Geeta Kothari is the nonfiction editor of the Kenyon Review, as well as a two-time recipient of the fellowship in literature from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the editor of ‘Did My Mama Like to Dance?’ and Other Stories about Mothers and Daughters. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in various journals and anthologies, including The Kenyon Review, Massachusetts Review, Fourth Genre, and Best American Essays. In 2004, she received the David and Tina Bellet Award for Teaching Excellence. In addition to teaching in the undergraduate program, Geeta also directs the Writing Center at the University of Pittsburgh.
At the upcoming 2016 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference, Geeta will speak on two panels, “Ask an Editor” and the “Literary Magazine Salon.” In anticipation of the conference, Creative Nonfiction’s Rachel Ann Brickner spoke with Geeta about what makes a good essay; the process of writing and revising; and the inevitablitly of rejection.
CNF: Currently, you’re the nonfiction editor of the Kenyon Review. For you, what specifically makes a "good" essay? What are some things that make you say “yes” to a piece?
KOTHARI: Our Editor in Chief, David Lynn, is the one who ultimately says yes, so if I'm going to send an essay on to him for publication, it has to be something I love. I look at language, voice, and form—is the writer doing anything interesting with the way she's telling this story or making this argument? Is it formally challenging or different from what I usually see? There are no real limitations to what interests me, however. The main criterion is whether or not a piece works.
CNF: What excites you most about your work as an editor and why?
KOTHARI: I love finding new writers: new to KR, new to publishing, new to nonfiction. Finding work that surprises me or stays with me is always a treat.
CNF: Your fiction and nonfiction have been published in various journals and anthologies. How has your fiction informed your personal essays and vice versa?
KOTHARI: I came to nonfiction after I'd already established myself—in my head anyway—as a fiction writer. I had no expectations of myself, and I began writing the personal essays somewhat intuitively, which meant I ended up drawing on what I already knew—how to write a scene, how to characterize something in a few strokes, etc. In terms of content, though, I don't see a huge connection between my fiction and nonfiction; they feel quite separate to me. There is never a moment when I'm working on an essay when I say, "Oh, maybe this should be a story." While I draw on events from real life when I'm in the thick of writing a story, real life is rarely the impetus for fiction. I'm not sure why this is—for a lot of writers the line between fiction and nonfiction is thin. I don't deliberately separate the two genres. It's just how I write and I choose not to question it too much.
CNF: What is your writing process generally like for your nonfiction work?
KOTHARI: Lots of reading, lots of note taking, lots of writing. I throw everything onto the page, get lost, then step back and try to figure out what's going on. I'm not someone who outlines before writing, though I wish I were. A teacher once told me I'd find it a lot easier to write if I did, but that has not been the case.
Rejection, like revision, comes to everyone.
CNF: Can you tell us a bit about how and when you approach revision?
KOTHARI: Once I accepted that I would have to write a lot of drafts to get to a finished piece, revision became easier. I like to have a complete rough draft before I begin revising. If there's a problem with structure, I try to resolve that first before I begin rewriting the sentences. I cut up my writing a lot, or move parts of an essay into a new document. I'll write a reverse outline or a I'll retype an entire piece. It really depends on how stuck I am. If I thought standing on my head while drinking a glass of water would help, I'd do that too.
CNF: How do you know or decide when a piece is ready to be sent out for potential publication?
KOTHARI: Is there a formula? Did I miss that class in grad school? Seriously, it's a combination of intuition, feeling ready to move on, and the blessing of my toughest reader.
CNF: What is your biggest challenge as a writer, either personally or craft-wise?
KOTHARI: Finding time, using it well, and keeping the noise of the world out of my head when I'm at my desk. I'm not the first person to note that the internet can become a huge distraction when writing. Personally, I work better in tidy spaces, and because I'm a slob, keeping my work space neat is actually more of a challenge than staying off Facebook. When I'm desperate, I'll throw all the papers on my desk into a box just to have a tidy workspace. I just found two such boxes from I don't how many years ago. In terms of craft, I find writing short pieces very challenging. I love reading them—both flash fiction and nonfiction—but the form is difficult for me. I also struggle with structure. It's a blind spot I have to constantly pay attention to.
CNF: What have you learned about rejection in your years of writing and publishing thus far?
KOTHARI: My book, I Brake for Moose and Other Stories, will be published next year. I wrote the stories in it over many years. I kept tinkering and rearranging the collection and taking stories out and putting new ones in. I could have done that forever, imagining some perfect combination that would make the book rejection-proof. Finally, I forced myself to send it out. Rejection, like revision, comes to everyone. The sooner you accept that it's part of the process and not personal at all, the easier it becomes to send your work out. Working at KR has taught me a lot about not taking rejection personally. I reject—without even a friendly note—many excellent pieces of writing for any number of reasons.
When I first started submitting my work to publications, I expected to receive many rejections. I told myself I would send the collection out one hundred times before giving up. I have no idea if I would have, but it seemed like a nice round number to aim for. When asked how many times I submitted it, I said, thirty or forty—that's what it felt like over the course of three years—but when I checked my records, it was closer to fifteen. Given that my first short story was published after thirty-seven rejections, fifteen for the collection seems quite reasonable.
CNF: What keeps you writing?
KOTHARI: My day is 100% more enjoyable when I spend part of it writing. That doesn't mean there haven't been times when I deliberately stopped writing, just to see if I could be a normal person who watches TV and surfs the internet without guilt. Stopping deliberately is a good experiment; feeling like I have no time or headspace to write just makes me irritable.
CNF: Is there anything you wish someone would have told you about the writing life when you first began? Or, is there any advice you’ve been given during your career that has stuck with you?
KOTHARI: I wish I'd understood that I didn't need to go to graduate school to be a writer. I learned more from working in publishing, which is where I met my first mentor. Had a low-residency program existed in those days, it would have been a much better fit for me. But it's quite possible, being young and stupid, I wouldn't have understood this and would have still blundered along through my program.