Whether you are just around the corner from submitting to some of the most highly coveted publications like New York Times, Brain, Child Magazine and Washingtonian, or have them on your writing bucket list for someday, you’ll love this Q&A with writer/blogger Andrea Jarrell, who shares the secrets to her writing success.
Beyond Your Blog: Tell us about your former blog and your new blog, launched last summer.
Andrea Jarrell: While it may be kind of sacrilegious to say, my two blogs are really sidelines to what I consider my primary writing. If you think of it in terms of movies – the way an actor will sometimes break the “fourth wall” and speak directly to the camera a la Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, that’s what my blogs have been for me – my way to turn to readers and comment on the main writing I do. The first blog (now defunct though posts are still online) was called School of Thought. It was a blog for professionals working in college and university communications, which is my day job. My current blog is called CreativeWorkLife and it’s for “serious writers with serious 9 to 5 jobs.” It’s all about how do we keep our art going while we’re also working big jobs to pay the bills.
BYB: When I visit CreativeWorkLife , I am greeted with a graphic of impressive publications including Modern Love, Brain, Child and Washingtonian to name a few. Can you take us through those and share any advice to others submitting writing to sites that typically have a tough barrier to entry?
AJ: I am a fiction writer by training who had been working on a short story collection in which each of the stories was triggered by a real event in my life. I had taken a creative nonfiction class for fun and realized that a lot of the stories I was telling were more powerful if they were written as personal essays. The first essay I wrote for that class was published by Literary Mama and I was over the moon about it.
This shift to nonfiction came on the heels of having just graduated from the Bennington MFA program. I felt like a secret door had opened in my work. I went back to those stories I’d written and stripped out anything I’d made up and began making them better as true essays.
What has worked well for me is that I learned at Bennington how to write a story and that’s what I think good personal essays are – stories – at least the ones I’ve had success in publishing and the ones I enjoy reading. They have scene, dialog, sensory details, and a narrative shape with a resonant ending. That was one of the things Dan Jones, the editor of Modern Love remarked on, that my ML essay’s ending was really deserved. It was funny; he asked me about my background too. When I told him I’d done an MFA and was working on a novel, he said something like, “Oh, that totally makes sense” because the piece was pretty lyrical. Some of the reader comments were things like, “this should be a novel,” which I loved.
All of the places in which I’ve been published, except Washingtonian Magazine, were cold submissions – meaning I had no contacts with editors. The editor at Washingtonian knew my work and asked me to submit something. Getting that email was fun.
For all the other submissions, I just sent the pieces in through regular submissions. I actually don’t think there is a lot of mystery in submitting to any of these places. This may be obvious but I think there are a few things that lead to a piece getting accepted:
1) Fit – is it really right for the publication/site?
2) Is the piece ready – really ready to be submitted? I often think a piece is ready to go and then I send it to a writer friend and she points out ways I could deepen it. We go back and forth like that and then I submit it and yes, indeed, it’s way better than it was when I thought it was ready.
3) Uniqueness – is your voice or your take on something fresh? Is the story itself something new?
4) Editor’s taste – You may have written a very fine piece that just isn’t that editor’s cup of tea. On the other hand they may fall in love with your voice and want to publish everything you do. Here’s a post by a writer who finally got published in The Sun Magazine. I think it really breaks all of what I’m saying down so well
Many times seeing a call for submissions has spurred me to shape and finish a piece specifically to answer that call. That’s what happened with Brain, Child. The special teen issue prompted me to write an essay I had in mind about a driving accident my teen daughter had when I was teaching her to drive. The “My Other Ex” anthology submissions call was ideal for a piece I’d taken years to write but had just completed when I saw the submissions notice. Once I’d been accepted, the HerStories Project suggested we write complementary essays for outlets like The Huffington Post. I wrote a post and got totally lucky when HuffPo accepted and featured it on the main HuffPo Women page for several days. As you know once you’re in at HuffPo, you’re in. I’ve had pieces in HuffPo Women, Third Metric, HuffPo50, and HuffPo parents. I’m getting savvier about understanding their verticals and how they might promote a piece which is really critical if anyone is going to see it.
Narrative was an early place I got published and the trick there was that I sent a piece to their “Readers’ Narrative” section. The submission guidelines helped me see how to tailor an essay I’d been working on. Also, that section has a lower barrier for entry. Still, it was such a great experience working with the editor there. Having a few words I’d fussed over many times changed but having them still be “right” was an “aha” for me. Having the chance to talk with really knowledgeable editors about this line or that or deleting that fifth reference to someone’s hair (the NYT copyeditor said it was like I had a hair fetish) is a great learning experience.
In terms of credibility and other offers and opportunities as a result of being published in some of these places, I have no doubt that being part of Modern Love has helped get my new submissions noticed and read. Having my work accepted there and other places like Brain, Child and Narrative where I know they value quality writing has given me confidence to submit further. I’d read Modern Love for years but it wasn’t until a Bennington classmate got published there that I thought, “Huh, why not me?” That willingness to put myself out there has come from seeing others do it. Another outcome of many of these publications is that I’m now part of Facebook groups like My Other Ex writers and Brain, Child writers. These writers have been incredibly supportive in promoting my work and in sharing new opportunities and I do the same.
BYB: What is next for you in terms of writing ventures?
AJ: I’ve got two new pieces coming out that I’m excited about for Washington Post’s On Parenting and another site BYB readers should be aware of called Sweatpants & Coffee. I’m also working on a new essay about my recent trip to India and I’m finishing an essay collection that is basically a memoir. As for aspirations, seeing my work some day in NYT Lives, The Rumpus, Full Grown People, The Sun and The Missouri Review would be lovely.
Andrea Jarrell writes personal essays and memoir — weaving stories of love, sex, family, mothering, recovery, beauty and aging, and the many places she’s lived and traveled. She is also the principal of a marketing firm specializing in colleges and universities. A native Californian, she now lives in suburban Washington, DC with her husband, two children, two dogs and a cat.