Friday, April 3, 2015

Writing and Publishing Your Personal Essay

BinderCon LA Recap #2

“’No book’ is not a career deal-breaker.” - Anna March

Anna March – Feminist Killjoy (at least, that's what her business card says)
Wendy OrtizExcavation: A Memoir 

Anna March and Wendy Ortiz sharing a moment. Note the Dean and Deluca gummy bears right in front of me.
Anna March offered us Dean and Deluca gummy bears from her hotel. “They probably cost $50,” she said. I may be the only person who ate them.

“I started writing essays 15 years ago when Salon paid $1,500 per essay,” March said. She submitted an essay, went for a jog, and sold it while she was gone. “I thought, ‘I can write it, submit it, go for a run, and comeback and someone will buy it.’”

Everyone in the audience sighed.

Salon has rejected me many times,” Wendy Ortiz said. She continued, “If you have a ‘Modern Love’ column, have the book ready. As soon as it gets published, all the agents come for you.”

Ortiz didn’t have a book ready when she published her “Modern Love” essay. In fact, before she submitted it, she didn’t even know what “Modern Love” was.

“Emily Rapp told me about ‘Modern Love.’ She said, ‘Just write something about love.’ I approached it as an experiment,” Ortiz said. “It takes the pressure off.”

She thought, “’Okay, 800 words on this topic.’ My saving gracing was not knowing what a big deal ‘Modern Love’ was.

“Book length work takes years and years for me,” Ortiz said. She sold her book because she published an essay in The Nervous Breakdown that encapsulated Excavation. “Yay, essays!”

“Never write the essay and then figure out where it will go. Write a piece for ‘Modern Love’ with backup choices,” March said. However, “don’t get too invested in one place. Keep placing where you were rejected, but don’t get too attached to, ‘Oh, I wrote this piece for...and they didn’t take it.’ Dust off and submit again.”

March suggested if you’ve gotten rejected multiple times by the same publication, it’s okay to ask, “This is my third submission. Do you have any tips?”

“Start out with an intention,” Ortiz said, “but take into consideration the venue.”

Anna March and Wendy Ortiz giving practical essay writing advice.
March and Ortiz discussed their own processes of writing essays.

“I’m interested in essays that expand form,” Ortiz said, because “there are more avenues for publishing [them].”

March added, “You can write an essay about anything, as long as it’s not just about the thing. It’s the story and the emotional story.”

She shared how she begins the process of writing an essay. “I literally graph what I’m trying to tell you. Plot the plot and then plot the emotional story under each plot point,” March said. “Plot the action, and then plot the emotional action. What happened internally?”

Once she has the plot and the emotional plot points written, March cuts “everything [she] doesn’t need.” She joked, “Keep everything that’s lovely, and then an editor will cut it.”

March asks herself two questions when writing a personal essay: “Where’s the heart, and does it hurt yet?”

She urged the audience to be “be curious, not angry, sad, and bitter.” Ask yourself, “Why did this happen? What is it going to mean as my life moves forward?

“Cheryl Strayed says, ‘Most last lines of essays should go,’” March said. “The implied last line is, ‘…and nothing was ever the same again.’ The last line is unspoken.”

Ortiz writes until she finds a sentence that “holds it.” She explained, “Write too much. Look for one sentence that holds the energy, and then start with that sentence and write from there.”

“An essay is a uniquely expressed universal truth,” March said. “It’s not your story that’s unique. It’s the way you express it that’s unique. Your voice telling your story. The universal truth makes it an essay.”

“I like long form,” Ortiz said. “I’m happy to see essays get longer.”

(I cheered quietly in my head. My essays are almost always too long, even after I cut them to death.)
BinderCon LA
March’s “no data to back it up” opinion about the current essay length trend is, “I think essays are getting longer (in online publications) and shorter (in places where you need paper and ink to print them).”

On the market, Ortiz said, “I’m hearing different things: ‘Essay collections are really hot right now,’ and, ‘Essay collections are really hard to sell.’”

Ortiz is writing her next memoir as an essay collection, which she says makes it “seem doable.” After settling on the format, she thought, “Okay, now I can do this.”

She suggested, “Take the story that’s calling to [you]—not a good cocktail story—and cut down the list. Make a list of three pieces you want to write. Cheryl Strayed calls them our ‘heart’s obsessions.’”

An audience member pointed out, “In Lena Dunham’s book, cohesion was not really thought about.” She likened it to Chicken Soup for the Soul.

“Don’t look at celebrities’ book structure,” March said. However, “platform is the audience, not how many Twitter followers you have. Joan Didion couldn’t sell an essay collection now (to a large publisher) without a platform,” but, “you can still sell to smaller publishers.”

On platform, Ortiz said, “Think ahead where you’re submitting.” Have a “strategy for submitting. I look at where writers I love are publishing. Think of yourself five to 10 years from now. Would you want that piece out there? Feel good about it out in the world.” About some of her earlier work she thinks, “This is not what I’d like to be known for.”

March said to aim high with the publications you choose to submit to. “Make a list of 10 to 20 places you want to publish—a reach.”

She said two publications open to new writers are Midnight Breakfast and Literary Orphans. March also said “Modern Love” has submissions suggestions on Tumblr. (I found them here:

“’Modern Love’ gets 250 submissions a week, and they pick one. About 200 of the submissions are well written,” March shared.

Here are March’s revision tips:
1.    Be proud to show it to a writer you admire.
2.    If you’re done, go back and edit one more time.
3.    Then go back in and add sensory details.
4.    Then sit on it and edit again.
5.    Read it out loud to someone whose opinion matters to you.

“Think about the long-term. Develop relationships with editors,” March advised.

To that, Ortiz added, “Think about places that have comments sections before submitting. Consider possibilities. I don’t say that lightly.”

“Comments will be harsh,” March said. “Don’t read them. Write what you want to write. ‘This is my story. I’m sorry that it bothers you.’”

BinderCon LA
“I’m all about simultaneous submissions,” Ortiz said. “I don’t submit to any place that says, ‘No simultaneous submissions.’”

She suggested at least having a first draft written before pitching. “I’m terrified to pitch without a first draft already written.”

“Are all essays stories?” an audience member asked.

“Yes,” Ortiz said.

Side note:
Someone in the audience called David Sedaris a “douchebag” during the session. That’s a first.


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