Last spring, we decided to try an experiment: we came up with a long list of possible topics, which we thought would be rich prompts for writers. We asked our newsletter subscribers and social media followers to vote for the ones they liked the best and then to vote again from a list of three finalists. In the end, “Mistakes” narrowly edged out “Secrets” and “Escapes.” You—our readers—determined the theme of this issue.
We put up some prize money—$1,000 for Best Essay and $500 for a runner-up—and circulated a call for manuscripts. (Sometimes, we can find sponsors who are willing to establish bigger prizes for issues exploring specific topics; with our recent “Human Face of Sustainability” issue, the Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiative at Arizona State University supported a $10,000 best essay prize.)
Happily, our collective hunch that “Mistakes” would be a good prompt was confirmed; we received more than eight hundred essays, from which we selected the eight published in this issue. The process of selecting the work that goes into the magazine is always challenging, not only because of the large number of submissions and the small size of our staff, but more so because so many of the essays we get are so damned good. As you’ll know if you’ve ever submitted work to Creative Nonfiction, it takes us a long time to read and respond to everything. (We want to make sure we get it right—no mistakes allowed!) It’s a painstaking process, but rewarding because of the great stuff we get to read. In this case, the essays we received ranged from funny to serious, telling stories of mistakes both big and small.
Our editors always hope for a theme that will give the magazine both depth and direction. A successful theme, I believe, is one that not only inspires writers but also focuses readers. I like to say that with creative nonfiction, a writer can make any subject interesting—a good narrative will take readers a long way. In this issue, you’ll find reportage and memoir, humor and research, employed in the service of topics ranging from an unintended pregnancy to a bad tattoo, and from a dramatic (but unsuccessful) prison protest to the epidemic of errors plaguing our healthcare system. These stories, personal and political, grapple with important questions that ultimately get at the heart of how to live. To err is human, after all; in any given action looms the possibility of making a mistake. But to let fear of making a mistake stop us from acting . . . well, that, too, is often a mistake, isn’t it?
As I’ve said, it’s a rich theme, and we’re very pleased with the way this first-ever “readers’ choice” issue has turned out. In fact, we’re planning to make it an annual tradition. Right now, we are accepting submissions in response to another reader-chosen prompt: waiting. As I write this, the deadline for submissions is almost two months away. We can’t wait to read what comes in.