Monday, October 27, 2014

A Kindness of Rules

In the summer, back when all things seemed possible, Ander Monson and Craig Reinbold offered me and a couple of other essay-writing types to develop something of a recurring column for Essay Daily. I was in the middle of reading some deeply weird stuff to teach for my nonfiction class this fall and I wondered, is every bit of writerly logic fair game in nonfiction except the truth?” I found a few people willing to talk to me about that question. I sent them this:

I cannot tell if nonfiction has fewer rules or more than other genres. While nonfiction has the big “rule” (Do not lie) it doesn’t have the history of convention that poetry or fiction seem to have. Any fictional piece without plot or character is experimental. Use white space, says the poem. Make the poem turn! Lyric is sonic, says the poem.

If nonfiction draws on the conventions of the other genres—uses scene, dialogue, white space, turn, then perhaps essay writing is just a hybrid genre. But when it breaks the rules of its borrowed genres, is it creating its own genre? For instance, when I asked a bunch of writer-friends about breaking the writing rules, they noted egregious examples like writing from two points of view using second person for both POVs or breaking the veil and talking directly to the reader, jumping topics mid-stream, banging too hard on the metaphorical nail, or foregoing narrative entirely. I love the breaking of rules but I also love the acknowledgment and recognition of them. Without the rules, where does one begin to write instead of just drool upon the page?

Rule-breaking is part of the writer’s job. As is rule making about rules, about convention, about genre and about structure. What structures do you use to give your essays form and substance? When does weird get too weird?  What rules do you use just so you can break them later? What does rule-breaking artistic-wise mean about the big rule—“Nonfiction is the truth”? 

[David Legault responds to these questions first, and then breaks the soapbox rules by asking me another question. So, I get him back with another question after that. ]

David: I believe the rules are more or less indistinguishable from audience and expectation: the rules exist to provide an instant relationship with the reader, to help them understand what they're getting into, how to decide whether or not it's something they want to read. Although our focus is creative nonfiction, I think it's easiest for me to wrap my mind around the rules of genre: I know when I pick up a celebrity memoir, for example, that I can most likely expect a humble beginning to meteoric rise to hitting rock bottom before emerging at the end triumphant. I know when I pick up a romance novel I can expect a meet-cute, a misunderstanding that keeps the couple apart before, finally, love conquers all.
With the typical "rules," the biggest risk is turning off a reader, a bait-and-switch, getting the audience to put down the work when they decide it's not for them. It's a reader feeling misled, or challenged in a way that wasn't enjoyable, or wanting escapism and being faced with reality. With the essay it becomes more problematic. Although the rules you speak of are often impossible to define, nonfiction has its inherent golden rule: Always tell the truth. Though I'd like to argue you can lie in fiction or poetry just as easily as CNF, the genre's tricky relationship with "truth" lets readers perceive lying as morally questionable instead of just aesthetically so. Note the recent proliferation of works cited pages in memoirs, in essay collections: as if it's a lack of verification that makes the words less authentic. 
Of course there are other rules to follow other than simply telling the truth. David Foster Wallace wrote that the best nonfiction shows us "how large or complex sets of facts can be sifted, culled, and arranged in meaningful ways." The arrangement can set the rules or expectations: starting with an image from childhood will give me different expectations than, say, research on the current market values for Beanie Babies.

In any case, though I don't think I know exactly what the rules are, I think they are established by the order and arrangement. This is useful to know when we're trying to break them.

As to why I think it's worth breaking these rules, I think it's important to think not only of the risks the writer takes by breaking the rules, but the risks of following them. I think following the rules too closely will generate work that's too predictable, that lacks any sort of challenge. I'm reminded of a books arts project I saw last year in Minneapolis where an artist combined segments of five separate romance novels into one coherent text: basically the names and occupations of the male love interests were the only things that changed. With the essay, I think it's a long tradition of predictability and rule-following that have gotten us so closely aligned with the five paragraph bullshit found in freshman comp classes.

If rule breaking risks labeling us as liars, as bad people instead of merely bad writers, I think it is ultimately worth it if the alternative is a cookie cutter structure and predictability. I think rule breaking is what allows for surprise, for vulnerability, for what makes the essay stick with us long after our initial reading.
(Note: I'm not sure what structure you had in mind for this, but I want to ask a follow up question here, Nicole): I am curious as to your thoughts on texts that give themselves clearly defined rules: A rigid form or structure, a specific conceit, a second person narrator, etc.  Why do we as writers set up these rules for ourselves, only to break them? How does this change the reading experience? I've been working my way through B.J. Hollar's book Dispatches from the Drownings which tells us up front that 75 percent of the stories are taken from actual news stories and the other 25 percent are fictionalized. These type of rules make for a radically different reading experience, but I can't quite wrap my mind around the why.

[I like questions. I like David. It would be impossible for me not to respond.] To me, I like to make the rules so that my language doesn't runneth over like so much blathering 14 year old diaries. Without some sort of frame/structure, my writing is like a milk. A milk for which there is no cup. Sticky and eventually smelly. But you're right—the rule of cup is only one kind of rule. The rule of genre another. The rule of lying yet another. I do think they get caught up and messy and likely to make mixed milk metaphors. I'm glad that you brought up Hollars' Dispatches. He lays out the rules so explicitly in the introduction that the introduction itself is the fulfillment of the book's proposal. Why he writes the rest of the book is a fascinating question that is, I think, what makes the book readable. Why write? Why read? I kept reading, not so much for the rule-breaking, since he already told me he was breaking rules, but for the continual tug of that question, why am I reading this? Why do I care? Because, as with my milk metaphor, I wanted to see how Hollars kept his milk together—especially when writing within the confines of a late nineteenth century, early twentieth century cup. 

[Meta here: I ask David a host of additional questions, suggesting that this conversation could go on for a while. It does. But not forever.] So the extreme poles seem to be that on the one hand we have the problem of the jacket copy/genre label misguiding us and on the other hand, as in Hollars' book, an abiding desire to make sure we the reader doesn't feel misguided.  In the middle, is there a space for the reader to enjoy the rule breaking, or is it just we writers who enjoy it? And, as for rule-making, are there rules you see on other books you've read or rules that you've created for yourself that seem particular to nonfiction/essay writing? 

[David does not break the rules of etiquette—he responds to my harassing questions with this:] What I found to be so interesting in Dispatches was how, against my will, I felt compelled to try identifying fact from fiction, to decide which stories had been fabricated. Even when the writer claims no to remember, I still found myself articulating my own rules for story versus essay: this one must be true because it's too similar to the previous story and a fiction would try to differentiate; This one is false because it seems more detailed, the characters more fleshed out than one could get from a newspaper clipping. Clearly he had some cool photos which he needed stories to fit. etc. I found myself overly concerned with the was my own uncertainty (not to mention how much I hate this approach to reading yet could not stop myself) that pulled me through: my need to find patterns, to decode, to genre-fy.
But that's where the joy of rules (and rule-breaking) comes for me as a reader. I need to be in on it. I need to be able to acknowledge the rules, to understand the structure, if I'm going to play the writer's game. So maybe it's again back to audience and expectations. An example  I'm thinking of is the fantastic book-length essay, Coal Mountain Elementary, that takes sets of different nonfiction—testimony from mining disasters, newspaper accounts of the same events, and The American Coal Foundation's curriculum for school children—and assembles them in such a way to portray a brutal account of mining industry and culture. The rules are there from the get-go (the material Mark Nowak takes from is listed on the back of the book), and though it's all found material without any direct author insight or commentary, you see the writer's presence and opinion on every page. That's the sort of rule-breaking I like: to sort that exists in the white space, in the arrangement. Another great example is Eula Biss's essay "The Pain Scale," which gets its structure from a few basic rules: it takes a scale of zero to ten and fills it with corresponding stories of pain. Of course it breaks its own rules by introducing a narrative continuity, but then again, how can you know what a seven feels like without first having the two's and threes? How can ten not be an accumulation of lesser pains before it? We see how the scale normally works (as a mean of identification, of communication between patient and doctor) and how Biss uses it as guideposts to her own narrative through a bit of genre-bending.
I feel like this repurposing of other forms--whether a pain scale or a Google Map or even footnotes--works so well because they both inform our reading and also subvert expectations. The catch is that the content should be in some way mimetic of its form or else it quickly gets gimmicky. Usually in writing the form comes first--writing to the constraints until it starts to limit our words or message, which seems the perfect time to break away.

As for my own writing, the rules tend to be more for generative purposes, though sometimes the form or exercise makes it to the final version. Probably the one I use most often is by writing rough drafts entirely in single sentence paragraphs, which helps me to put more focus on language and rhythm (though it also gives me a tendency to jump around a lot more, which is sometimes good but sometimes simply incoherent if you're not inside my brain).
Another question for you:where or when do rules start getting in the way? Where are rules more likely to stray into gimmick or cliche? Even when our goal as writers is to break rules or norms, they usually need to be present in the writing before we can subvert them, so how to do so gracefully in our own writing?

[In my initial response to David, I went off about narrative and how it’s a rule unto itself but then I decided I really spend too much time trying to define narrative and too much time trying to define lyric so I turned back to David’s original question, which was the right thing to do.]
I love what you say about Biss breaking the rules of the "Pain Scale" by introducing narrative. As with you, rules for me tend to be generative ones, which can work well for a lyric essay but when you bring in the big gun of narrative, some of those rules collapse to get to the story.  Narrative is so seductive. It's also not really my thing. Writing "straight narrative" quashes my language. I feel like a big jerk when I write on student essays, "Include a scene here," when I am myself so loathe to create scene myself. Getting a hermit-crab type essay to work for ten pages is one thing—it's something else to try to get it to work for a book-length project. Then maybe it becomes gimmicky. Ander's Harvard Outline essay is great because an outline is a knowable-within-a-few pages form. And, of course, he's breaking the form of the outline all along. His first rule is to break the rules of the form. In that essay, Ander, by using a well-known, received form, can break it right from the beginning. D'Agata, in About a Mountain, establishes that he's going to break the rule that “numbers are our the one true fact” right off the bat when he quotes lawmakers playing fast and loose with numbers on C-Span. 

Here's another question. How can you prepare a reader that you will break rules without breaking them from the get-go?  Big rules like changing point of view in the middle of a paragraph or the middle of a sentence, eschewing imagery or eschewing narrative entirely, changing genre mid-stream. These things seem gimmicky, like you say, sometimes can be effective but perhaps only as a referendum on tradition, or craft, or MFA program writing. 

[David bears with me and my incessant questions. On the one hand, I have broken the rules of this project. I’m supposed to ask the initial questions and then let the writer respond and then be let off the hook. On the other hand, now that I’ve got David on the hook, I don’t want to let him go.  But I do, finally, let him have the last word.]
That's a great question, how to plant the seeds of rule breaking without starting out in that mode. I think the best example I can give is one you've already mentioned: D'Agata's About a Mountain works that way for me, but only in the sense that it starts out feeling like a very traditional narrative and ends up going to some remarkable places. I think what makes it work for me is that the story starts and ends in a personal place. Opening up in a first-person scene (at least on first read) feels like it's there to "include a scene" as you say before getting to it's real, more journalistic goals. Like he's covering a more general topic, but finding a way to make it feel personal. However, as the story goes on it veers further and further away from the expectation, and the personal factors (all the way to the suicide) suddenly click in as the focus of the entire essay. That we needed to see these larger issues of toxic waste storage, of the impossibility of keeping up with water supplies, with the impossibility of communicating with a future we know won't speak our language, that The Scream is the only message that we believe could last...all of these "global" concerns suddenly explain or represent the struggles of depression that result in suicide.

Back to the original question, I think that essay, in many ways, functions as a mystery novel: the clues are there all along, but don't make sense until the very end. I think it's telling that the first part of the book reads as a very traditional take on environmental concerns, and only once we feel comfortable with that does the book start veering away into more lyrical directions.
I think it feels less gimmicky in this way, or at least more accessible. I think what makes the book work so well is that it relies (or at least pretends to) on traditional narrative. I can think of other nonfiction books I really appreciate that are clearly rule breakers from the get-go (Reality Hunger or even D'Agata's follow-up The Lifespan of a Fact) that are able to do great and interesting things, but that don't seem to sustain themselves in the same way because the structure doesn't hold interest in the same sort of way. Maybe the best way to say it is that I can see my dad and his friends reading About a Mountain, where the latter two titles seem the sort of thing that will be most interesting to people inherently interested in the idea of nonfiction and discussing its implications. The sort of thing read and discussed at-length in an MFA workshop, but maybe not at the Thursday night book club. Not to pick on those two titles (which, again, I greatly admire), but their structure doesn't invite a casual readership in the same  way a traditional narrative can. I think that is the fear with specific rules on a book-length level,: finding ways to use the structure while not become too gimmicky or niche. 

Perhaps it can be a bait-and-switch: following the rules and playing nice long enough to get a reader invested, to gain their trust, then break off into another odd direction. If they've followed you this far, there may be more of a willingness to venture off the beaten path.

[I am grateful to David for this conversation. See. I can’t even stick to my own rules and let him have the last word. But it’s true. I am grateful and I want him to know.]

David LeGault's most recent work appears (or is forthcoming) in DIAGRAM, The Sonora Review, and Continue? The Bossfight Books Anthology. He lives and writes in Minneapolis, where he is working on a book about obscure collections.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Douglas A. Martin & queer essays

For this series of posts, I’m interested in looking at some of the essay’s queer history and potential. Most of my favorite essayists, contemporary and historical, are queer, a fact that I think is more than the coincidence of my own gravitation to queer modes. These writers are also quick to employ hybrid-genre or genre-resistant forms. In favor of the particular and the intimate over the general, I thought the best way to explore these traditions would be to speak to contemporary writers who I see as engaging with them. I begin with Douglas A. Martin, the writer of Branwell, Your Body Figured, and They Change the Subject, among others.


T Clutch Fleischmann: I first read your work in a graduate course on the essay, but I know that’s not the genre-lens through which most people approach it. I found an interview where you suggest you’d like readers to view your writing just as “literature” and another where you talk about formerly seeing yourself as a poet, while your publishing trajectory has obviously shifted genres. So could we open with that topic—as you set the terms for your own writing and reading, how does genre play into it all?

Douglas A. Martin: I like when things don't stay in their supposed places. And then how does that come into the work, formally or thematically, or both, that’s something I try to work with.

What class was it? I know Branwell has made its way onto some syllabi. And the title story of They Change the Subject, as an example of a story in vignettes. I do know that has been taught. That story there to me is in part an essay, on thinking within the pose of hustling.
How attempts to define create points to push around, against...

TCF: The graduate course was the Essay Prize course where we read Branwell. I remember that those Aaron Kunin Secret Architecture journals were taught, too, and something by Bruce Hainley. It was a really robust list, I think.

DAM: I love a ton the book Letter Machine Editions did of Kunin's.

I tend to proceed into thinking--and by this I mean writing--working against assumptions, prejudices even--of any given genres. I will sometimes be in a story and think how and in what ways, addressing what, can it also be an essay? On what? That gives a kind of focal point for me and another relief. Or maybe the plot of something is reaching for poetry, essaying toward it, in that attempt sense and also movement one of the word.
It has always struck me as odd or unfair, shortsighted or unimaginative, that when people will ask me what I write they will want it to be one thing or another.  Like you can say poetry and perhaps not be pressed further, or novels and then it goes to like, what kind, what about what? About language, I think I have even answered before.
TCF: Do you identify as a queer writer? You said once that you prefer the term Homosexual for yourself because of its romantic implications. 
DAM: Above all, what I want as a writer is to maintain a kind of versatility. And maybe I feel more at home in the solitary, that's what I know, more so than the experience of some utopian sociability.

Queer as a discourse was meant to be inclusive and bridging, while also troubling, but it can also become pretty and increasingly vacuous when devolved down to more about defining who is or isn’t one or not because of agreed upon usage of language. If someone wants to call me one, call it because they see it that way, I'm cool with that. Yeah. I don't feel like I own my interpretation.

I like a sentence that flips. "I don't care, we can just have vanilla boyscout sex forever," that’s one of the sexiest things ever said to me. Still I can't get away from my biography. We didn't. When I say or think "homosexual," I just feel a charge of honesty, a recognition not pointing to some supposed model of liberation, but how my life actually is lived and embodied in day-to-day.

TCF: I like that you don’t feel like you own your interpretation. That sits counter to a lot of the contemporary conversation around identity in queer communities, where it’s considered paramount to allow people to own their interpretations. Do you think you can maintain the most versatility from the solitary (the homo) position? I mean this question both in terms of aesthetics and in terms of queerness, sexuality, whatever.

DAM: But even that word, “homo,” is not a great fit for me, because I feel a toughness there. I guess I like the sexual along with it, like a compliment of how you get out of being one, just one, or just everything. I don't trust group mentalities no matter the proposed allegiances.

It is hard for me. This could just be how I was brought up, with no people. 

I see myself in like the desire of Genet, what happens in the mind, not necessarily the body (politic).

It's more about the past than the future, what memory is left in a moment, and that’s maybe what I mean by romantic, that I've been here all along, how I feel it that I’m not inventing, procreating, joining up to enter into an exacting correlation of signs.

TCF: I want to talk about the literary traditions you see yourself as working in, and Kathy Acker seems a good place to start with that. What’s happening with your (really thrilling) dissertation on Acker? How long has she figured into your thinking?

DAM: I was just talking about Kathy last night.

I never met her, but I like to use her first name I am finding more these days.

I talk about her a lot still.

I know that work like nobody else's. 
I will say that if not for Acker's work when I found it I would not have made it through the time of my first book.

I got deep back into the critical work this summer, while waiting and hoping for something to happen during the slow publishing months around this most recent novel I took forever to write, nearly seven years for not even two hundred pages. I had been sitting on the critical work because thinking if I ever got in a tenure-track position, was I ever going to write a book like the dissertation again? But get it out there, I am starting to and still thinking, have it be readable, forget the footnotes and all I tried to do within them to buck whatever system I was in.

I think I'm trying to get it published, figure out how to do that.
I am just a Visiting Writer everywhere, for years, so...

I have a few people reading the manuscript, but I don't want to get into whatever pissing war for territory or ownership of the legend of the corpus.

Chris Kraus read it. Then she just wrote this big piece for The Believer. I think whatever I do with it now could start with that exchange. She said she wanted to read it, because she was writing about people writing about Acker. Then wrote back after reading it and said she wasn't. I wrote some things back in 2007, and they are now part of the points hit in Kraus's very smart trouncing.

TCF: I’m wondering about writers like Acker who have a whole other body of work developing around them, and how writers who write about writers can do that in a way that avoids the wrangling over territory that you mention. Emily Dickinson, for instance, gets all kinds of engagements. It’s interesting with Acker because of her own modes, the “intertextual desire and influence,” to steal the subtitle of your manuscript.

DAM: Yeah, it's like how could you ever say, "Someone took my idea!" You develop it in your own way. I worked on Acker along angles I tried to make clear were selective and narcissistic to me: I wanted to see more myself by seeing how she saw herself in gay men. 
I also wanted to understand more this voice that influenced me so much, even given our different tenors, that showed me how to be a poet in the novel, and how the novel could be an essay, even, it and poetry could be more than just one thing or just one conversation.

TCF: You read the Guibert journals that just recently came out, I believe (something on your Tumblr indicates as much). Do you keep a diary still?

DAM: My tumblr is so pathetically anemic and unfollowed. I keep thinking just think of it as a diary in pictures. If I have one these days, it lies somewhere between texts to my boyfriend/human companion (I have a dog and cat too we share, and a house, so he's also my life partner), other social media things, and then I just start these aesthetic abstractions, out of some occurrence or pondering of some day or another, things that might become story grounding or a lyric line in some poem that might fly.

When you are in a journal, to write it, don't you already think of your life in a way as a story you are in?

Right now I'm writing poetry because I'm teaching poetry. So that's what I'm going to bed with and waking up around.

My journal practice has become very queer, you might say.

TCF: Are you writing poetry in your journal, then? Does work find its way from the journal elsewhere regularly?

DAM: I guess I'm writing poetry in my journal if my phone's notes app is my diary. I think it is. A couple of years ago I realized I could take out my phone like everyone else had theirs and just secretly do whatever. I mean actually not get the kind of look I might if I were to take out a notebook, uncap a I was rude. I lot of times when I pretend to be texting now I'm writing.

Reading scholar Laure Adler on how Duras did her diary later in her career, on loose pages that variously got shuffled, this shifted a lot for me. I don't feel so trapped in time when I let whatever take the cast it might have one day but don't attempt to follow it so forward. I would find in my marble composition books myself actually trying to live towards arcs. But, now I have circled around and we can say it’s very queer of me, how I identify with these practices of these women, if we see Duras first and foremost as woman. She is just God to me.

TCF: If you were going to chart some sort of queer essay tradition, who would you put in there? I mean this personally, like who has contributed to your own thinking, more than generally.

DAM: Geoff Dyer and Duras, again (her book Writing, her book Green Eyes), Wayne's Cleavage, Leiris. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. Peter Handke (The Jukebox and other essays). The public journals of Ernaux (translated into English as Exteriors and Things Seen.) Severo Sarduy. I find myself leaning towards Clayton Eshleman, as well. In my some seven years of teaching classes at Wesleyan with all our visitors dinner with him was a clear standout and moment of real edification. These are people I didn’t already know. Lucy Corin, too, as a discovery.

Guibert was so monumental to me in everything that I even read his journals first in the Gallimard publication, French I mean, with me haunting the NYU library looking for anything, something, some new English translation to appear, so hoping for it. But then I just took on all those “foreign” pages, despite my faltering, halting command and grasp. I remembered what it was like to read Wuthering Heights at eight or whatever and to know I was getting maybe like about half of it absorbed, and I extended that to myself again with this other language, like theory, let the ghost come there where it would, let those filings telegraph or transmit to me however. Much of it just washed by, sure, but that’s fine. It was still a meditation. It was still a time of companionship.

When Nathanaël was doing the translation for Nightboat, I was only too happy to read them again in her hand and offer queries or reservations, any things not sitting right with me. I think my big contribution was towards the underrepresented slang at first, and the blend he did of an archaic and mannered vocab along with just slick sex street words, too. I spent good months of last summer doing this, out of love. All of this is for free, I mean. And then I got to the launch party in the gallery, asked to read, ended up changing in my recitation the word kept "glacé" to "Popsicle.”

TCF: I’m surprised Guibert doesn’t get read more but then I went to the gay beach in New York and a guy, a poet who I think is cute, was reading the journals, so maybe I’m wrong. In a conversation with Michael Klein you say that you “want to believe that poet equals queer” and also that you’re “more a hunter-gatherer” in terms of how you write. Being a hunter-gatherer seems very essayistic to me, especially in the way you bring together other voices, artists, etc. in your work. Can essayist equal queer in this way, or with these moves?

DAM: Definitely, if there is supposedly one thing that goes in one thing one way. I always try to screw—play, mess—around with that all. The more "people," "ideas," I can bring together in one language bed and get to recognize each other as mutual, the more I feel I am doing my kind of work.

TCF: Who are the other writers/artists that you find yourself working around these days? “To find each other as mutual.”

DAM: About 90% of what I read these days is student writing. That’s not an exaggeration. And not always a bad thing, when I can feel how there is someone alive in it, trying to pour everything into it, believing there is this and only this patient mining for where still nothing might come but an exchange of love. But for my own work, if I’m not going to be given the breaks the career academic gets, I also have to get out somehow, and as the old adage goes, somehow write myself out of the place.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Kickstarter for Vela Magazine: Nonfiction Written by Women

I'm writing here to point you toward a kickstarter closing in on its goal (with six days left as of this writing) for Vela Magazine: Nonfiction Written by Women. We paste below a description of the project by its founding editor Sarah Menkedick, sent our way by Melanie Bishop, an essayist we've featured before. We think this will interest you, our reader. Seems worthy of committing something to, no? —Ander


Over the past week, dozens of people — men and women — have taken Vela’s #listtheunlisted challenge, naming all of the women writers they know in thirty seconds. They’ve done it while rock climbing, juggling soccer balls, rocking babies, doing push-ups.

These videos are microcosms of Vela’s overall mission: to put women writers on people’s radar, to ensure that people can rattle off a list of exceptional women writers just as easily as they can rattle off all the given male greats.

In a recent post for The New York Times Book Review, Cheryl Strayed wrote:

When I saw The Empathy Exams appear on the best-seller list in April and Bad Feminist appear there in August, I felt that the ground had shifted ever so slightly. Not for women, necessarily, but for the essay itself. Surely many factors can be rightly credited for the success of those books — that they’re intelligent and beautifully written, for starters. That they were well served by editors, designers and marketing and publicity teams who knew what they were doing counts too. But I can’t help thinking their success also owes something to those in the online literary community whose You have to read this enthusiasm spilled over into the real world.

Strayed celebrates the re-emergence of the essay as a bestselling, widely read form, and attributes its success in particular to “a generally supportive group of writers, booksellers, online magazine editors and avid fans.”

We are those online magazine editors, those avid fans, that generally supportive group of writers, celebrating the essay, and the essay by women in particular. We’d like to think the work we do plays some small part in the re-emergence of the essay, and we hope, with funding, to help bring attention to a new generation of women essayists. We are part of that online literary community saying, you have to read this; saying, here is the work by women; saying, there’s no excuse for having no women writers in your magazines on your lists in your university courses because look, look, look, here they are!

We’ve been doing this for three years now on passion alone, working as a team of women writers and editors to publish and promote exceptional nonfiction writing by women. We’ve published 34 women writers since we opened to submissions in 2013. They are from around the world – the U.S., Zimbabwe, Mexico, India, the Philippines – and they are writing about a wide array of subjects we stubbornly refuse to categorize as “female” or “male,” because what’s the point of tackling the byline gender gap if we insist on marginalizing certain subjects as “women’s”?

They write about war, about motherhood, about AIDS, about abusive relationships, about the ethics of tourism, about tattoos, about addiction: about, in short, anything that stirs their curiosity, because Vela believes women should be able to write with intellectual and creative freedom.

Just as importantly – and perhaps more so — Vela highlights exceptional work by women writers at other magazines. We firmly believe in literary community, and in writers supporting one another. We need each other, and growing a supportive community has been one of the most rewarding aspects of our work. Since our inception we have reviewed work we love by women writers, stunning and complex writing, including work by Emily Rapp, Vanessa Veselka, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Jennifer Percy, Sara Corbett, Daisy Hernández, Jina Moore, Dani Shapiro, Pamela Colloff, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, Ariel Levy, Katherine Boo, Pam Houston, Rebecca Solnit, Alice Berlin, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Rachel Riederer, Ruth Fowler, Amy Wallace, Miriam Markowitz, and many, many more, far too many to list here and still keep your attention, from women who are just publishing their first work to bestselling authors.

It has become almost a trope nowadays for writers to say, “I can’t eat exposure.” We at Vela wholeheartedly agree – and yet we’ve also experienced firsthand how difficult it is to pay writers in an era of online publishing whose mandate is that everything should be free and shareable. We became a nonprofit with the aim of applying for national grants, with which we’ll first fund our writers and then, ideally, ourselves, because we have families and bills and we want to keep this thing not just running, but growing.

At the end of the day, it comes down to this: we have to find a way to make online publishing sustainable. There is an inherent paradox in reading all of our favorite magazines for free online and then tweeting about not being able to eat exposure. Something has got to give; we’ve got to start talking about and looking for new models. We’re not quite sure yet how they might look, but at Vela we’re trying to figure it out. We’re working like mad – for free – to pay our writers, and to find a way to get grant money that will pay them competitive fees, sustainably, in the future.

And also, hopefully, to be part of a burgeoning group of online publications that are asking the hard questions: if content is going to be free, then how can we also pay our writers? If outstanding longform writing is expensive to produce and edit, and requires experience that takes time and money, then how can we give it away without demeaning our writers and implicitly devaluing the work of writing?

We don’t believe the answer is in giving up but rather in proceeding with optimism and pragmatism one step at a time: first start a collective, then open to submissions, then when you’ve established a solid foundation, ask for seed money to pay your writers, then apply for grants. This is what we at Vela are doing, and we hope that you will support us not only because you believe writers should be paid – and paid competitive rates, not $20 or $50 per story– but because you believe magazines should be finding ways to make online publishing more sustainable, and to find better models for valuing the work of longform.

Because you know that making great writing, editing great writing, publishing and promoting great writing by women takes time, money, and experience, and most importantly it matters. It matters in building a more just, compassionate, egalitarian, and hell, just plain enjoyable society. It matters to the big picture and it matters to the everyday, when you’re burnt out and you sit down and you read something that makes you write a friend you have to read this.

Vela matters, and funding it matters. We firmly believe this and hope you do, too. Let’s build a future in which writing is a sustainable, important, and respected career for women.

Thank you for your support!

by Sarah Menkedick via Melanie Bishop

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

We'd like to introduce three Essay Daily recurring features

Hey there. Since we didn't have a post this Monday, I thought I'd take the opportunity to introduce you to three new Essay Daily features, curated by T Fleischmann, Nicole Walker, and Sarah Minor, we'll be running regularly from here out. The first one will drop next week (well, the first one has already dropped, since Sarah Minor has been working the visual essay seam for some time in this space, but she'll be continuing her series in November).

We include the descriptions here in case you're interested in contributing to one of these features. If so, send Craig or Ander an email at right and we'll direct it to whichever editor you'd like (or Sarah has provided her email below for direct contact).


T Fleischmann:

Roland Barthes and James Baldwin. Etel Adnan and Hervé Guibert. Fernando Pessoa, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Delany, Hélène Cixous, Gloria Anzaldúa. And I want to say Anne Carson but that's not really true, I don't think.

For my series, I’m interested in better understanding the essay’s queer past, it’s queer contemporary moment, and it’s queer potentialities. To this end, I’ll be soliciting some queer essayists to be in conversation with each other through critical writing, interviews, and the like. There’s no singular queerness, no particular way the “I” and the mode and the form of essays shift when queer, but it’s exciting to look at how queer affection and ways of being influence a genre that is, at its core, so much about weird minds figuring out an equally weird world.  


Nicole Walker:
I cannot tell if nonfiction has fewer rules or more than other genres. While it has the big “rule” (Do not lie) it doesn’t have the history of convention that poetry or fiction seem to have. Any fictional piece without plot or character is experimental. Use white space, says the poem. Make the poem turn! Lyric is sonic, says the poem.

If nonfiction draws on the conventions of the other genres—uses scene, dialogue, white space, turn, then perhaps essay writing is just a hybrid genre. But when it breaks the rules of its borrowed genres, is it creating its own genre? For instance, when I asked a bunch of writer-friends about breaking the writing rules, they noted egregious examples like writing from two points of view using second person for both POVs or breaking the veil and talking directly to the reader, jumping topics mid-stream, banging too hard on the metaphorical nail, or foregoing narrative entirely. I love the breaking of rules but I also love the acknowledgment and recognition of them. Without the rules, where does one begin to write instead of just drool upon the page?

I’m curating a few essays for Essay Daily’s website and wonder if you’d be interested in writing a brief essay about rules, convention, genre and structure. What structures do you use to give your essays form and substance? When does weird get too weird?  What rules do you use just so you can break them later? What does rule-breaking artistic-wise mean about the big rule—“Nonfiction is the truth”?

Sarah Minor [email]:
Elsewhere known as a graphic/video/typographic essay, a comic, an artist's book, a public art text, prose graffiti, vis-po, concrete prose poetry, etc., the visual essay is not a new form, just one that we have a lot of words for naming with little streamlining across disciplines. This may not be the best term. Still:

--Is a good visual essay fine art, or is it literature? What might it mean to be both?

--Are visual essays wrong? Are they for sale? Are they doing it for attention?

--Are they published? Where? What exactly do you mean?

--How are they performed aloud?

--How are Columban monks, William Blake, and Mark Twain involved?

--Why do some attempts at combining text with visual media seem rather put-on or excessive? And how does anyone make the two parts sing in harmony, or run an equal partnership, or at least get each other off once in a while?

Well, this all sounds exciting, no? Check back next week for T's first installment, then Nicole on 10/27, then Sarah on 11/17. And if you have ideas for essays/essayists you'd like to pitch, drop us a line.