An interview with Marin Sardy
Marin Sardy‘s essay “A Shapeless Thief,” about her mother’s schizophrenia, first appeared in the Missouri Review (37:2) and later became part of her new memoir, The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia (Pantheon, 2019). You can read Marin’s essay here.
Last month we talked with Marin about the development of the memoir and her new book project.
Evelyn Somers: Initially you saw your book as an essay collection. How and when did you realize you were working on a more cohesive memoir?
Marin Sardy: Even when I was writing the individual essays, I had a sense that they would be able to collectively tell a larger story. They were each about some slice of my life, and I suspected that if I put enough slices together, some kind of arc would emerge. I didn’t know what that larger story would be, however, until far along in the process. It wasn’t until I started writing the chapters about my brother’s homelessness—which I wrote last—that I saw that much of what had been driving me had always related to questions about how my family’s long history with mental illness came to bear on my brother’s struggles with schizophrenia. I also found I had much more to say about my brother’s story than I had expected, which gave some of those parts more of a flavor of narrative memoir than of the highly selective, tightly constructed essays I had produced first. So it was a lot of letting things happen as the words came out and paying attention to what the words were telling me, and looking for the connections that became visible after everything was down on the page.
ES: Did the early publication of some of the pieces give you more confidence going forward with the book?
MS: Definitely. More confidence and more skill. The practice and the encouragement I got along the way turned out to be integral to the final product. In retrospect, I’m so glad the book developed the way it did, though it took a much more circuitous path than I ever expected. Taking the time to fully shape the essays that later became chapters, stepping back from them and letting them steep for a while before returning to the work—that allowed my ideas to percolate, so that by the time I was thinking in terms of a book, I had really developed my own perspective about mental illness and knew what I wanted to say. And how I wanted to say it!
Also, going through the process of submitting to journals and working with editors helped me understand how my work fit into the larger literary landscape. The people I knew who were getting book contracts weren’t trying any of the weird conceptual and structural approaches I was taking in my essays, but when I sent my pieces to literary journals, I got a lot of positive feedback. So the successes I had in the world of litmags gave me more confidence to take that work into the realm of New York publishing and see if someone would be interested. And someone was.
ES: Can you say a little about the process of turning a group of individual essays into a memoir–for instance, even though The Edge of Every Day is not a traditional chronological narrative, were there gaps in the story that you realized you needed to fill in?
MS: My first reaction to this question is actually to laugh because when I look at the finished book, all I see is gaps! And that was a deliberate choice, and it kind of surprised me when early readers of the manuscript commented on how well it all seemed to flow together. But I never really thought of it as “I’m turning a group of separate essays into a memoir.” To me, the essays were not very separate from one another anyway, and I don’t feel like I’ve entirely transformed it into a memoir either. My editor and I were not aiming for it to be “a memoir” in the typical sense. Here’s an example: When I first sold my book based on having about two-thirds of it written, my editor, Catherine Tung, asked me if I’d be willing to add some “connective tissue.” But she also assured me that, for the most part, it should keep its “highly fragmented” shape. That sounded fine to me. Several months later, when we were talking again about the book in depth and I was saying I had this chapter and that chapter to add, none of which qualified as “connective tissue,” Catherine said, “You know, looking at it now, I really don’t think the book needs more connective tissue. ” And I just thought, “No, it doesn’t need it at all.” So we scrapped that idea and never looked back.
I just focused on telling all the parts of the story that I felt were necessary to include, and on telling them in the ways they needed to be told. I really believe in listening to the material, in letting it tell you what form it should take. And it just became what it wanted to become, which is somewhere in between a memoir and an essay collection. What I did end up changing to make it more memoir-like was so minor it hardly registers to me now. I rearranged a few paragraphs at the beginnings of some chapters that were formerly essays, so that each one opened on me rather than on some other topic. I cut out redundancies and added a few sentences to clarify shifts in time and place. And of course, we were very strategic about the order in which we arranged the chapters—loosely but not strictly chronological. But that’s about it. Now we’ve labeled it a memoir, and that seems to work for people. But I think of it more as, maybe, “memoirs”—or, as my subtitle says, “sketches.”
ES: In your research for the book, you spent some time learning about the neuroscience of schizophrenia. Did that change how you wrote about your mother and brother?
MS: Yes, very much—but largely in ways that it’s now hard to put my finger on. The early research I did, in the first couple of years of writing about schizophrenia, fundamentally shifted my thinking about mental illness. And it wasn’t just neuroscience, but also philosophy—the phenomenology of psychosis. And that change in my perspective pervades the whole book. The biggest thing the research did for me was show me where I had been making unfounded assumptions about what I’d witnessed. I had been personally relating to schizophrenia for decades, so I had a lot of my own ideas about it, most of which were unexamined and some of which were incorrect. Being forced to confront and then question my own perceptions and conclusions opened me up to many new paths of inquiry. And that got me excited about delving deeper into what I had experienced, what those things might mean, things I hadn’t considered before. So I was able to approach the topic, and those relationships, from an open place rather than a restricted place. It proved so creatively fruitful and became a way for me to transform what were deeply traumatic events in my life into something that revealed a broader view of what had happened, a view that could be much more useful to readers.
ES: What was the most important discovery you made in writing the book–either about mental illness or about writing?
MS: Most importantly for me, the writing process enabled me to rediscover my brother. To remember who he was as a person, who he always had been, inside his illness. For so many years, my focus was on his schizophrenia—how it affected him, how it harmed him, how I could or couldn’t help him. And I grieved deeply for what was lost when he became ill. But all of that focus and intense emotion, I later realized, had the effect of obscuring his actual presence in the world. After writing the book, I felt very bad that I hadn’t been more cognizant of that while he was alive. The book, and all of the sorting through my memories and feelings that it required, eventually made it possible for me to find him again inside his own story. So in a way, after losing him twice—first to illness, then to death—I got him back as a result of writing the book. It’s sort of the Wizard of Oz effect: searching and searching, only to find that what you’ve been looking for was there all along.
ES: What’s your next writing project or challenge?
MS: I’m pleased to be able to say that I am beginning work on a second book. It’s in the nascent stages still—just a lot of research and notes—but in the last several months I’ve begun to see what I want it to be. Like this first book, it will discuss mental illness. But it will largely focus on an artist whose work I have long admired, who died in 2012: a photographer who lived with bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder, and whose work in many ways reflected her struggles. I hope to tell parts of her story and include a fair amount of art criticism as well, in which I engage deeply with her images and reflect on them in terms of my own experiences with mental illness.
Stubbornly Submitting to a Literary Magazine is Good
By Michael Nye
Every Tuesday, the Missouri Review holds its weekly production meeting. This meeting keeps everyone up to date on all facets of the magazine’s production so that all, from editor-in-chief to the interns, know where we stand with the current and forthcoming issues of the magazine. After this production meeting, we break into genre groups – cleverly labeled “poetry” and “prose” – and discuss the manuscripts that will ultimately be passed for a second or third read.
Last week, a story was pitched that sparked a brief discussion on perseverance.
The author in question had sent us many stories over the years, dating back to before my time with TMR and, if I’m remembering the author’s biography correctly, dating back decades. The author has been sending work so frequently that our current intern staff, who only work for us for two semesters, recognized the author’s name. The stories are always good but have never been accepted for publication, and one of the interns wondered aloud about this writer’s constant effort to get into TMR. 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. She noted that TMR has published several writers who sent manuscripts to us for over a decade before we published their work.
But I’m familiar with this from the writer’s side, too. Since 2003, I have sent my fiction to One Story. According to their Submission Manager, way back on September 5, 2003, I sent them “The Third Child,” a story that they declined and which was never published anywhere (for, I assure you, good reason). Recently they turned down attempt number sixteen. That’s right: sixteen. I keep track of my stories on my laptop by number – I’m at story #83 now – and the majority of those stories are not good, or feel incomplete, or read like fragments of a fully realized story. Of those eighty three, sixteen of my stories have been sent to One Story. Every single one has been turned down. Sometimes, the editors say something encouraging. Other times, it’s a standard form rejection.
One Story is not alone: there are several fine journals that have been receiving my work since 2003, when I started graduate school, when I immediately decided that my fiction would be published everywhere, when I decided to send work out pretty much nonstop. Most of the stories I sent during graduate school were never published, but a few of them were. Of the stories I have sent One Story over the years, two were never published, and two are so new that they have yet to be picked up elsewhere. If publication is a measurement of the quality of your writing (arguable, to be sure), then I’ve only sent One Story my best (at that time) work. They always said, Thanks but we’re good.
I’m not picking on One Story: I could insert Tin House or New England Review in its place and the story would be exactly the same. No, no, no, no, nice try, thanks but no thanks, etc. I would love to tell you that back in 2003, I understood how the editorial decisions of a literary magazine were made, but, of course, I didn’t. I was just stubborn. And while being stubborn and egotistical and confident and (insert your own synonym here) may not be the best thing for a young writer unless those qualities are mixed with humility and a willingness to learn, I’m sure that being persistent with my story submissions has helped me to get my work published.
I submit my stories less often now; I write them slower, I’m more selective about where I send my work, and I’m not nearly as impatient to published as I used to be. But the persistent writer, the one who keeps trying us again and again, is a good thing. A new story to us once every six months, or year, or two years, whatever the pace might be that suits you, is good. Not just for us, but for other literary magazines as well. And, good for the writer.
You can quit anytime. Why quit now?
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
Blurred Words: Weird Al & Colliding Worlds
By Allison Coffelt
If you’d asked me a week ago about Weird Al Yankovic, I would have said it was time to give up the ghost. Weird Al is one of those seminal (artists? singers? comedians?) people whose work has spanned generations. He’s iconic. Most of us under the age of 40 have a Weird Al song they remember from when they were growing up. Maybe it was “Eat It” or “Pretty Fly for a Rabbi.”
Weird Al hadn’t been funny to me for a while, but that just changed. Here are three things that drew me back to Weird Al – a sentence I never thought I’d write – and they all have to do with his new video “Word Crimes.”
1. Weird Al: Normalizing my behavior since 2014.
Last Sunday, while sipping coffee, listening to Weekend Edition, and gazing out at the crappy lot of the body shop behind my apartment, Tamara Keith’s interview with Weird Al began. I was reaching to switch the radio (could Weird Al possibly have anything new to say?) when he started talking about correcting grammar. He said he would be driving around, see a road sign, and fix the wording in his head. I, too, do this. When I’ve asked other friends who love words if they slip into this habit, they look at me like I’m sick. I’m not sick. And thanks to Weird Al for being the one to prove it.
Let’s not look too closely at that logic.
2. Your Dad sends you the video.
Another reason you may, like me, need to give Weird Al some credit for his spot-on-ness with this video is when friends and loved ones send you the link: “Literacy’s your mission!” the song says, “There are dancing question marks in the video!” your friend says, “I thought of you immediately!” your dad says.
There’s also a section in the song where Weird Al discusses the Oxford comma, which I dearly love, regardless of what Vampire Weekend says. This viewpoint, I understand, is contentious. If someone thought to send you the video, you probably have your own opinion on the matter and you probably begrudgingly admit that either/either is acceptable.
An added bonus: Weird Al’s word rules make an exception for Prince. As they should.
An added added bonus: You can finally explain what you’re going to do with that English degree. I quote: “You should hire/ some cunning linguist/ to help you distinguish/ what is proper English.”
3. The music video is in kinetic text.
Man, I love the design of this video. Kinetic text, or a fancy way of saying those videos where the text becomes the movie (like ShopVac ), is not only cleverly done in this video, but also fitting. Animated words: how better to show the emphasis on the right syllable?
Well Weird Al, you got me.
Like the terribly catchy beat of that song, the thing I can’t get out of my head now are questions of what is permissible, what is stickler, and how our language —the thing that unites and binds and evolves with us— is changing.
I’ve been thinking about this because the other day at The Missouri Review, we were discussing the role of blogs and social media in the literary world. One person likened blogs and to pop music— they’re fun, fast, digestible, and have a short shelf life. It can be great and it’s its own thing. Literature, we said as we swirled our brandy in embossed snifters, is like classical music. It takes time. But in the weird space that is the internet, these things are colliding, and we’re still figuring out how they feed and harm each other.
I’m fascinated when pop culture concerns itself with words, language, or literature because it’s a collision of the instantaneous and the ancient.
The challenge to offer curated, thoughtful, unrushed content is steep. It takes a lot of resources and time. That doesn’t mean, though, that readers don’t also want something salient, quick, and fun.
I think there’s room for both. Just as we’ve seen a boom in articles-as-lists and computer-generated material (think Buzzfeed and financial market data), we’ve seen an uptick in long-form reporting and the slow reveal of stories (think The Atlantic and Breaking Bad). It’s a trend that’s crossing media sectors, as John Borthwick points out in his recent article on Medium.
So, the question becomes one of sourcing. Who will provide each? Can some outlets provide both? What will be the effect on and for readers? We’re still trying to figure out the answer. I think the experiment where pop and classic cohabitate is worth watching. In some instances, it’s a question of what happens when proper grammar gets a remix.
Going Astray from the Straight Road
By Michael Nye
Last week, my class talked with Cheston Knapp, the managing editor of Tin House. One of the only downsides of these Skype conversations is that the room gets incredibly hot. What we do is Skype through my laptop and hook it up to a projector, which puts the image of our out-of-town editor on a large pulldown presentation screen so that my class can see the editor. I crank the volume on the speakers up, and everyone in the room can hear and see the editor just fine. The editor, unfortunately, only gets my American Bulldog in a Tie face on the monitor rather than the entire class (after the first thirty minutes, students sit down in front of the monitor to ask their questions), so it’s not perfect, but it always goes pretty well nonetheless.
Anyway, if you’ve been reading my Internship in Publishing blog this year, you know the drill by now: because I ask the editors to speak candidly about their publishing work, I’m not going to divulge too much of what they say here. But there is one really important thing that Cheston shared that I want to talk about: his career path.
Cheston’s route to Tin House was a bit accidental. He graduated from William & Mary in 2004, stayed in Virginia for a year, then moved to Portland because he had a “oh, why not?” thought, and started interning at Tin House. None of this is a trade secret—a quick Google search will tell you this—but Cheston went into more detail about the How.
My path to TMR was a similar bit of organized confusion, one that I’ve written about in this space before. With it now being April, and the semester coming to a close, and graduation right around the corner for some of my students, this has been on my mind quite a bit. Like me, Cheston had a general idea of, somehow, writing, got more involved in publishing, and stayed with it, not because he’s climbing a career path, but because it seemed like fun, so, hey, why not?
A large part of the Internship in Publishing class is mentorship. Of course, there is is the work: reading manuscripts, walking through the stages of production of the magazine, etc. But an internship is, by definition, supposed to be on-the-job training in your field: what direction do I want my students to go? Writing, editing, and publishing (as much as these three fields can be separated) can be, though not necessarily, very different paths.
Most career advice seems to be “This is what I did, so you should too!” I took three years off between undergraduate and graduate school, so I think my students should, too. I earned an MFA, so a writer should earn an MFA. I didn’t plan on working for a literary magazine, so my students shouldn’t plan too either. Of course, there is the idea that the best advice is to not give any (that’s deep, yo!), but even implicitly, I think that how I got to TMR often seems to be an endorsement of that plan. And, more than once, I wonder if this is terrible advice for my students.
In all things writing related, the last fifteen years has been chaotic. Perhaps it is always this way. The new century has seen a massive shift toward big publishing consolidation, the rise of digital publishing and the alt-lit scene. MFA programs are now a bubble, like technology in 2001 and housing in 2008. And my students are more knowledgeable and sophisticated about these changes than I had been when I was leaving college.
No one does it your way. Not that they shouldn’t or won’t try to. There are probably some general wise moves to make—don’t piss everyone off, write more than once a month, read some books, and so forth—there isn’t one correct way to get wherever it is you’d like to end up. The lack of set rules may be a bit terrifying, especially those first steps in any given direction outside of school. But they’re crucial steps. This really just boils down to accepting risk. The world doesn’t have an outstanding road map for a young writer, but when you’re fully engaged in your own work, you’re always going to be able to make your mark. It’s nothing to fear, especially when taking a few steps off the beaten path is, always, inevitable.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
On Gender Bias in Publishing, Editing, and Writing
By Michael Nye
While I doubt you are concerned about regularly scheduled programming with this semester’s Monday blog post, you probably did notice that I didn’t post last week. I bumped myself from Monday to give contest editor Mike Petrik the opportunity to talk more about our Audio Competition (which is now closed)(but our Editors’ Prize is now open!) so you might be wondering what happened in class during the eighth week.
Week 8 was a conversation with the founder and editor of Hobart, Aaron Burch. I promise all the editors that I won’t reveal anything they say to my students, but I might come back, in time, to Aaron’s use of the word “legitimate.”
So far this semester, my class has spent plenty of time kinda/sorta outside the classroom. We’ve had two Skype conversations with editors of other literary magazines, a visit from the CIO of the Dish Network, and a snow day. When class only meets once per week, that’s a lot of time devoted to outside talk. During the week, when the interns are in for their office hours, I go around and say hello, ask how they are, what they’re working on, and so forth. Naturally, my rapport with some students is better than with others, but it’s not a substitute for the type of discussion that, in theory, a good publishing class should have.
And last week we talked about a big subject: VIDA and gender bias in publishing.
My class has fifteen students. Three are graduate students, and all three are women. I have twelve undergraduates: seven women, five men (quick digression: over the last five years that I’ve been with TMR, we generally have more women interested in the publishing class than men. I couldn’t tell you the exact ratio, but I’d guess 70/30).
I started by simply asking, who’s heard of VIDA?, and only four hands went up. I walked through a very quick, very basic, history of VIDA, an organization that was started by Cate Marvin and Erin Belieu. VIDA is mostly known for The Count, which is released every February, but that’s not all that the organization does. VIDA is all a website for essays about all sorts of topics related to women in publishing, editing, and writing, and a forum for writers who need support outside of the spotlight.
The VIDA Count had primarily focused on the “major” magazines and book review outlets: The Atlantic, Harper’s, New York Review of Books, New Yorker, London Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, as well as the literary magazines Tin House, Paris Review, and Boston Review. A few weeks ago, a former student of mine stopped by my office, and somehow, VIDA came up. She told me that the new VIDA count was coming out soon and I said, yeah, but they don’t look at literary magazines like TMR.
Only … this year, they did! Along with the larger publications they already look at, VIDA expanded its scope and examined twenty-four literary magazines, including TMR, Colorado Review, Normal School, Prairie Schooner, and Southern Review, among many others.
How did TMR do? According to the VIDA pie chart above, we published 57 women and 54 men.
I decided to look at our 2013 numbers and make a comparison to see if the numbers were the same. Not that I doubted the VIDA numbers, I was just curious about methodology and if the figures would match. My numbers were slightly different: I found we published 61 women and 54 men. I’ll get to the difference in a moment.
One of the keys to understanding how this works with TMR should start with our poetry. The breakdown of fiction, book reviews, and book reviewers is pretty straighforward. But with our poetry, we publish poetry features: this means a minimum of three poems per poet, no matter what. Often, we publish more than three (in our summer issue, we published four by Rose McLarney and five by Jim May; in our winter issue, we published seven by Michelle Boisseau). Should this be examined and broken down with more scrutiny?
VIDA also puts several items into nonfiction. According to The Count, we published six women and twelve men in this category. This nonfiction count includes (I think) essays, art features, and the forewords, but I’m truthfully not entirely sure. What I do know is that of the unsolicited, individual essays that TMR published in 2013, only two of the nine were by women. That’s a problem, and that’s on us.
The difference in my numbers and VIDA was in poetry. VIDA considered the series of Claudia Emerson’s poems as one poem, rather than six separate poems. The poems we published from the series are numerated: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9. My guess is that VIDA went by the Table of Contents rather than looking at the poems, but this doesn’t drastically change the end results one way or the other.
I would like to see VIDA separate interviews into its own category. Interviews are a tremendous amount of space in our pages, roughly four thousand words. We also have quite a bit of control of our interview content: we solicit freelancers for interviews, so we have men and women we contact directly, and while the interviewees are entirely up to the freelancer to pitch to us (on spec), we do have the ability to suggest who is a better candidate than another. We are less interested in a first book by a person you went to graduate school with compared to, say, a writer with three or four books.
Further, an interview does suggest “This writer matters.” Seeing that we’ve interviewed Karen Russell, or Sheila Heti, or Dorothea Lasky, or Jo Ann Beard, does make a claim about the value of their work and cultural cache in contemporary literature. While VIDA doesn’t weigh one category more than any other (I can easily imagine the quantitative and qualitative headache that would become) at least separating the category seems like a small but important nod to the purpose of interviewing women authors.
What did my class think of all this?
A concern raised by more than one student (male and female) was pretty straightforward: who cares about the author if the work is good? Shouldn’t the criteria simple be “this is good work”? Aren’t we just creating quotas?
No, I don’t think we are. We receive over ten thousand submissions per year. Of those, we publish forty. Is there really a difference between no. 40 and no. 41? Probably not. Do we receive, say, one hundred submissions that deserve to be published? Absolutely. Our aim is to publish the best writing that we can … but “best” is a nebulous criteria and is not the only thing that we do.
We also teach. We’re at a major state university, and we offer a class in publishing, training future writers and editors. That’s a factor.
Our table of contents doesn’t just list names. It also has author photos. What are we saying if a reader opens our magazine and sees only white male faces on the page?
Our submissions aren’t blind, and I don’t know a reader that doesn’t read the cover letter. Do we have expectations of what is masculine or feminine in literature? During a late-semester workshop in one of my creative writing classes, the story under discussion irritated one of my female students. Paraphrasing, she said “Girls don’t wear white sundresses all the time.” The comment got a laugh, but it also pointed out the perceptions of what writers, especially those still learning the craft, perceive as male or female.
Another thing that literary magazines do (and this will sound snotty) is publish what isn’t getting published by the bigger magazines. Avant-garde, and all that. And if women aren’t being recognized and published in larger magazines, then part of what literary magazines do is to go the other way: publish and champion women writers.
My class was, to my surprise, chatty about VIDA and gender bias, and it wasn’t split right down gender lines in my class, either. They aren’t entirely sure what to think of the subject. They aren’t sure how to approach it. How do we know, they ask, if we’ve done enough? What do we need to do?
There are several things that matter. First, the composition of a magazine’s staff. Of our five senior staffers, three are women; four of our seven graduate editors are women; and eleven of our fifteen interns are women. Second, we have to consider a literary magazine in its entirety, not just as individual pieces. If we’ve accepted seventy percent of the content for an upcoming issue, looking at the gender breakdown, and seeing which way we are leaning, matters. Third, we have to encourage the writers whose work we turn down (which, rather obviously, is most of them) to send work to us again. Our submitters can’t feel shut out. The extra time it takes to write a personalized rejection and say “we want to see more from you” makes a huge difference, something our interns and staff are doing already.
There’s more—much more—to say on this, but I’m getting close to two thousand words already, and, hey, that’s a long blog post. VIDA’s work is clearly not done, but the work they’ve done as an organization in the past five years has been tremendous. Still, they need help, whether you’re a reader, editor, or writer. One simple way? Support VIDA!
Last thing, then I’m off. I wasn’t entirely sure how this conversation would go with my students. Not that I was worried, exactly, more that talking with students individually is not the same as talking with a group, and so I was prepared to do a lot more answering than questioning. But it was unnecessary. My students were thoughtful, inquisitive, and patient for the hour plus that we talked about gender bias, and this was, by far, the best class we have all semester long. So, a big Kudos and Thanks to them for making the class terrific.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
What Does My Rejection Letter Actually Mean?
Edan Lepucki of The Millions asked us to contribute to our “Ask the Writer” column with a few words on rejection. Along with editors Loren Stein (Paris Review), Roxane Gay (PANK), Aaron Burch (Hobart), Michelle Meyering (The Rattling Wall), M.R. Branwen (Slush Pile Magazine), and Jordan Bass (McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern), I chimed in with a few details about TMR‘s process. Not realizing exactly what length Edan’s piece was, I wrote way too much, most of which could be edited down to a sentence or two, so I read like a blowhard. Anyway, you should read the whole thing right here.
I’m a big believer in literary magazines embracing transparency, and I don’t mind explaining how our reading and submission system works. But I’m often struck by a simple feeling about rejection: no means no. That’s it. There are all sorts of other things we can tell you, and we can provides lots of explanation in a personalized rejection. In the end, however, all a rejection letter really tells you about your work is that we won’t be publishing it.
The frustration for a writer is two-fold: the impersonalization of the rejection of the work, and the mysterious nature of the editorial process. Edan’s piece sheds light on the latter, which emphasizes that editors receive far more work–far more good work–than we can possibly publish, and that these rejections are not a personal attack on the writer.
The impersonal nature of rejection, however, is another thing. I’ve never taken rejections personally. When I was a graduate student, and first started sending out my stories, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I knew that the Paris Review was “good” so I sent them everything first. I’d send out stories in batches of twenty at a time, and then keep all the information in an Excel file so I knew exactly when work was mailed out and could obsessively check how long my story has been under consideration. When it was rejected, I didn’t really know why my work was being turned down; I thought the work was pretty good (hey, I was biased: I knew the author). I was still at the stage, and sometimes think I still am, where I don’t see my work with the dispassionate, critical eye of an editor.
But it was never, to me, personal. How could it be when I was firing off so many copies each time? I didn’t know why I wanted to publish, or why I wanted to publish in a particular magazine, or why anyone else would want to read my stories. Big picture stuff wasn’t crossing my mind. Maybe that was a weakness in my writing back then (and perhaps it still is): a lack of urgency that someone must, absolutely, read this story right now.
I go back and forth on that.
The other thing that strikes me about taking rejection personally comes from how we learn to write. Most of us learn in a classroom. Workshop environments tend to be supportive; many of compared workshops to self-help, to therapy. I think there is a lot of truth to that assessment. Post-school, or without it, we often rely on writing groups for support. There are also the writers who shun academia and writing groups and write into the void from a place of solitude. Often, we’re surrounded by people who encourage us, tell us our writing is good, and/or coming from an urgent need to write our stories … only to be dismissed with a slim, indifferent piece of paper saying No.
I still believe it’s a meritocracy. That might be foolish. But the best work, I believe, always finds a home. And I’m always going to write another story, and it’s going to be better than the last one that I wrote. I don’t say this like a chant, like a Zen koan. I say this by getting up before dawn every morning and writing. There’s no magic to it. You know, other than coffee. I’ll just repeat what Edan said here: “So get off the internet and write one, why don’t you?”
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
Thoughts on Nonfiction and Ch-Ch-Changes
A few years ago, I applied to give a talk about my faith for a retreat through a Catholic church on Mizzou’s campus. The application instructed me to write a short essay about my faith, and to detail an obstacle I had to overcome in order to reach where I am today. In italics, an added note advised: Do not write about an obstacle you are currently facing. It is better to write about something from your past that you have already overcome. It made sense to me – you need distance in order to tell the story right. You need the emotional detachment and wisdom that time supposedly offers.
I can still remember exactly what I wrote about on that retreat application. In short, I had a rough few months during my senior year of high school and made some poor decisions that still make me cringe today. I wrote an essay describing the ordeal and how it connected to my faith. I was chosen to give the talk at the retreat, but a few months beforehand, I dropped out. A chronic fear of public speaking and an even bigger fear of sharing my story with a group of peers convinced me I wasn’t ready yet. It turns out, two years of distance still wasn’t enough.
Fiction is my bread and butter, but on the rare occasion when I try to write an essay, I inadvertently return to that note on the retreat application. I ask myself the same questions. Am I ready to write this story from my life? Do I need to be safely out of range from the emotions of a particular event in order to write about it well? Do I need detachment in order to write clearly, or will that make my writing hollow and remote? I raise these questions because I don’t have an answer. If I did, I would write nonfiction much better than I do now.
I ran into a similar problem recently when I decided to submit the only completed essay I’m proud of to a few journals. I wrote the essay last semester for a class called, oddly enough, “Writing the Spiritual Narrative.” Before I sent it out, I reread the essay for the first time in about six months, and I was struck by how much I didn’t like it. The writing wasn’t bad, but my perspective had changed. My essay detailed my on-again, off-again relationship with both Catholicism and bouts of depression, my struggles with prayer when I left the church, and how this culminated during my study abroad in Scotland. At the time that I wrote the essay, I had not been to church voluntarily in almost a year, and I was in the middle of a typical “what am I going to do with my life” crisis, which colored my work considerably. At the time that I reread the essay, I had resolved much of my quarter-life crisis and also made a cautious return to my old church. Every word of my essay was still true, and yet I wanted to rewrite it on the spot. Nothing in my past had changed, but the way I interpreted my past had changed.
As a fiction writer, if I reread something I’ve written six months ago and decide it needs fixing, I can manipulate the story however I want. The narrative only lives inside my head and my characters are the ones who change, not me. But I find that when I try to write nonfiction, I get stuck because the narrative of my life is not linear or tidy, and if the narrative of my life has changed, then so have I. I wonder how I’m supposed to write about my life when time and maturity will offer so many shifts in my point of view. If I can ever document my life in an honest and satisfying way, despite these shifts.
The question of truth and authenticity comes up a lot in conversations about nonfiction, and I know I’m just adding more noise. Anytime I sit down to write about my life, I am only writing about how I feel at this given time, and therefore, my work is still truthful and authentic. It’s not necessary for me to place a disclaimer on all of my essays, or for me to feel badly about growing up. The meaning I glean from writing about my life should matter the most. Eventually, I’ll put these questions about distance and time to rest. In the meantime, I think I’d better stick to fiction.
Three Ways To Improve the Editor-Writer Relationship
A few weeks ago, I was invited to Georgia State University to give a talk about the relationship between literary magazine editors and writers. I’m terrible at coming up with titles, but I ended up calling it “War & Peace” because 1. You can’t go wrong ripping off Tolstoy and 2. the dynamic between editors and writers, the people who provide the content for the magazine, is often combative. With a mixture of anecdotes and some half-baked ideas, I spent forty-five minutes talking with Georgia State undergraduates, graduates, and faculty (who all come together to produce the terrific magazine, New South) about how a lack of transparency and poor communication makes how what should be a fairly cooperative dynamic is often, instead, quite contentious. I did not use a flamethrower or my Al Pacino voice.
I stressed two things. The first is to simply acknowledge the writers and editors. With this magical site called Google, it’s very easy to look up any author or any editor. When you read a story, poem, or essay that really hit a chord, drop the author an email. Nothing fancy. Just a “thanks” or a “wow” or “you’re an idiot” (okay, maybe not this one …) lets the author know that someone has read the work, that it matters, that it has found an audience. It sounds like such a small thing, and it is, and yet those small things mean so much to a writer. Remember, we spend all our time writing our stories in silence, alone, isolated. To discover that all that toiling away has made an impact with an audience, strangers who really understood what we were trying to communicate, is a really wonderful thing.
Editors too, by the way, love knowing that we delivered you a great issue.
Second, I discussed the use of social media to reach, remind, and expand our audience. It’s easy to roll your eyes at the ubiquity of Facebook, but by using it—and this blog, and Twitter, and Tumblr—magazines are able to make the readership feel like a part of us because, well, they are. Good social media keeps us in touch with our readers, highlighting great pieces, fresh audio content, events here in Columbia, gives us (and you!) a chance to rave about books we love and films we hate (Did you see this stinker?) and makes our community feel complete.
But I forgot a third way of improving the editor/writer relationship: start your own magazine.
Which is exactly what writer Justin Allen did with The Cresote Journal. In this terrific blog post, Allen discusses how creating his own magazine has shaped the way he views literary magazines, particularly when it comes to submissions. The process:
has been much slower and more difficult than I expected. I haven’t given up, but I have been humbled by the project and delayed over and over. My collaborators and I are still, almost 2 years in, “starting” rather than “running” the journal, and still figuring out what it is and what it’s going to be.
And, really, what better way to learn about literary publishing than from the beginning? After all, The Missouri Review started somewhere (1977), and when we did, there was already Ploughshares (started in 1971) and Kenyon Review (1939) and Southern Review (1935) and so many others to numerous to name. And since we began, there have been a slew of new wonderful magazines—One Story, Tin House, Hobart, PANK, A Public Space, to name but a few.
Allen’s post focuses on rejection, and when it comes down to it, many of us are interested in literary magazines (both reading ’em and starting ’em) because we want to write work that gets published and, consequently, gets read. Simply publishing isn’t enough. You might as well call it “printing” if just seeing your name on a masthead is all you want. We recently discussed what happens to your manuscript when it arrives in our offices, and we feel (like every editor) that reading our magazine gives you the best sense of what it is we publish. And once we do, we use every medium we can to let the world know about your work.
None of these three suggestions are, of course, perfect. But it’s a start, and a good reminder to all of us—publishers and writers alike—that what we all do is meant to communicate, engage, and entertain. Recognizing that we’re all on the same side of the battle is something that is easy to forget. Here’s one small reminder that we’re all in this together.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
On My First Rejection From a Literary Magazine
I have no memory of my first rejection from a literary magazine.
No, really. Not a clue.
I can tell you what and where my first acceptance was—“Then and Now in Chattanooga” was picked up by Sou’wester about eight years ago. I also know that it wasn’t the first time I printed off a story, attached a cover letter and a SASE with a paper clip, zipped off to the post office, and threw $1.29 in postage on a manila envelope. I certainly had stories rejected before that, and I certainly have had stories (many, many stories) rejected since.
I’m sure I sent my early stories to places like the New Yorker and Harper’s. I’m sure they were politely, and quickly, turned down. But I have never felt seething rage at the editors, or at myself, or anyone else about these rejections. I don’t keep rejection letters in a folder or in a shoebox, plaster my walls with all those Thank You Please Try Again notes, or pin them to a dartboard and crack a six-pack and let ’em fly. My rejections get put in the recycling bin with all the other paper products to be left curbside for the city of Columbia to cart off every Tuesday morning.
Certainly, there have been been rejections that have puzzled me. I thought a story of mine at journal X was a perfect fit (really); the lengthy notes from an editor at journal Y were both awfully generous and also showed that the editor had completely misread my story; the eleven month wait from journal Z over by way of an inkless rejection note made me wonder if they had just found the story in a pile somewhere and rushed to send it back.
Hey: it happens. I’ve worked for literary magazines for long enough to know that the only thing a rejection means is that this particular journal is not publishing your work. That’s it. Nothing else. Nothing else about who I am, my work, my choice of stamps, my choice of font, or whatever other reason we might feel a magazine has turned down our work.
I spent time last night trying to remember what journal was the first one to reject my work. I thought it would be great to actually be able to tell you that This Particular Journal was the very first one to be all like “Yeah, buddy, shoulda left this one in workshop, okay?” But, the name of the journal won’t come to me. I don’t even have a good guess. The rejection wasn’t important enough, then or now, for my brain to keep that memory intact.
Rejections happen. So do acceptances. I’d much rather focus on the latter.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
An Open Letter To A Fellow Writer About Twitter
I read your post on Ploughshares blog yesterday. Your post was about whether or not you should use Twitter. The title is “Why I’m Not On Twitter Yet” and you actually write that you can be persuaded to join. But it feels like what you’re really writing about isn’t Twitter but addictive and dangerous behavior, about knowing yourself, about balancing what’s healthy for you and what’s healthy for your career. Know where I discovered your post? On Twitter.
Usually, when I read a blog post that I feel compelled to comment on, I end up saying something a bit lame: great post, thank you for this, etc. What I really want to do is ask a bunch of questions, to talk more to the writer, pick his or her brain on a wide-range of topics that only tangentially are relevant to the post. I’d like to buy that person a drink. But since I live in Columbia and the blogger almost certainly doesn’t, this will likely never happen. So, power of the interwebs and all that …
What I liked about your post, Jamie, is that the anxiety that you describe is all about the book promotion. You’re terrified that if you don’t do this, don’t hop on Twitter and use it (to do what, exactly?) then you’re dooming your collection to the dustbins of forgotten contemporary writers not named Franzen. And what I so admired was that you said so publicly! “I want my book to sell and I do not want to doom my career.”
I feel this way all the time. My first book, a story collection like yours, comes out in October. Am I worried that the world will shrug? That by going with a small press, my agent can’t sell my novel? That whatever miserable decision(s) I’ve made about my entire writing life, from beginning to the here and now, can somehow be salvaged if the next move is the smart move?
Yeah, all the time.
So, with that. Do not use Twitter. Never.
I say this as a monster fan of Twitter. I keep a tab open all day, in large part because I’m in front of a computer for my job. I love Twitter. I don’t recall how long I’ve had the account. I have a personal website, a Facebook account, and a Gmail account. Smartphone. Etc. People can get a hold of me however they want.
Facebook bores me: it’s an echo chamber where the same dozen “friends” post noise all day long. Facebook is visual. Seems like an obvious point, right? Pictures and videos and stuff, and all that makes me feel is that I should be doing something else, with real live people in real life who I really love being around. Which I can do at 5 pm when I log off my computer.
Twitter is textual. Seems like an obvious, yeah? But Twitter is about those pithy 140 characters and links to good articles. There are some people out there who put up some terrific stuff – Nick Moran, Roxane Gay, Nathan Bransford, Jane Friedman, Rebecca Schinsky, Ezra Klein, Maud Newton, David Gutowski, Cory Doctorow, Liz Heron, and many others. And the only one of those people I’ve ever met in person is Roxane.
There are my friends, too. Zinging each other with wit, sarcasm, even serious stuff. Real life people who I love and do, in fact, get to see in real life outside of the office.
A major factor for me is that Twitter is information. I read a ton of articles about publishing, writing, editing, and business that I simply don’t see on Facebook. The people I follow might be friends, they also might be complete strangers. But it doesn’t matter. Sure, I’d love to have lots of followers, but if something interests me, and I’m having a good time, I keep it up (digression: I probably lost a dozen followers just the other night by sending about 200 Boston Celtics tweets in three hours). I’m learning from Twitter. I believe I’m better at my job because of Twitter.
Twitter isn’t effortless. But it isn’t really work either. Have you ever read those “Why I Write” essays by famous writers? They always amaze me, how much someone can articulate, without being too pompous (I mean, some of them are, you know, but just think about the ones you actually like), the impetus to write stories or novels or poems or essays. More than once, I’ve tried writing a manifesto like that. But they never come out right. I keep it simple. I write because I want to. I like it. That’s it. Same with Twitter. I like it. I dig Twitter the same way Roxane does. It’s fun. End of story.
Jamie, I’ve thought quite a bit about book promotion, and like most writers, I get deeply anxious and nervous. I hope Grove/Atlantic is doing something awesome for you. My press—Queen’s Ferry Press—is small. The publisher, Erin McKnight, has been a dream to work with. How can an author not love working with an editor who believes, deeply and sincerely, that your work demands to be read? But despite our shared enthusiasm for my book, the fact remains that Erin and I have a pretty limited amount of marketing cards to play. There is so much noise out there. We’ll do all we can to get the good word out, but there are 300,000 new books published each year. 300,000! I mean, if I could bank on all my Facebook friends (800) and Twitter followers (500) combined, then subtracting out the duplicates (let’s make it easy and call it a 1000), buying my book, I’d be thrilled.
But it won’t. Social media doesn’t work that way.
Here’s the thing: once you try to sell people, they won’t buy. The soft sell isn’t even the thing now; it’s more like the non-sell. Some kind of Buddist, zen, voodoo, something other. It makes no sense. I’m sure that you have gone to plenty of readings over the years. I know I have. You know what is the biggest factor in people buying books? Whether or not they like the author. Which, when you really think about it, is kinda silly.
When I got the offer from Queen’s Ferry Press, I had to think about it. Really think about. I called my writer friends and asked for their opinions. I called my agent. I stewed and marinated on it for a long time. The advice I got came down to this: no Big Six house is going to expect the moon and the stars from a short-story collection. Those people in publishing are pretty smart. So is your agent; so are your friends; so are you. Guessing here, but if you published a story collection on a major press, unless your name is Daniel Orozco, you promised a novel. Unless it’s finished (and even if it is), you have work to do.
Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know. We’ve never met. Maybe this entire open letter thing is an awfully presumptuous thing to write. But let me say something else. You’re married, and from what I can gleam from your post, happily. You have four children, and are a conscientious mother. You wrote stories, probably ten or eleven of them, that were published by terrific journals. You have a book. It will be in the world no matter what. The view from my seat? You’ve already won. You’ve done it. You’ve climbed the mountain and slammed the flag into the ground and sounded your barbaric yawp.
Because, Jamie, none of us are going to be famous. Selling a few extra copies won’t impress the big shots in New York. As for us writers, well, none of us really care about that. In the end, when you sit down and look at your work, the person that has to live with it is you. No one else will know what went into writing each story, each paragraph, each chapter. Not really. Only the writer knows that. No one else will appreciate that good, true, honest, devastating story.
That’s why we write, I think. For the work, not for the recognition. A couple hundred people on Twitter that you don’t know won’t change that.
You spoke honestly about obsession and addiction, and while I’m not Dear Sugar and I have already exhausted my armchair psychology for the day, it sounds like you know you don’t belong on Twitter. Frankly, Twitter shouldn’t even be a thought. Stay away. Book promotion isn’t worth going crazy, neglecting your children and your husband, isn’t worth the possibility of being sleepless because you’re missing a link or two. Publishing a book should be (is this silly?) fun. We should enjoy it, celebrate it. If trying to snag a couple extra readers gives you ulcers, threatens your writing time, your reading experience, and your family, then don’t bother. It isn’t worth it.
And that you decided to address this publicly is why I’m responding the same way: Airing the honest anxiety writers feel, an anxiety and worry that I instantly felt in my stomach as I was reading your words. There are probably many other writers who feel the exact same way and I hope by answering you publicly, we help them out too.
Anyway. That was the fastest 1600 word letter I’ve ever cranked out. I hope it helps. And, the last thing: I’ll buy a copy of your book. You just gotta promise you’ll sign a copy for me … and not tweet about it.
A Fellow Writer & Total Stranger,
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye