Today’s featured writer: Melissa Matthewson.
The featured writing: “As Snow Designs” published at The Bellingham Review.
I live in a small, rural town, so in order to fulfill my literary cravings and needs, I rely upon social media to keep connected. While having that online access is great, interacting with people virtually is definitely a poor substitute to being with people in the flesh. And while there are writers and literary-minded folk in my region of Southern Oregon, obviously the opportunities pale in comparison to more populated areas like Portland, which is five hours north. I was thrilled then to discover (actually she gets credit for discovering me via a fellow VCFA alum) and meet Melissa Matthewson, who lives over the ridge in the next valley from me. When we met, Melissa had just begun the MFA in writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I, too, received my MFA in creative nonfiction. Finally, I had flesh and blood literary connection to share the love of words with over glasses of wine at Peace of Pizza in the Applegate valley or a local-made hard cider or ale at the taco joint in my town of Williams. (And someone to travel with to AWP. Here we are outside Hell’s Kitchen in Minneapolis last year.)
Since our meeting, Melissa has graduated and gone on to publish many striking essays in very fine publications, the most recent being “As Snow Designs” published at The Bellingham Review and recently nominated by them for a pushcart prize. Her lyric essay is a segmented meditation on loss, full of both gorgeous language and thoughtful rumination, that stems from a time when her future husband was caught in the mountains in a sudden snow storm.
I felt the possibility of loss as an exertion of pressure on my chest as I walked, the force overwhelming as if I were to be swallowed into the buried sky. This loss as an interruption to the ordinary. My fiancée had gone to the mountains with two friends hours before. I wondered about them in the woods with the snow. I wondered about the blurry confusion of a quick storm. You could say I was worried. As a couple, we were so new, our love like fresh soap taken from the plastic and sweet like lavender.
Melissa Matthewson lives and writes in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon. She holds degrees from the University of California, Santa Cruz (BA), University of Montana (MS), and Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA). Her essays have appeared in the Mid-American Review, Bellingham Review, River Teeth, Sweet, Defunct, Numero Cinq, Terrain.org, Pithead Chapel, This Magazine, Literary Mama, Prime Number, Under the Gum Tree, and Cobra Lily Review among other publications. Her essay, “A Gathering of Then & Now” won the 2015 AWP Intro Journals Award in creative nonfiction. She has been a finalist for the Terrain.org Nonfiction Prize and the Orlando Prize for Nonfiction. She serves as an Assistant Essays Editor at The Rumpus, teaches writing workshops and Zumba dance classes, and runs an organic farm. She’s working on a collection of lyric essays. Visit her at melissamatthewson.com or on twitter @melmatthewson.
A few questions for Melissa:
Each section in “As Snow Designs” attempts to open the essay anew with a fresh angle of beginning, while also building upon the previous section(s) until the last two sections shift towards finding the ending. Can you speak to that? How did this structure come about?
The essay’s genesis began in a lecture on juxtaposition in poetry and prose at a Vermont College of Fine Arts residency. Danielle Cadena Deulen gave us a writing prompt in which we were to juxtapose three events. The first prompt was to write about a time when you were in an extreme state of being, using metaphor to explain. I decided on writing about losing my husband to the snow. Then she had us write about a city we had traveled to or lived in. I wrote about Missoula. Then she had us tell a story with a clear narrative. Any story. I wrote about coming upon a performer on the Santa Cruz streets painted all silver. She then had us try to connect the first fragment about the extreme emotion to the other two fragments. I left the lecture loving what the writing prompt generated, so I went home and wrote the essay that is now, “As Snow Designs.” I sort of stumbled upon the structure just through experimentation. I was reading a lot of experimental essays at the time and I was influenced by their playfulness in terms of form. In my own writing, I couldn’t find a way to tell this particular story, so it just came to me as I was writing that I should just try a number of different beginnings with titles for each section. The essay evolved over almost two years of writing and revising.
Do you have a specific writing process? How do your essay ideas come to you?
My writing process is to fit in writing where I can! I try to commit myself to three large chunks of writing time per week, but of course, this is usually interrupted for whatever reason. I don’t have a specific time of day that works. It’s whenever I can sit down. I like to write in bed under my wool blanket. I write a lot while my children are running around the house. Perhaps it’s their craziness that inspires me? Or I need the chaos of their voices to fuel me? I tend to write very short pieces of prose. I can’t seem to just sit down and pour out pages and pages of words. I craft sentences slowly, paying attention to word choice, rhythm, syntax. I resist straight narrative, so I like to experiment with form and play with blurring the lines between poetry and nonfiction. Sometimes ideas come to me very easily. I often think of it as a process of enchantment with an experience or an affection for an idea. For instance, I happened upon an amazing place in northern California recently and had an almost spiritual experience in the woods. I was so compelled by the experience that a short piece of prose immediately poured out of me. Or, a friend died recently, so I tried to make sense of the grief and loss through a short poem. Or recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about scarcity, stability, and the course of nature and its uncertainty and somehow I want to take those ideas and craft them into an essay. Big topics and of course, they’ve been written on before, but I like tackling old ideas in new ways. I guess ideas come to me based on experience, emotion, and thought.
What are you currently reading, and what recent books, essays, poems, or stories do you recommend and why?
I’m currently reading The Beauty of the Husband, Anne Carson; Find Me, Laura Van Den Berg; and Bright, Dead Things, Ada Limon. I’m slowly reading essays in After Montaigne edited by Patrick Madden and David Lazar and Ander Monson’s new collection, Letter to a Future Lover.
A friend of mine from VCFA, Genevieve Thurtle, just published a stunning essay in the most recent issue of The Sun. The essay, “Twenty Three Weeks,” is a devastatingly beautiful essay about losing her daughter. I also read Ada Limon’s essay on Richard Blanco’s blog “To What Do We Owe This Pleasure: On the Value of Not Writing” that I can’t stop thinking about. I have a secret crush on Ada Limon. Guess it’s not so secret anymore. Eula Biss published an essay in the New York Times “White Debt” that I think was very provocative and important and which I’ve read several times and recommend to everyone. An essay in the 2015 Best American Essay anthology gutted me: Justin Cronin’s “My Daughter & God.” I recently read James Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues” and it’s just an amazing story in so many ways: plot, character, and sentence construction!
Nonfiction books I read last year that affected me greatly were Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Citizen from Claudia Rankine. Also, I devoured Laura Groff’s novel Fates and Furies. Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation too. I’ve been drawn to literature about marriage and desire based on the writing I’m doing. I’ve also been drawn to understanding, learning, and engaging in issues and literature around race so reading Coates and Rankine’s books has been a part of that education.
I’ve got a long to-read list. Books I can’t wait to read in the next few months include: The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson; How to Be Drawn, Terrance Hayes; Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Ross Gay; Negroland, Margo Jefferson; H is for Hawk; Helen Macdonald; and Ordinary Light, Tracy K. Smith.
What book do you wish you could have written?
What a good question! I don’t know…maybe anything that Virginia Woolf has ever written. Maybe Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Or Lorrie Moore’s collection of stories, Self-Help. Anything Joan Didion. Albert Camus’ The Stranger. Or Crime and Punishment, only because I loved that book in high school.
What inspires you?
The mountains. Trees. Music. Poetry.
Can you share a bit with us about the essay collection you are working on? Does it have a tentative title?
Sure! Right now, it’s a collection of twenty-five lyric essays, though some of these could be considered prose poems or short flash nonfiction. It’s tentatively titled Home, As It Were: Essays. Together, the essays examine the paradox of limitation versus freedom within a marriage. I like to think they form an intimate inquiry into identity as explored through subjects and themes of desire, farming, marriage, sexuality, polyamory, domesticity (and the rejection thereof), music, and motherhood, all tied and threaded to the landscape. Each essay attempts to build a loose chronological story of a marriage from the middle of a relationship to the break, all told through lyrical narrative and hybrid forms. I hope for the essays to blend and fuse writing that is lyrical, intellectually curious and to provoke and arouse the reader through an artful investigation into desire and marriage. We’ll see. It’s an attempt. As in all essays!
Today’s featured writer: Kelly Thompson
The featured writing: “Hand Me Down Stories” published at Proximity Magazine.
I met Kelly Thompson last year at AWP in Minneapolis when I visited my friend, Christy Bailey, in her highrise Hilton suite. It was late, and the room was full of people because Christy, being very ill with cancer, had come to AWP as a means of seeing as many friends as possible all in one general location and at the same time. The room was loud, and there were lots of new people to meet, but that didn’t hinder Kelly’s effusive greeting. What struck me upon this meeting was her enthusiasm and vivaciousness. And what has struck me since getting to know her the little bit that I do is her unwavering support for the things and people she loves. Kelly promotes art in all forms, advocating with fervor for new journals such as Witch Craft Magazine and books like The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch. I love Kelly’s spirit of sharing, generosity, and celebration of other artists’ work; it is something I endeavor towards here in The Sunday Spotlight.
I have read a couple of Kelly’s essays published online and was drawn especially to her most recent publication “Hand Me Down Stories” in Proximity Magazine‘s Issue 9: Home.
She summoned spirits in her stories and called up worlds with just a song. Although we moved away from the farm when I was eight, and she’s long passed now, I raise her up just like I did those first long nights of missing her as I lay homesick in my bed. It was Grandma who taught me how to conjure, her voice like a dove, the sudden clap of wings calling me to listen.
Kelly’s essay “Hand Me Down Stories” is part nostalgic homage to her grandmother and the place and people of her ancestry and part inquiry and investigation into family history and the influences and behaviors that get passed down through the generations. This essay is captivating both in the language of the prose and how Kelly captures the rural Kentucky language of her people. As writer Lia Woodall describes, “Kelly conjures up details and scenes where the information was lost or kept away. She has a gift for the ancient voice of storytelling and for painting characters on the page. I didn’t so much read this essay as hear it and feel it, the sensory explosion of it.”
Kelly Thompson is a member of Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, Colorado. She has writing published or forthcoming in Oh Comely, Proximity, The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, Witch Craft, The Writing Disorder, 49 Writers, and other literary journals.
A few questions for Kelly:
One of the things that draws me as a reader into “Hand Me Down Stories” is the musicality of the language, especially the voice of your grandma and the voices of the men on Willigan’s porch. Were interviews with relatives or Kentucky locals part of your writing process, or did you merely “conjure” the language from memories?
Both. I didn’t formally interview any relatives, but in 2012 I was involved in putting together a family reunion. In the process, I connected online with a “long-lost cousin” a descendant of my great uncle’s line, who lives in the Louisville, Kentucky area. We got into a conversation about old family stories and the one about Riley and the shooting came up. She then told me there was not only more to the story I’d heard as a child, but that there was a court transcript of his appeal to the state of Kentucky, which I was thrilled to access.
Then, at the actual reunion, I talked with one of my cousins who is actually close to my father’s age – he grew up with her – and she filled in some other details, like how alcoholics were considered to be possessed by demons, and stories about the run-ins my great uncle and great grandmother had over his drinking. I also learned for the first time more about Cheerful and Lonny, my grandmother’s half-brothers.
When I first conceived the memoir project I’m currently working on, I knew there would be a thread involving the ancestors and so, when I sat down to write, I immediately heard my grandmother’s voice, telling stories in my head, just like I had since childhood. Then, when I went to write the scenes, like the one with the men on the porch and with the two boys, Cheerful and Lonnie, it was like I was there, witnessing the events take place. I fell into a kind of trance and, as I watched the scenes unfold, I wrote it down exactly as I saw it. So I’d say they were definitely “conjured.”
From your essay, it is evident that your love of storytelling can be attributed to your grandma’s influence. Were there other influences growing up that inspired your love of books/reading/writing?
When I was four years old, I learned to read over my seven-year-old sister’s shoulder. My father was a reader and he took us to the library almost every week. He mostly read westerns at that time, authors like Louis L’amour. Books opened up the world for me from the very beginning. We never had a television in our home, so reading was my only outlet, that or playing outside.
At around six years old, someone gave me a pack of Authors’ Cards and that was it. I loved them. I decided right then and there that I would be an author (which I pronounced “arther”) when I grew up. My life took a circuitous route, so though I’ve been writing off and on since childhood, I only committed myself to learning the craft in the past decade.
To quote a phrase from the essay: you inherited “the talent for playing music by ear.” What instruments do you play? Do you also sing?
I play the pen. I know that sounds weird, but writing is my instrument. When I write, I hear music. I grew up hearing my grandmother’s stories, as well as music, as she, my father and his siblings all played various instruments and sang. Every week, the family gathered at my grandmother’s farmhouse for dinner, followed by a music jam. On my mother’s side of the family, my uncle was a concert violinist and my maternal grandmother sang and played the piano. She was a backup singer for Peggy Lee in Fargo, North Dakota at one time. In the seventies and eighties I worked as a rock & roll disc jockey and played records; I learned some beginning piano as a child, but I definitely can’t sing! But music is in my blood. For me, words sing.
I know that “Hand Me Down Stories” is from your memoir in progress, Oh Darling Girl, which explores a transgenerational legacy of addiction, violence, and shame. Can you tell us more about it?
In my memoir, Oh Darling Girl, I tell the story of how, just as I got sober at age thirty, one of my two barely adolescent daughters descended into addiction. That began the journey of recovery and learning for me, a journey of exploring and claiming the darkness, as my essay says, that found a home first in me, and then my daughter. Over time, I discovered the thread of addiction, and all that comes with it, didn’t originate in us, but wove its way through the generations like a braid. Not only did it come down to my daughter through my bloodline, but was transmitted to her from her father’s as well.
Even though my parents were teetotalers, they each had grown up with alcoholism and, like everyone in their generation, did not understand the nature of addiction, the genetic component, and the transgenerational nature of trauma, which science and the recovery movement have only begun to uncover. In my book, I explore the topic of legacy, our “lot in life,” as my grandma would have called it. We are born into an ongoing story, begun long before our entrance, our “chapter” of it, if you will. The question that fascinates me is one of agency. Can one small life affect the trajectory of the story, of what comes next? How do our choices affect the outcome, if at all, for the next generation and beyond?
Do you write more by logic or intuition, or some combination of the two? Can you summarize your writing process?
What do you mean by logic? I want to ask! So, my answer is–by intuition, mostly. My writing process is very organic and parallels my living process. What I write about is compelled from within and I rarely have any idea what I’m really doing until I’ve done it. That requires faith, which I’m only slowly acquiring, through experience. I’ve learned that the only way the material unfolds for me is to write it. As I write, I discover where it wants to go and this can be a very long process. I often write in fragments, almost never in chronological order, and, at some point, I begin stitching the pieces together, kind of like making a quilt. Lots of “pieces,” then seeing patterns in the pieces, laying them out in various combinations, before finally getting the larger design. But I also sometimes begin with long rambling pages that I think are doing something. Invariably, I set them aside and then, when I come back to them, I pull pieces out, much like cutting squares of fabric for a quilt.
Which authors or books have influenced your work or are some of your favorites?
I have to begin with Rainier Maria Rilke’s poetry and Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings, including his letters to his brother Theo, because they are the ones whose work, early on, validated everything in me that wanted to make art. Reading Rilke or seeing a Van Gogh is like a spiritual experience for me.
Then, since I committed to this writing life, The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch (and everything else she’s written) and The Reenactments by Nick Flynn (and everything he’s written) have had a huge influence. I read voraciously, so it would be hard for me to choose favorites, although I will say Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted, Lidia’s The Small Backs of Children, Roxanne Gay’s An Untamed State, Ben Whitmer’s Cry Father, and the short stories of Flannery O’Connor and Clarice Lispector have been at the top of my list lately. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I read at least three books, if not more, a week.
Last week, I read a snarky article on the Huffington Post on the “7 Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook.” The author dissected nearly every possible type of Facebook post and categorized them into five types: image crafting, narcissism, attention craving, jealousy inducing, and loneliness.
The author’s views were so negative and constraining that I found myself wondering, if every one of my Facebook friends refrained from the type of posts this guy complains about so as not to be “annoying” then what would my feed look like? Pictures of cute baby animals, music videos, and other “interesting/informative” and/or “funny/amusing/entertaining” tidbits, but none of it would be personal. It got me thinking about how we, as people in this digital paradigm, interact with one another and how, often, the nature of the virtual world can be unfriendly.
Then I saw a post in a private writers’ Facebook group that asked people to post links to book reviews they have written and encouraged people to write new book reviews as a means to help support the many writers in the group who have published books and are in need of exposure. I love this idea. It’s supportive, encouraging, and interactive.
I am a slow reader, and I don’t get through a lot of books in a timely fashion. But I do read essays every day on the internet, often finding their links on Facebook. This got me thinking: Maybe I would start a weekly Facebook post where I would share a link to a piece of writing that I love and want to promote. This would be my own form of review on a much smaller scale, but rather than “reviewing” the writing, it would be more of a spotlight of the author and her/his writing. It would be interesting, informative, and entertaining, and it would satisfy those pesky requirements on how to not be insufferable on Facebook! Then I got to thinking, why not do this on my blog and then post a link to the blog on Facebook? Accomplishing two tasks at once, you know that killing two birds with one stone concept, only I love birds and would never throw stones at them.
Which brings me to the birth of this new weekly feature: The Sunday Spotlight. My goal for this weekly spotlight is to introduce readers to a writer and/or piece of writing they are not familiar with. The focus will be on new and emerging writers, but I may occasionally feature an established writer who I love and just can’t hold myself back from showering with praises.
Today’s featured writer: Cathy Bell. The featured writing: “The Sweetest Kidnapping” published at The Sunday Rumpus Essay.
I first became familiar with Cathy because we shared a mutual friend, a fellow writer named Christy Bailey, who passed away June 12, 2015, and I had read Cathy’s essay “Cold Blue,” which was also published as a Sunday Rumpus Essay (and is another highly recommended read). Cathy and I became fast friends when she offered to host me the weekend of Christy’s memorial in Denver, Colorado. Staying with someone you don’t know at such a tender time could be an emotional disaster, but Cathy was gracious and warm and empathetic. We shared many reminiscences of Christy, talked writer’s shop talk at length, and read some of each other’s work.
One of Cathy’s essays I read during that weekend was “The Sweetest Kidnapping.” I was instantly enthralled with the essay and immediately expressed interest in publishing it at Hunger Mountain, the literary journal where I work as assistant creative nonfiction editor, but Cathy was not ready to submit the piece, and ultimately, it was published at The Rumpus.
“The Sweetest Kidnapping” weaves fairy tale lore with Cathy’s personal story from her childhood of being at the center of a custody dispute, revealing and ruminating on the extreme actions taken by some of her family members and their subsequent ramifications.
How long, exactly, does it take for a child to forget her mother?
Cathy Bell is a member of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, the best literary community out there in her opinion. When Cathy is not writing, taking classes, or working as an IT manager at the University of Colorado Denver, she spends her time volunteering as a submissions reader for Hippocampus Magazine, helping with literary events at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and making mixed-media art. Cathy is a Colorado native and loves to write about her family, family history, and the small Colorado towns where she grew up. She has been published in The Rumpus(twice), Full Grown People, Hippocampus Magazine, and other literary publications. Read more of Cathy’s work at cathyaebell.com. Or say hello on Twitter: @cathyannelaine.
A few questions for Cathy:
What were your goals and intentions in writing “The Sweetest Kidnapping?”
For at least seven years, I’ve wanted to tell a story about this one night in my childhood that I thought was so magical, even though I found out later it was a ploy by my grandmother to hide us kids from our mother. I wanted to explore memory and truth and write about how it took me a whole lifetime to learn the parts of this mystery. I had tried for years to write the story as a typical narrative, but it was too complex and hard to understand since it takes place in three towns over almost forty years. Finally, I had a breakthrough when I saw the story from multiple perspectives and knew it needed to be told in fragments with fairy tale elements. Thankfully, it worked out. What a relief.
Which authors or books have influenced your work or are some of your favorites?
I’ve been thinking about this… My biggest influence on my writing today are two writers I met in memoir workshop at Lighthouse Writers Workshop: Lia Woodall and Jannett Matusiak. They are both working on their books and both write in more experimental ways—mosaic and fragments being my favorite techniques. I had a huge realization in my first class with them that I could tell a story in pieces. It didn’t have to be a typical narrative. I learned that sometimes the white space on a page can have a powerful emotional punch. And our teacher, Richard Froude, has always given us the freedom to explore crazy boundaries and to try to capture what words can’t capture. Jennifer Denrow is another Lighthouse teacher who has broken my head open. It was her Lyric Essay class where I was finally able to get “The Sweetest Kidnapping” right. But before Lia and Jannett, and Richard and Jennifer, came Lidia Yuknavitch’s Chronology of Water. That was the first time I understood you didn’t have to follow all rules in writing and that not following them could create more emotion on the page. Now the authors I gravitate towards are Sarah Manguso, Eula Biss, and Abigail Thomas for example. Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Karrie Higgin’s “Strange Flowers” essay on The Manifest-Station. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited about an essay or so blown away. There is genius going on in that head of hers.
Where did your love of books/storytelling/reading/writing come from?
Looking back, I would say the first clue that I liked writing was when I won the father’s day writing contest in sixth grade (My Father is Special…). And then I started writing more in junior high school in my English class. I had a wonderful teacher who bought me a thesaurus and would write my poems and corny sayings on the blackboard sometimes. I always loved writing and minored in writing in college, but I never thought I would be “a writer” because I was so intent on getting my master’s degree in psychology. Now I don’t have those hang ups anymore. I have an MA in Health Psychology, but I do computer support for researchers working with American Indians AND I want to be a writer. Now that I’m older, I’m good with not having a simple and direct career path.
The topic of the Writing Workshop has always intrigued me in a deep way, so much so that for my graduating lecture at Vermont College of Fine Arts I prepared and solicited an in-depth survey to my MFA colleagues, which I then compiled the results into a lecture titled “Engaged, Thoughtful, Creative, and Weird: An Examination of the Writing Workshop.”
Here, my friend and MFA colleague, Jenna McGuiggan, who graduated a semester ahead of me and thus wasn’t in attendance for my lecture, shares her brilliant workshop guide covering some of the same topics I addressed in my lecture. Jenna’s guide is geared towards the creative nonfiction workshop, and I highly recommend her sage advice on the topic of staying grounded in critiquing the craft of the writing and not veering off into unhelpful territory.
It’s easy to read a memoir or essay and feel as though we know the author, even though all we really know is what the writer shared with us on the page. This false sense of familiarity is one thing when we read published work by authors we may never meet. But in a creative nonfiction workshop, this faux intimacy becomes a slippery slope.
We all know that writing workshop can be an emotionally charged environment to begin with. Add in stories of personal trauma, and you’ve got a veritable Slip‘N Slide of intense moments and awkward interactions just waiting for you to lose your footing.
How can you keep your balance and avoid any more uncomfortable moments than necessary?
Make this your mantra:
Writing workshop is not group therapy.
(Say it with me.)
(And if it helps, you can sing it to the…
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My friend and writing colleague, Jenna McGuiggan of The Word Cellar, recently interviewed me about my essay “The Polarity of Incongruities” for r.kv.r.y quarterly, the online journal that published the essay last month in their “Caregivers” issue. The interview is now live on the r.kv.r.y blog!
Here is the intro to the interview:
“Laurie Easter’s essay “The Polarity of Incongruities” appears in the Winter 2015 CAREGIVERS issue of r.kv.r.y.. Writer Jennifer McGuiggan comments, “I love essays for the way they unearth, explore, and extrapolate meaning from both polarities and incongruities. Laurie’s essay grapples beautifully with the spectrum of joys and pains that punctuate our lives.” Jennifer interviewed Laurie via email.”
Click here, to read the full interview.
Everybody loves a happy ending. Especially when there’s been some hardship or challenge occurring prior. For isn’t that often the recipe for a good story? Overcoming the odds to achieve success? Well, I am happy to report my own little success story.
I wrote an essay titled “Her Body, a Wilderness” that was published this last week in Prime Number Magazine’s Issue 61. That fact, in and of itself, is not anything remarkable. People write and publish stories, essays, and poems all the time, right? But there is this other little fact that is indeed kind of remarkable—at least to me, and from the reaction I have received from other numerous writers who suffer the beast called rejection, it seems if not remarkable then at least inspiring and hopeful. Here is the fact: My essay was rejected 51 times before finally being accepted for publication. And not only was the essay accepted after 51 rejections, it earned its publication status by being chosen as a prize winner.
Let me give you some background.
I first began this essay during my undergraduate years at Southern Oregon University. I was taking my first ever creative nonfiction class, of which the theme was nature writing, when my professor said something in class that stuck with me. He said that he considered his body a wilderness. That phrase (and its contemplative qualities) found its way into an essay a year or so later when I was working on my graduating capstone project, which was to build a portfolio of essays that I could draw from as writing samples when applying to MFA programs. That was five years ago. And as I write this, I realize that a version of this essay is the one I used in my successful application to Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I earned my MFA in 2012.
It is also the essay I submitted for my first ever workshop at my first residency in Vermont, and that semester I diligently wrote and revised the essay many times. My advisor said during our end of semester conference 1) of all my essays I had worked on during the semester, this one was the closest to being publishable but 2) I shouldn’t be thinking about publishing and just focus on the writing. So I set the essay aside and returned to it towards the end of the program.
After graduation and more revision, I began sending it out. I sent it to a total of 55 places. Not all at once, but in the end that’s the total number of times I submitted it. Of those 55 submissions, one journal never responded (not even after I sent a snail mail letter of inquiry with a second SASE for a response a year after I had originally sent my submission—I have since crossed them off my list of potential prospects), nine editors sent personalized rejections saying the piece came close to being chosen but in the end wasn’t, and 42 sent standard form rejections. Also, fourteen of my submissions had been to contests.
About a week after receiving my 51st rejection, I received an email from one of the last three journals I was waiting on. The editor said that while my piece had not advanced to the finalist stage in the contest, they were moved by the story and would like to publish it; would I be willing to put it through “a couple of rounds of submissions?”
Finally, someone wanted to publish my piece! Hell yeah, I was willing to revise it! I wrote the editor asking what she had in mind. She said she’d reread the essay and get back to me the following week. The essay was still out to two places—one a contest, one not—and I figured I wouldn’t notify the two remaining journals until I knew for sure that I could agree to the type of revisions the editor wanted me to make. Before I heard back from her, I received word that the essay had been chosen as a finalist for Prime Number Magazine’s inaugural creative nonfiction prize. I notified the previously interested editor of the situation and said that if she was willing, I would like to wait on doing the revision until I learned the outcome of the contest, to which she was very supportive and agreeable. I subsequently withdrew the piece from the final 55th place I was waiting to hear from.
After two and a half years of submitting and all those rejections, I found myself in the most fortunate situation of the essay being loved, appreciated, and potentially published by not one, but two different outlets. As it happened, the essay was awarded Third Prize by Ned Stuckey-French and ultimately published at Prime Number.
So how did I do it? How did I stick it out and not give up? Well, I almost did. Many times. As we all know, rejections suck, and they have the ability to wear down the soul and deteriorate motivation. At a certain point, though, I had racked up so many rejections that it almost seemed comical and with my lack of success came an overwhelming commitment to win the battle. In fact, around the time I received rejection #44, a very dear friend and accomplished writer said to me: “Maybe this piece isn’t going to get published [individually]. Maybe it’s just going to be a part of your collection.”
This friend didn’t mean harm. She wasn’t trying to diss my work. She was simply evaluating the situation and drawing what seemed like a plausible conclusion. The effect it had on me, however, was overwhelming. Now I was utterly determined I would get the essay accepted! My fire had been stoked. I continued to plug away at submissions.
So all this is to say…
Don’t give up.
Whatever it is you do, if it is your passion, keep at it. Commit yourself to the long haul. Persevere into Success.
There is so much I love about this, so many gems of insight.
Dancing Elephants by Heinrich Kley
What nobody tells you as an artist is that every project starts at the beginning. Not just the blank page, the empty stage, but that you have to re-establish your credentials and your quality every time. You can coast on reputation a little, but it doesn’t last long if you don’t deliver.
What nobody tells you is that praise—a standing ovation, a good review, your teacher’s approval—makes you feel good for a day, but one line of internet criticism from a stranger reverberates in your skull forever.
Frankly, I don’t see what all the fuss is about.
(I tried to feel bad when that critic killed himself the next year, but I didn’t.)
What nobody tells your boyfriend is that writing 3000 words in a calm, soothing, supportive environment still leaves you too tired to call home at the end of the day. So does…
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Ah, Paris! The City of Love. Visiting has long sat at the top of my bucket list. A notion both lonely and seemingly unattainable. I’m not quite sure why I have longingly dreamed of Paris. Is it the romantic allure of boat rides along the Seine? The venerable architecture? The exquisite food? The pleasing finesse of the French language? Finally experiencing it, I’d have to say “yes” to all that and more.
My “normal” life centers around a fairly basic existence in a rural environment on the fringes of wild, pristine nature. My water comes from a creek. I have a composting outhouse, no toilet. My bathtub/shower lives permanently outside. The sun furnishes our electricity. I have no cellular service at the house. Sometimes I can be home 7-10 days without leaving. And now for a three-week stint, I find myself (with my family) on a trip to four countries (Belgium, France, England, and Scotland), navigating train and metro lines, a foreign language I studied minimally thirty years ago, sights and sounds unlike any I would find near my humble little hovel in the woods.
From inside and outside the flat where we are staying on the top floor of a five-story building, I can see the Eiffel Tower, the iconic symbol of Paris, standing regally against the sky. As I write this from where I sit on my bed and glance out the wide open window, there she stands so close and beckoning that I can see clearly some of the detail of the wrought iron lattice work. From the moment I arrived and stepped out on the terrace, which wraps around the building of this corner apartment and boasts a 180-degree view that gazes above quintessential Parisian rooftops in the center of the city, it took all my restraint not to yell from the top of my lungs: “I’m in Paris! Oh my god, I’m in fucking Paris!”
The day before my recent birthday, on May 28, I opened up Facebook to find an abundance of photos of and quotes by Maya Angelou. At first I did not think this odd. For one thing, the very nature of Facebook is that people “share” posts, and often throughout a day or series of days, certain topics become popular as a general shifting focus. The other reason I did not suspect anything amiss was because Maya Angelou was such a strong and inspirational woman, poet, writer, and activist that it seemed only right she would be an influential force in people’s threads. Maybe I was being ignorant or naive, but I had no suspicion she had passed. That’s how normal it felt to see her face and quotations such as these:
It wasn’t until a post popped up that showed the dates of her birth and her death (that very day) that I was struck with a ferocity of weighted loss as I realized the reason for all the posts was not merely due to her awesomeness and inspiration but because she was gone from the planet. Immediately tears flowed in an uncontrollable stream as I opened Google news and read the first article I found.
Let me say that while I am a highly emotional person who is easily swayed by sentimentality in books, movies, commercials even, it is not my usual mode to cry over the death of celebrities. Not even writers. I can feel deep sadness and a sense of loss, but tears don’t usually flow. The only other celebrity I actually cried over was John Denver. That might sound a weird choice–as if we actually have the power to choose how we react to such news–but as a child of the ’70s, John Denver’s music had been an influential force that carried over as the soundtrack to the raising of my own small children. But I digress.
Maya Angelou was not a figure from my childhood. I did not read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings until adulthood. I do not share similarities of upbringing: culture, class, race, religion, or regional influences. So why was it that her death moved me to tears?
I think it was her woman-ness. I think it was her general awesomeness of spirit. I think it was her words, her poetry, her soul. I think it was her resilience. Her voice. The way she spoke. Her wisdom, her insight. The way she carried herself, regal and confident and unassuming. I think it was the way she danced. I think it was her passion, humor, and style. And certainly, it was her compassion.
Here she is reciting her famous poem “Still I Rise”:
And for those of you who may have missed it, here is the link to the livestream (no longer live, of course) of Dr. Maya Angelou’s memorial service that took place this last Saturday June 7 in Wait Chapel at Wake Forest University:
Thank you, Maya Angelou. Phenomenal woman, that’s you.
A few weeks ago I received an email from a literary journal concerning an essay I had submitted. The email said that the editors had read my piece and felt “very strongly about it” and that the editorial staff was “currently working on revisions to the piece” and would be in touch within the week with their suggested edits. If I approved their suggestions, the email went on to say, they would love to publish the essay in an upcoming issue.
Upon opening this email and finding a response other than the typical “thanks but no thanks” form letter, I was, of course, quite pleased. What a great way to start the day with my morning coffee! While it wasn’t an out and out yes, it was nonetheless a potential. Editors had read my piece and felt strongly about it, I thought. Yay!
Then the anxiety set in. What are they going to do to it? What if they butcher it? This essay was one of my prize creations: a thirty-page, triple-thread, braided essay begun in grad school and finished while in residency at the Vermont Studio Center. I had worked on this piece long and hard, and in submitting it to this journal, I had already cut five pages in order to fit their maximum length requirement.
Only a week earlier, I had received a response from an editor of a different journal concerning a separate essay submission. The editor said if I was “willing to do the work” to rewrite the piece accommodating her suggestions, she’d love to see it again. Essentially, this editor wanted an overhaul away from the style of its structure and also a change of title. I had already put this essay through the wringer with multiple drafts, but mostly I was disinclined to rework the piece because the very things the editor did not like about it were deliberate choices I had made in its construction. After seeking the opinions of several writer friends who had already given me feedback on the piece, I decided against a revision. While the result of obliging the editor’s wishes might have resulted in an acceptance, I felt strongly in the form and structure of the piece I had created and chose to stand by it.
So when I received that tentative “yes” a week later, I knew there was a very real possibility the suggested edits could be changes I would not be willing to make. The flip side was I really wanted this essay to be accepted by this journal, which made me contemplate what sacrifices I might make if I did not agree with the suggestions.
A little over a week later, I got the results. Tentatively, I opened the document to peruse the track changes. All was well for a good long while; the suggested changes were ones I could easily make—changing from present tense to past, adding a bit of structure in the form of numbered sections—but then on page seventeen, things began to shift, and by page nineteen, where it was suggested to move a section of the braided essay to an earlier position, I began to feel the weight of choice. And then on page twenty-one, where I discovered they had cut an entire section, I realized the very thing I was anxious about had manifested.
But wait! This is not a sob story about how yet again I wasn’t willing to make the changes, so I lost out on another potential publication. No. This is a story about perseverance, seeking guidance, and advocating for my work.
Once again I sought counsel. This time from two wise people: both writers who have worked with editors, and one an editor of a literary journal. Both advised me to approach the editors in an easy-going and friendly manner, exhibiting enthusiasm and appreciation for their time and energy in editing the piece and letting them know how helpful their edits were. Then in a gentle manner, succinctly explain my reasoning for wanting to keep in original form those edits I did not agree with. While waiting for their reply, I could decide whether or not I would ultimately accept the edits if the editors responded firmly. The editor of the literary journal ended by saying:
As an editor, I’m totally willing to hear the writer’s point of view and go back and forth. Don’t be afraid to have that conversation with them.
I must disclose here that my husband was very happy I had sought this advice because it tempered my natural fighter response, forced me to slow down my reaction, and encouraged me to play nicely with others. All in all, a very good lesson.
It took me all day to write that email. Although I tried to be succinct in explaining my reasoning, due to the nature of the suggested edits and the complication of the triple-threads of the braided essay, the explanation was not a simple matter of a sentence or two. But in the end, the result was worth it. Three days later I received an acceptance; the editors had agreed to my suggestions.
The big takeaway here:
- Slow down
- Take the time to respond with care
- Seek advice when needed
- Trust your writerly instincts
- Don’t be afraid to have the conversation
- And advocate for your work!
It’s not a guarantee of success, but it’s a possibility.