Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Brett Sigurdson on the Roots of Mud Season Review

I’m scrambling today. I have five essays to read, a few to decline, an accepted submission to proof, three essays to give feedback on, and an interview with a writer to conduct. Such is the life of a volunteer editor for a four-month-old online literary journal started by members of a writing workshop.

I’m the nonfiction editor of Mud Season Review, and if it sounds like I’m in over my head, that’s alright—I’m merely pulling my weight. I’m one of the six editors, eight assistant editors, five readers and four staff members—volunteers all—who make up MSR’s staff, and we’ve all been absorbed in our work. Our third issue went live last week, and when I look back, I’m amazed by how far Mud Season Review has come since it opened for submissions in June. Our toil has created a system that is all but running itself: we’ve smoothed out our review process, our PR team is connecting more people to our mission, we’re seeing a steady stream of quality submissions. We’ve also begun to look forward to our first print journal, which we’re funding from our feedback-request option.

Mud Season Review started with a tally of votes in a survey among the members who make up the Burlington Writers Workshop, a free writing workshop for all Vermonters. More than half the respondents to the survey said they wanted to start a literary journal. BWW’s head organizer Peter Biello made it our number-one priority and gave us the support and guidance we needed to make it happen. And while the project could have—maybe should have—seemed daunting, there was a sense among the editorial staff from the outset that anything is possible.

This attitude is no doubt linked to the success of the BWW itself. The organization has evolved since 2009 from a loose group of writers meeting at bars throughout the city to over 600 members who meet for several weekly workshops in its own space. And it’s not just poetry, fiction and nonfiction—the BWW has held songwriting, digital storytelling, even radio play workshops. Not to mention events ranging from classes on book design, to discussions on the use of flashback in fiction, to readings by prominent Vermont authors like David Budbill and Howard Frank Mosher. BWW members also print a yearly anthology, Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop, and publish their writings in special supplements placed in every room of a chic Burlington hotel. If you’re a writer in Vermont, the BWW is an incredible resource.

In starting a new journal, the editorial team envisioned a publication that emulates the inclusive, encouraging, all-for-one-one-for-all ethos of the BWW. We wanted to open our arms to writers just finding their voices—those who are perhaps intimidated by the publishing world—as much as we wanted to appeal to those who are producing and publishing their best work. But as we met to discuss our mission, our motives revealed other benefits:

1. We learn about our writing from the work that we read. Why not use the process of creating and maintaining a journal as a means to learn more about how we can improve as writers?

2. We wanted a venue to discover new, exciting writing. Most of us have read great stories in the BWW workshops, yet we know that it’s harder and harder to find a place to publish this work. We wanted to help those stories and poems find an audience.

3. We wanted to work with fellow writers on a project that would foster the community feeling the BWW has created.

And, hey, no matter what happened, we could at least have fun doing it.

BWW members voted on the name, selecting Mud Season Review after that unique time in New England before it’s properly spring. The snow is gone, but the mud remains, covering a landscape that will soon turn green. We like to think Mud Season Review honors the lonely time that writers spend on their work, that fertile period of creativity right before a piece truly blossoms. With each publication we want to honor the fruits of the slow private work of creation. We choose pieces to publish that are worth a slow read, worth re-reading and thinking about. And we work hard to find artwork or photos that complement each story, something that adds perhaps another dimension to a story or poem.

Just like the workshops the BWW holds, we’re open to a range of writing (and art). In terms of nonfiction, we want to see writing that pushes limits of structure and form while still telling a solid story. Out of the three essays we’ve published so far, all have been braided narratives and all have been long, in-depth looks at an issue, a time, or a place, from the point of view of a self-reflective narrator. I come from a journalism background, so I really connect with long-form journalism pieces that tell a story with research and form at their heart. I’m also open to memoir and more poetic explorations of experience, as long as they reveal real insight into their cruxes or awareness of broader issues. But whichever form the piece takes, our editorial team wants to be affected by a story.

With each publication, we’ve tried to mimic the support-your-fellow-writer ethic of a writers workshop, and this has translated in ways obvious and not. Where we give each piece of writing the weight of our attention in a workshop, in the journal’s case, we give a writer’s work one month to be the focus of our readers’ attention on the website. Then we give each writer a chance to step “out of the box” to discuss his or her work via the interviews we post during the month that work is featured. 

We also try to mimic the constructive, critical nature of the workshop behind the scenes. In all the genres, when possible, we try to offer specific feedback on pieces we decline that we feel are close but aren’t quite realized. Though it takes extra time and thought, the staff of Mud Season Review is dedicated to approaching writers as fellow writers whose work we’re rooting for. After all, that’s the scene we grew out of.

A few weeks back, I got an email from a writer I’d given feedback to via our feedback request option. Her essay had been accepted for publication in a journal and she wanted to thank me for the time I had put into reading and responding to the piece, encouraging her to keep working on it. Even though we didn’t accept her essay, she wanted to thank us for taking the time to help her improve her piece.

We have big ambitions as a journal, but it’s this kind of small connection with other writers that keeps me going as an editor. And we hope it keeps more writers working on their writing, not to get it published, but to make it live up to its conception. The inner work is done alone, but we hope Mud Season Review can be a trellis that lets it bloom.

Brett Sigurdson is nonfiction editor of Mud Season Review. He is the former Thomas J. Lyon Fellow for the journal Western American Literature, formerly published by Utah State University. There, he earned a master’s degree in American Studies with an emphasis on creative nonfiction. His work has appeared in Western American Literature and NewPages. He is currently the editor-in-chief of The Charlotte News, a nonprofit newspaper based in Charlotte, Vermont.