Shall we get out of the comparison trap when it comes to writing?
One of the best ways I know to help writers see what is truly there is to simply have an honest conversation with other writers—those who they admire—about what their journey looked like. This is why in my course, Lit Mag Love, I give the assignment to interview another writer who has published in a journal they’d like to publish with.
Three previous Lit Mag Love students, Rowan, Tamara, and Yolande, have delightfully shared their interview assignments with us.
Rowan McCandless interviewed Sierra Skye Gemma and they talked a lot about writing contests (Sierra is the contest coordinator at Room and Rowan won Room’s CNF contest this year.) They also talked about that big MFA question—do you need one to be a writer?—and Sierra had this to say, “What makes you a writer is writing.”
Tamara Jong interviewed Phoebe Wang about publishing in Canadian journals, including Grain magazine. “Read through a few of their issues, submit persistently, tune your intuitive gut-strings, and wait.” And about “waiting” to be included in Canadian literary circles, “What if we all stopped the cycle of saying ‘this is who your audience is’?”
And, Yolande House interviewed Kelly Morse about publishing in Brevity and she gives some great insights into what it takes to publish in the magazine and other journals. “I repeatedly submit to all of the journals that I think would be a good fit for my work.”
Read on for their full interviews...
Rowan McCandless interviewed Sierra Skye Gemma about magazine contests.
Rowan McCandless: Your essay “The Wrong Way” meant so much to me during a year buffeted by personal loss. You mentioned that you wrote it for your first creative nonfiction course at the University of British Columbia Creative Writing MFA Program and that your instructor, Andreas Schroeder, had encouraged you to submit the piece to The New Quarterly’s contest. If Professor Schroeder hadn't given you that encouragement to submit to TNQ’s contest, do you think you would have entered?
Sierra Skye Gemma: I don’t think so. He said, “Definitely, do not submit this to slush piles. Only to contests. This piece is a contest winner. It’s going to win.” Right after that was the launch of TNQ’s Edna Staebler Contest, so he sent the announcement out to everyone, but then encouraged me to submit. And I did. That was the start for me. That was my first big break.
Rowan: It’s always great when you meet these people along the way—these other writers, mentors, and teachers—who believe in your work and nudge you towards those major milestones.
Sierra: I’ve been lucky. I don’t think that it’s undeserved luck, necessarily. I’ve been a contest reader for two different literary magazines, so I know what’s out there. But I also know luck is not evenly distributed. Some people have access to opportunities. I certainly had access to opportunities that I wouldn't have had if I didn't get into the UBC MFA program. I’m also a huge proponent of contests. I think strategic contest entry is important.
Rowan: Before you submitted to the Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest, had you previously submitted to TNQ?
Sierra: That was my first experience with TNQ. That was my first print literary publication.
Rowan: That’s a pretty awesome first experience.
Sierra: Oh, yeah. That was the summer of Sierra. And then the following spring, or early summer, within three days I found out that I had been nominated for the National Magazine Award for “The Wrong Way,” was long-listed in The House Of Anansi’s Broken Social Scene Story Contest, and won Rhubarb’s Taboo Literary Contest.
Rowan: Some writers wonder if contests are a good idea. Are contests a good thing to enter?
Sierra: I think that contests are a really smart idea. Your odds are actually better in contests when you write nonfiction; it’s much harder in poetry and fiction contests where there’s more competition. With nonfiction, if those contests get 100 entries, they’ll probably have a short list of seven to ten. Those are excellent odds for making the short list, versus the slush pile, which—depending on the magazine—can get well over a hundred pieces over the course of the year. When they’re making decisions about issues, they’re going to publish, at most, one to three pieces of nonfiction per issue. Given those odds, if you are a nonfiction writer, you absolutely should be entering contests that are appropriate to your writing.
Another nice thing about contests is that, almost always, your piece is read by two, three, sometimes four people. It depends on the literary magazine and how they operate. But always, at least two people with different perspectives will be looking at your work and discussing whether this is a piece that should be forwarded to the judge. Because the judge can't read 100-300 pieces. And also, why should they? A big portion of them is not going to be good, not good at all.
Rowan: What percentage would you say would fall into that category?
Sierra: I’d say at least fifty percent are not good at all and nonfiction contests get way fewer entries than fiction or poetry. Way fewer. By half, sometimes by a third of the entries. So if you’re writing decent nonfiction, you absolutely should be submitting that to contests. And if you write a decent personal essay you should absolutely be submitting to the TNQ personal essay contest because that’s even more specific; whereas the other nonfiction contests are all sub-genres of nonfiction.
I also think there is still this skew in the literary community that privileges masculine stories and masculine forms of storytelling. I once read an interview with a judge for a contest a few years ago. I had this great piece and was going submit, and then I read the interview with this male judge. He talked down about memoir. He was privileging more scientific or journalistic forms of nonfiction. That was just straight-up sexism. He doesn’t realize it. He’s not overtly sexist. But it’s not an accident that he thinks less of memoir and a lot of women are writing memoir.
Rowan: That memoir is seen as a feminine genre, rather than a genre of nonfiction—period—is so odd. And strange for some to view memoir as lesser than.
Sierra: The same way people look down on teaching and nursing as careers. They only think that because they associate those professions with female employees.
Rowan: The pink ghetto.
Sierra: Exactly. Memoir is the pink ghetto of nonfiction. So, obviously, I did not submit to that contest.
Rowan: Do you think it would be practical for people to research who is judging a contest? What it is that they write? Their particular tastes?
Sierra: I always research judges, if I know who they are. Earlier on in my career, I didn’t. The TNQ contest is judged by editors. And when I won that Rhubarb contest, I didn't know that the judge was Andreas Schroeder.
Rowan: With your relationship to Room, being the Contest Coordinator and one of the nonfiction readers, as well as having been a former reader for PRISM’s creative nonfiction contest, what sorts of pieces have “it,” and what would you say are some common errors people make when submitting?
Sierra: I would say the very best thing that you can have, in my opinion, is a unique voice in the piece. The “literary voice” that many, including myself, slip into with some pieces is not always going to stand out in a nonfiction contest. And one thing that stands out a lot in contests, I think, is humour. It’s so rarely employed. I remember reading a few years ago for PRISM. The piece that won was called “Horse Camp.” It’s a fantastic piece. If you get the chance to read it, please do. It was funny. It was so different from everything else that I just wanted to keep reading. So voice and also pacing are super important. And you have to think about the plot. Writing creative nonfiction doesn’t give you license to tell long, boring stories about your life. Draw in the reader. If you don’t have something exciting to drop within the first two pages, you’ll lose the reader. Give them a reason to keep reading, you know.
A perfect piece is one that hits the points gently, so gently, that sometimes the reader doesn’t realize that’s the point while they’re reading and then at the end, it all comes together. That would be my ultimate goal, that’s the feeling I want to give the reader; that, or make them cry. We have such unique stories, but if you are going to have those reader reactions—which to me is the goal—you have to make the personal, universal. That’s really difficult. It has to be a topic that enough people can relate to and is catchy to read. At the same time, it can't be so universal that people say, “I’ve heard that story a thousand times.” Find something different. When I was at The Banff Centre, the director of the literary journalism program told me that he had never read a story like “My Sexual Education” (The Globe and Mail, May 2, 2015) before. He said, “This is a story about a mom who likes porn, trying to teach her son who likes porn, about porn. Never read that story before. Never.” So writing those unusual stories, if you have something new and fresh to bring to a topic, that’s the money shot—speaking of porn.
Rowan: We’ve had ongoing conversations in my cohort about MFAs. How necessary are they to being taken seriously as a writer?
Sierra: You don’t need an MFA to be taken seriously as a writer. Most of the time, when there’s a writer that you like, you don't know if they have an MFA or not. That’s not something on your mind. Do you need feedback on your work? Absolutely. But that can come in a variety of ways. Now, an MFA is one way to get feedback, but it’s not the only way. For me, I don't think I would have become the writer I am today without the MFA. I’ve been so lucky to do an MFA because I needed the time. If you can stop, if you can put real life on pause for a couple of years and you can focus on writing and get feedback and good advice, that’s what makes an MFA valuable. It’s not the piece of paper. Some writers are really determined. They’re the people who get up at 5 am and write before they go to work. Those kinds of people don’t need an MFA. But for me, having deadlines and having to produce was so great. And the connections are valuable. But you can make connections in other ways. If you start going to literary events, you’ll develop those relationships. You don't need to go to school for them. I think any place, where you can interact with other writers and feel comfortable, can satisfy those needs. What makes you a writer is writing.
Tamara Jong interviewed Phoebe Wang about Grain magazine, Canadian journals, and Fuel For Fire: Professional Development for Writers of Colour
Tamara Jong: Phoebe, Congrats on your new book of poetry, Admission Requirements and your most recent publication in The Unpublished City curated by Dionne Brand. I read in
an interview that you finished most of your manuscript for Admission Requirements while
working on your MA in Creative Writing in 2012. Did you think that you could have
written that book if you weren’t in an MA program? You also said that you compose
poems in your mind and use a lot of notebooks before you commit anything to your
computer. As a writer did you always have this practice? How do you revise your work and
how do you know a piece is complete?
PW: Thank you, Tamara! Yes, I would have written Admission Requirements no matter what. I
had been working on the earliest group of poems, the garden poems, since around 2000, and every year or so I added to the list of poems that I owed myself to write. Doing an MA or MFA in Creative Writing is not a requirement for completing a manuscript, but participating in a workshop and regularly giving and receiving feedback on work helped me to dive deeper and more readily into wells that I had only previously skimmed. It was the right time for me to do a writing program and to give myself that permission.
Yes, holding lines in my mind and roughing them out on paper is a practice that came about
because of how poetry tends to arrive to me—while walking or listening to university lectures.
The poem would branch off from a thought and run parallel to the present and manifest stream of time. I revise when I have a draft of the entirety of the poem, which might take months or years. I do find it difficult to know when a poem is finished but I can tell if it feels all sewn up, like the site of a recent surgery. If it feels invasive or even destructive to go back into it again.
Tamara: You won 2nd place for your poem “Penelope Before Marriage” in Grain Magazine’s Short Grain with Variations Contest in 2011 that was judged by Jeramy Dodds. Was this the first time you submitted poetry to Grain? What was it like to work with
Grain and the judge, Jeramy Dodds? Did you have to revise your poem? What
advice would you offer to writers who would like to get their work accepted in Grain?
Phoebe: Yes, it was my first time submitting to Grain. At that time, I didn’t submit to magazines that have a regional identity or representation because I believed that literary magazines should reserve space for local writers. I was familiar with Jeramy’s work and although his style and thematic concerns swings a very wide arc from my own, I was excited that he was judging that contest. It seemed easier to be directing a poem to a particular person rather than a blankness, even if that person is a stranger.
Poems awarded for prizes are not revised, except perhaps for typos or errors. Jeramy’s judges’ citation, though, was a wonderful gift. If you want to have a poem accepted with Grain, it’s no different from any other literary magazine. Read through a few of their issues, submit persistently, tune your intuitive gut-strings, and wait.
I try always to keep an openness, a flexibility in receiving feedback with an editor and not to be too precious or rigid in my idea of what a poem should end up as. Especially since there’s always the opportunity to revise it again later for book publication, I like the idea of having a few different versions of a poem out in the world.
One memorable experience was working with John Barton at Malahat on my poem “Invasive Carp.” We went through two rounds on a very slim poem and a few changes resulted in a clarity that was not in the poem before. That’s then I saw the hidden powers of editors—they are like the braces people wear under clothing to make them stand up straighter.
Tamara: You organized the sold out writers conference Fuel For Fire: Professional Development for Writers of Color and you continue to champion diverse issues surrounding publishing. We talked before about needing to work together to address these issues, not just rely on a few voices to do all the work. To have one special POC book or magazine would seem shortsighted and a quick fix. How else can allies show that they are committed to doing this inclusive work? We can support each other by buying POC books and magazines and writing what we want to read but how else can we continue this conversation?
Phoebe: What I would like to see is a radical revisioning of the writing and publishing in Canada so that we aren’t thinking in terms of ‘mainstream’, ‘dominant culture’, ‘minority writing’, ‘margins’, etc, even though I myself still have to use those terms at times. Yes, publishing in Canada needs to be more inclusive but at the same ‘included’ or wait to see signs of commitment from publishers and editors because the wait will erode us. What would happen if POC writers stopped assuming that just because submitting, finding an agent and editor, publishing, etc happened in a certain way that it has to continue to happen this way? What if we all stopped the cycle of saying ‘this is who your audience is’ and ‘this is how your book will be marketed’ and ‘you need to work within the system’, which often means that POC advantage?
I agree that one issue or one anthology is not nearly enough and often these one-time publications are used to appease underrepresented writers and for an editor or publisher to appear diverse and multicultural. The tone changes if the editor and organizer herself is also of colour, as writers of colour also need those kinds of credits and acknowledgments. Writers of colour should not always be the receiver of the Canadian literary establishments’ largesse and good intentions. We need to be creating spaces for ourselves and by ourselves.
Yolande House talks to Kelly Morse about publishing in Brevity magazine.
Yolande House: Was "The Saigon Kiss" your first time submitting to Brevity?
Kelly Morse: Yes, it was the first time submitting to Brevity. However, I submitted it 6 times as a poem before that (I subscribe to Duotrope to track all of my submissions). I originally wrote it as a poem, but couldn't get enough of the nuance I wanted into it, so kept working at it. I sent it to a poet friend because I couldn't figure out what wasn't working, and she wrote back that she thought I needed to tinker with the form, which is how it became a nonfiction prose essay. So preceding the acceptance are other rejections, which is generally what happens with my work.
Yolande: What was it like working with the editors of the journal? Did they change anything in your piece? Did they do any promotions for it?
Kelly: The Brevity editors were cordial and hands-off, which I liked. They requested clarification on one line, but otherwise printed the piece as I had submitted it. When it was published, they posted links to it on Twitter and their other social media platforms. They also asked if I wanted to write the craft essay for them, which I think they ask most of their writers. Later they solicited another essay for the blog, so I wrote about Claudia Rankine's Citizen. They also promoted that piece on their social media.
Yolande: Do you have any advice about submitting to this journal? Did you do anything differently with this submission, after any past submission mistakes?
Kelly: Biggest piece of advice submitting to Brevity: don't get discouraged if you're rejected. They receive over a thousand submissions a year. However, if they think your work has potential, you can build a kind of relationship through them by continuing to submit, because there will be notes about your previous subs to them on Submittable. I repeatedly submit to all of the journals that I think would be a good fit for my work. This was the first flash nonfiction piece that I'd written, and was a departure from poetry, so it was my first time submitting nonfiction. There are some journals I submit to every year, year after year, because if I was published in them I'd be really proud (plus it would be good for my CV).
Also: I know that Brevity will occasionally work with a writer who they feel has come close but needs some polishing - however, this is pretty rare, and they have to be invested in the story contained in the piece, along with the voice. Voice is really important to them.
Yolande: How long did it take for you to hear back from them after you submitted your work?
Kelly: Looking at Submittable, I sent it on 3/22/2013, and they sent the acceptance email on 7/1/2013. They try to respond back within 45 days to people, so when that date passed and they still hadn't rejected me, I knew it was a good sign. When journals hold on to your work it usually means it's gotten past the first round of rejection. However, then there is the opposite problem - I've had journals hold a piece more than six months because they like my work, but it doesn't quite fit with the upcoming issue, or it's not quite strong enough, but they don't want to let go of it. The waiting window is a tricky one.
Yolande: How many journals did you submit to this year? Do you have any other writing coming out soon (in journals or elsewhere)?
Kelly: According to Duotrope, I've submitted 46 times in the last 12 months, but that's not quite correct because it counts each poem, when really I've been sending out packets of 3-5 poems at a time to each journal. This last year I had a baby, which slowed everything way down, so I'm just getting back into submitting in a serious way. I have a backlog of poems that need to be polished before I can submit them, which is driving me crazy. In 2015 I focused on sending out my book manuscript to prizes, and did the same in 2016. It's been rejected 32 times so far according to Duotrope (how great to have someone tracking all this). The manuscript has been a finalist about 4 times, so I'm still submitting it, but it is discouraging. It's about Vietnam, and is a multi-genre book, so I think that it might be too odd for the prize circuit. I'm going to start send it to presses I respect during their open reading periods this year.
In 2014 I made a new year's resolution to have 30 submissions out at all times for a year, to see what would happen. I'd been told for years that submitting was a numbers game, but I'd always resisted that approach and only submitted a handful of times a year, to carefully selected journals. I had some acceptances, but not a lot. I decided to try the opposite extreme, and I'm glad I did. Maintaining 30 subs out meant that I couldn't obsess about one or two journals, because my brain couldn't keep track of all the subs (again, thank goodness for Duotrope). I was also forced to branch out and look at new journals, and submit to journals I wasn't brave enough to submit to before because now I had to meet my quota. I got some high-tier acceptances, which surprised me, and made me realize I had a shot with important journals. I'd been underestimating my work's possible reach. Submitting became less personal, and more of a strategic waiting-and-polishing game. I don't do 30 anymore - I ran out of work to submit and haven't been able to polish the new work I've since produced because of my kids (although that's slowly changing) - but personally I prefer to have a minimum of 15 packets or pieces out to places at a time. I still research the magazines, and I'm still bummed by rejections, but as long as there are multiple subs in the hopper it doesn't feel so terrible. Having my manuscript rejected over and over, now that's been hard.
I have pieces forthcoming in Literary Mama and Bramble, but that's it for now. For 2017 I've been focusing on residency applications and submitting my chapbook for awards since I don't have polished new work to send out. I like to have a mix of subs going at a time - nonfiction, poetry, manuscript, residencies, prizes. My chapbook won two prizes this year, and I'm going on a residency on a fellowship this fall, so I'm starting to come out from the baby-enforced slowdown.
Yolande: How do you revise your writing?
Kelly: I usually write a piece, work on it for a few days until it seems I can't get any farther with it, then set it aside for a while. Cheryl Strayed calls this "seasoning a piece", like one does with a log destined to be firewood. Sometimes I leave it for a few weeks, but lately more like a few months. Occasionally I lose my way back into a piece, but generally the wait helps me feel more analytical, less emotionally attached to a piece, which is a good place to revise from. I start sending out work when I feel it's about 80% done, as a way to push me to continue working on it as the rejections come back. I look at the work with a more detached eye once I start sending it out, which generally is good. However, sometimes I burn myself with this method by sending my mostly-polished work to the places where I most want it published, and then it's rejected, when I should have started with journals that are lower on my list but also desirable to be published in and only sent to the highest tier when it's been through the final revision process. I'm trying to find another way to get myself to get into the headspace needed for ultimate revisions, but this is the technique that's working right now. It's not a great one, but it pushes me into a final revision stage (and into submitting) that I haven't otherwise been able to make myself do.
Yolande: I like what you said in your Rappahannock Review interview about feeling a responsibility to portray the "real" Vietnam beyond the Western stereotype. Do you have any tips for new writers to consider when writing about experiences abroad? What do you wish you had known when you started writing about Vietnam?
Kelly: Hoo boy, this is big, important question. I recently saw an amazing art video by the Propeller Group about Vietnamese funerals and the liminal space they provide for transgendered performers to be accepted in a culture that otherwise vehemently rejects gender variation. In a corresponding essay the group wrote about how they didn't want to exoticize the funeral traditions, and so tried to do a lot of their shots from the point of view of being of the group, instead of spectators outside watching the group (and therefore othering it). I think considering the gaze is very important when writing about a culture that isn't one's own. I struggle with this myself. Vietnam was/is exotic to me, and that's okay. But when I present it on the page, am I presenting it as a kind of bauble for other westerners to gawk at, or am I presenting it with the complexity and nuance of someone who is not an insider, but who nevertheless has been a local? There's some subjects that feel easier to write about - food, for example - because I can describe a dish and the rituals around eating it with authority, which I can't do in other arenas of Vietnamese life.
Another question I ask myself is: Who is your audience? When I first started writing about Vietnam, I wrestled with the idea of audience for two years because it seemed that English readers found my work somewhat difficult, and were in a roundabout way asking me to dumb it down for them. Eventually I realized that my writings didn't mirror their worldview back at them (Laurence Venuti writes about this mirroring), and so they resisted it. I was focusing on the wrong audience. Over time I've found that expats and first generation Americans (and hopefully Canadians!) are my best readers, because they can identify with the work in a way that the typical North American white person can't due to being from the majority and not knowing what it's like to balance cultures, to be othered. My readers have to do work to enter my pieces, and I'm okay with that.
I'd encourage western writers to read Edward Said's Orientalism, which documents the history of the western literary gaze on the Middle East. A lot of the problems he brings up are similar to how Asia is represented by westerners, and it gave me a better grasp of what I'm trying not to do when I write about Vietnam. I try to foreground the voices and experiences of my Vietnamese friends, so that the story isn't centered around me all the time. I'm still feeling out what is appropriate to write about and publish, versus what should stay in draft form. I've also found that there's a much narrower journal market for global, complex stories (and for flash nonfiction in general). I've started looking at British and Australian journals, because some of them are more savvy/concerned about the types of global subjects that I like to write about.
I hope you find these answers helpful. As for submitting your work, a few years ago author Erika Dreifus made up a list of magazines/journals that regularly accept flash nonfiction. I think more journals are starting to accept flash nonfiction, but only on a case-by-case basis. I don't know why there's resistance against it - I guess because it's new? Here's the link: https://brevity.wordpress.com/2012/01/30/erika-dreifus-guide-to-flash-nonfiction-markets/ You'll notice that almost everything I've published that's flash is in one of these journals, which is because I basically went through the list and submitted to the ones I liked best. I've also had flash published in Mid-American Review. I've heard that Gulf Coast's online editors (they have a print journal and have started an online section) will look at flash, so I've got a submission out there, too. You should send wherever you think your work would be a good fit.
[Break Free From the Comparison Trap]
An Invitation to Real Talk About The Writing Life
Step 1: Think of a writer who may be just a little ahead on the path of where you want to go. Someone you may have felt a twinge of envy toward at some point.
Step 2: Approach that writer for a conversation or even a formal interview. (Use the interviews above as an example.)
Step 3: Get as much detail as you can about the writer's behind-the-scenes. How often did she submit to the journal before getting a yes? How long did he work on that particular poem?
Step 4: Share any lessons you learned from your conversation with us in the We Write, We Light Facebook group.