael Nye’s article at The Missouri Review.

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Allison Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor.

Be an Open Node: Blake Butler on Literary Citizenship

August 14, 2008 § 30 Comments

Blake Butler, fictionist, blogged in a most excellent fashion recently about the need to be a positive karmic force in the world of literary citizenship.  What comes around, goes around, he reminds us.  Here’s an excerpt and a link to the full (albeit, oddly titled) post:


Here are some ways you can do more, outside of spending $$$.

(1) When you read something you like, in any form, write the author and tell them. You don’t have to gush or take forever. Just tell them you saw it, you read it, you liked it. It’s a supportive feeling. It’s better than not saying anything.

(2) Write reviews of books you like. Short review/long review, whatever. It’s not that hard. It takes a little work to think about it clearly, but what goes around comes around. You can’t expect to be recognized for your work if you aren’t recognizing others for their work. Open the doors.

(3) Interview writers. New writers or well known writers. You like somebody’s work a lot? Ask to do an interview with them. It doesn’t take a ton of effort. Write up some questions. Let them talk. Spread the word. Talk. Say. Get. Eat.

I have done this for years and have made friends by doing it, have ‘opened doors’ so to speak: in other words, by helping others, you are also helping yourself. If spreading others’ work isn’t enough in your mind, think of it as ‘connections.’ (I hope you don’t have to think about it in this way to justify it because that is sad, but, well, some people…) Things often can/might happen as a result of these things, on both ends, even if they are just small things, small things add up, small things can be good things, haven’t you read Carver, momentum.

Energy. Power cock.

(4) If you have free time, start an online journal. Start a blog, a review, an anything. If you don’t know how I’ll help you. Say stuff. Mean what you say.

(5) If you have a journal already, respond faster. Pay attention to your inbox. When someone asks a question that feels dumb or unnecessary maybe, answer it anyway. Don’t be a fuck. Yeah, we’re all busy. Yeah, things take time. Work to take less time. It’s okay to move forward at a wicked pace. (And yes, as an editor, I too struggle to adhere to this advice, but I struggle at least, everyone struggles, but you can always struggle more. I am so tired of seeing journals with 200+ days response time, why do you even exist? Does it really take that long to like something? People should stop sending to these places. Seriously. Just stop sending.

Yeah I know the flood comes strong. Stand in the flood. (Me too.))

Seriously, Conjunctions/Ninth Letter/Subtropics: these 3 journals get just as much work coming in as anybody, and they all respond often in less than a month.

To everyone: Push the fucking envelope even harder than you do. Be an open node.

Sweet!

March 12, 2008 § Leave a comment

There’s a new kid on the block, full of gooey goodness, or at least sugary promises:

SWEET: A Literary Confection
From the about page:

In 2002 Katherine Riegel and Ira Sukrungruang got married in Chiang Mai, Thailand, at one of the oldest temples in the country. (You should have seen them; they were beautiful). The marriage of Katie and Ira was also a marriage of cultures, a marriage of landscapes, a marriage of genres: poetry and creative nonfiction. So began an ongoing conservation about the two genres, where they intersect, diverge, and mix to create a frothy blend. We, at Sweet, want to include others in this conversation.

We like poetry like we like chocolate. We like creative nonfiction like we like marshmallows and graham crackers. Both are great separately and together. Sweet wants to cater to the chocolate aficionados and those who like their s’mores good and gooey.

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