A Ms. Magazine Intern’s Apartment
New York, NY
My parents brought me and my siblings up with a reverence for ancestors and a thankfulness for life, but with no real religious structure. They never set out to define God for us, nor did they even suggest to us that there was a God. Religion just did not exist. Consequently, I didn’t have a working knowledge of/relationship to God (or a God force) until I struck out on my own. I went away on a 12-month international fellowship with nothing but a suitcase, contacts, and some money in the bank. On that trip, I was a witness to how the universe works. How I was often in the right place at the right time. How, when I was in a horrible housing situation and I knew no one on the island of Trinidad, I followed my instincts to volunteer at a conference and there met the woman who would solve all my housing issues.
God/the Universe is working for us all the time. Even when it seems like nothing’s working out, things seem to fit together in profound ways. In my career I’ve had my “universal” moments which are not necessarily earthshaking, but they are tiny affirmations that I’m on the right track. It’s like I feel the gentle hand of the universe urging me in the right direction.
And sometimes, when you take one step, a network of reactions spreads out and impacts many areas of your life in ways you could not have foretold. Here is one interesting thread of coincidences, an accidental (?) chain of cause and effect.
The First Step: A Failed Attempt
Sometime last year, I saw an email call that announced a Ms. magazine columnist search. The magazine was looking for young feminists to write monthly columns. Hmmm, I wondered if I was too young, but I thought, what can it hurt to apply? I emailed a letter expressing my interest and attached “Navigating to No” an article I wrote about the gray areas between seduction and rape. A Ms. editor emailed me back to say I was too old! They were looking for women between the ages of 19 and 25. “Oh well, another missed opportunity,” I thought.
The Second Step: An Unexpected Result
Months later, I had forgotten about the Ms. magazine column. I was surprised to receive an email from an editor at Ms. expressing interest in my work. She read “Navigating to No” (either in the email I sent or in the magazine it was published in) and wanted to know if I was interested in writing a 600-word article for their “Ms.-cellaneous” column, in which a writer writes about how a word relates to her as a woman. [Perhaps this chain of events legitimately starts earlier when I actually wrote “Navigating to No” and had it published as the result of an unsolicited submission, but the Universe is such a fascinatingly complex web of actions, it’s hard to start at THE BEGINNING.]
After I pitched a few words to them, we finally agreed I’d write on the word: “No.” I wrote the piece about learning to be direct, about transforming my communications from obligatory politeness to clear honesty. Here’s a brief excerpt:
Fluency with “no” is a human right, yet many women cling to “maybe” or “I don’t know.” “No” is sometimes audacious, but it is always fundamental, economic, and direct. A simple, well-intoned “no” is a feather of realness, a moment of authoritative self-expression, an adult utterance, a commitment to self.
It was a very difficult editorial experience because they really forced me to go deep with my ideas. The article was picked up to be reprinted within one month of it being published, so I guess the editors and I were doing something right.
The Third Step: Taking Another Leap
Ms. published the “No” article in their June/July issue. A few weeks later, I got an email about an anthology for young feminists of color. This time I actually fit in the age bracket, but I was feeling lazy and I didn’t want to write something new without knowing that the editors were interested in what I had to say. Dealing with rejections is hard enough, I’m not interested in writing something new specifically for that project and then finding out, my style isn’t what they’re looking for. I don’t have that much time on my hands. Maybe in the future when I’m writing full-time, but not yet. The call for submissions didn’t specify whether or not they were accepting reprints. I assumed they only wanted original work, but I sent the same “Navigating to No” that I had sent to Ms. to the anthology. I never heard from them. I forgot about the anthology and moved on with my writing.
The Fourth Step: An Unprecedented Request
A month or so after I submitted my work to the feminist anthology, I got an email from Ms. magazine. Apparently the summer interns were organizing a meet and greet party. The interns invited writers whose work had been published by the magazine while they were interns, specifically they invited writers they admired. The invitation was a request for us writers to share our wisdom about developing a writing career.
I was flattered. I immediately wrote back saying I’d be happy to attend the party, but I didn’t think I was qualified to offer advice about developing a magazine writing career. I explained that my publication history with magazines is limited and I’m not even close to making a living as a writer. My editor told me she appreciated my humbleness and assured me I had a lot of information to share with the interns. Plus, she added, success never feels like what it looks like from the outside. O.K., I said, this is called what?: Taking my medicine. Here’s a situation where I don’t think I have the experience to offer what they’re asking, but they insist they want me, so why not go?
The Fall-Out: How the Universe Works
Here are the things the party, and hence the universe, taught me. [A series of lessons that were the result of me using an essay pubslished from an unsolicited submission to apply for an opportunity I was not qualified for and was rejected from.]
First lesson: I learned that, no matter what stage of the game I’m at, I have something to offer.
There were women at the party who were way more experienced than me. One in particular taught journalism at a university and makes a living off magazine writing. There was another who, like me, shyly expressed reservations as to whether her knowledge could help the interns in achieving their goals. But in sharing my literary ideas, experiences and convictions, I saw the power of my mid-career wisdom. In that brief question-and-answer session, I clearly saw that experts aren’t the only ones who can offer expertise. Sometimes where an expert stands is too far away for a novice to relate to. As I spoke to the interns, I felt my power as a model of a work-in-progress. I don’t need to be an icon who’s already arrived at her destination to offer guidance and mentorship. Each one, teach one is real.
THE GIFT: I am now able to embrace my worth as a resource. I accept and acknowledge all I have to teach without pretending I have nothing more to learn. Despite the fact I have so far to travel in my career, I still have much to give. This gift helped me believe I could write the KIS.list without pretending to be a fully-evolved writer. It empowered me with the understanding that there are lessons to be shared at every stage of the journey.
Second lesson: Though I was asked to give, there was so much to receive.
Although I went to share my experiences, I was enriched by the women who were more advanced in their careers than I was. I didn’t expect to receive guidance in my own career, but I did. Sue Shapiro, in particular, was helpful. The most valuable thing I got from her communications was her disdain for query letters. While she acknowledged the query letter’s importance when writing nonfiction pieces for a magazine, she explained that it’s very difficult to give an accurate sense of a personal essay with a query. Personal essays are so subjective; it’s almost impossible to communicate their strengths through an outline or a letter of intent. “Write it and send it unsolicited,” Sue Shapiro says. “If it’s strong, they’ll accept it.” My own experience certainly supports this. The first article I had published in a major commercial magazine was one I sent unsolicited. I had written it for myself and once it was finished, I sent it out. They accepted the article for publication and I am now in the process of building a relationship with the magazine.
THE GIFT: Sue’s suggestions reminded me that I am in charge of my writing career. The querying process can be maddening with editors rejecting ideas or forgetting to pitch them in editorial meetings. If there is an idea or an article that I think should be out there, perhaps I should start sending out work. At the very least, I can use these unsolicited articles to build relationships with editors.
Third lesson: My father is always right. [Just kidding, my father gives great advice. He’s the one always telling me to send stuff unsolicited to this person or that person. But as you’ll see, he’s wrapped up in the third lesson.]
Third Lesson: The Internet builds recognition.
I wrote six reports from the Clarion West Writers Workshop for my friends and family. By the time I sent the third one, my father emailed me and asked me if he could circulate them on the cyberdrum, his listserv. “I think lots of people will be interested in this information,” he said. “Sure,” I said go ahead. Upon my return from Clarion, when I told my father I was finally going to start taking responsibility for my career. I was going to create a website that would help me build a relationship with my audience. “Start a listserv,” he said. “It’s dynamic and immediate, and it will really build your relationship with readers.” But I hemmed and hawed (see lesson one). Could I really start writing my ideas and sending them out to strangers. My friends and family, yes, but folks who don’t know me?
So, back to the party. After I introduced myself, one of the writers asked, “Are you the one who wrote those reports from Clarion?” “Yes,” I said. “I read them on your father’s listserv,” she said. And as she expressed her appreciation for the reports, I saw the power and possibility of putting together this list, the KIS.list. Not that I didn’t believe my father, but here was someone who, without reading any of my fiction or essays, recognized my name and showed appreciation for my efforts.
THE GIFT: The KIS.list. After that, I knew it had to be done. At the party, I got a firsthand taste of how the Internet can help me build relationships where previously there had been none.
Fourth Lesson: When I “take my medicine”, I’m often in the right place, at the right time.
When I stood up to leave, one of the writers pulled me to the side and said “I need to talk to you.” As it turns out, she was the editor of the anthology for the young feminists of color. “My coeditor and I really love your writing,” she said, “but we aren’t doing reprints. I wonder if you could write something else, something specific to the experience of women of color.” I told her I would think about it. Months later, I’ve written an essay both of us are happy with.
THE GIFT: If I hadn’t attended this party, I don’t know if she would have contacted me. Maybe they had received enough original work to put together a powerful anthology. But with face-to-face contact, she was inspired to ask me to develop something and I was energized to write something new. Plus, I’m finally able to balance out my acceptances and rejections.
So the Universe and I had fun with this one. And, who knows where the ripple effect will end?
Be well. Be love(d).
: : : August 2001 – present : : :
Over the past two weeks I got two acceptances for publication. The first was for the full-length article I wrote on catcalling and other street sexual harassment. The editor I wrote it for received it enthusiastically. Because it will be included in an anthology of young feminists of color, she asked me to add a few references to how I connect the issues of catcalling with feminism. That will be a slight challenge but I will pull it off by the deadline: Nov. 15.
The other piece accepted for publication is a speculative fiction story, well it’s actually categorized as fantasy. It’s been accepted to an anthology of speculative fiction from the African diaspora. The story I originally wrote for the collection was rejected, but the editor emphasized she was not necessarily rejecting me from the collection. “I’m not worried about fixing this story,” she said. “You’re off to Clarion, I know you’re going to write something interesting.” While I was at the Clarion Writing Workshop, I wrote six stories and she chose one entitled “Desire.” So now my acceptances are equal to my rejections. I know some of ya’ll out there were starting to get worried about me, but this rejection thing is the nature of the game. I been sending out lots of stuff, so I’m bound to get a few more rejections shortly.