What’s the Story #56

There’s a lot of waiting going on at CNF, but what we wait for most of all is compelling, informative, enticing narrative essays. Being able to publish great work is what makes all the rest of the waiting worthwhile

Today—as is pretty much the case on any given day, week, month—I am waiting.

An editor working on a manuscript I submitted in late April said she would need three weeks to get back to me. Three weeks later, she wrote again, telling me she was headed to Europe on vacation but would get to my work in two more weeks. I am waiting.

Back in October, at the Creative Nonfiction office, we submitted a detailed letter of intent to a national foundation, proposing a project and a special themed issue. We waited.  Three months later, the foundation requested a full proposal, giving us two months to work on it. We complied—and waited some more. Two months after that deadline, they asked for a revision, due in three days. I worked all weekend, grudgingly, yet encouraged by the invitation, and made the deadline—and now we are waiting again. Meanwhile, other proposals are pending, both here at Creative Nonfiction in Pittsburgh and at Arizona State University, where I teach, and we are all waiting to see which projects will find funding and which we’ll have to let go, at least for now.

In December, the contractor remodeling the new CNF offices explained that the work to be done on the outside of the building would have to wait until spring; you can’t pour concrete in Pittsburgh in winter. We had thought we might move in February, but no dice. We waited. Then, in April, we learned that some special work was required on the natural gas lines that will eventually heat our new digs—so we are waiting some more. We may not move until September.

Meanwhile, as I write this piece—on the hottest day of the year so far—my air conditioner has failed. I called the AC repairman, but I am not the only one in the city with a coolant problem on this stifling day. I must wait for three days.

I walked up to Starbucks, and the line was nearly out into the street. So I waited. Fifteen minutes later, the guy in front of me couldn’t decide what to order, so I waited while he asked the barista twenty questions about the breakfast choices and the oatmeal toppings. And then I waited a little longer while the barista brewed a fresh pot of Verona Roast—dark—to fill my order.

Back at Creative Nonfiction, we are always waiting for submissions for upcoming special magazine issues and for anthologies for our In Fact Books imprint. There’s always a time, early on, when we worry: submissions are slow, and maybe no one will be interested in or inspired by the theme, and then, in the month and the week and then the day before the deadline, the pace (we hope) picks up. Right now, submissions for a “marriage” issue are trickling in. (The deadline is in August.) So we hope, and we wait.

Being able to publish great work is what makes all the rest of the waiting worthwhile.

And then, of course, it’s the writers’ turn to wait. When submissions come in for a themed issue, like this one, they go to screeners, who will narrow down the potential manuscripts by about 60 percent. For a typical issue of the magazine, we receive around five hundred to six hundred essays; for this “waiting” issue, we received 665 submissions. The screeners read them all carefully and trade them off—each essay has two readers—so it is a long process. Meanwhile, we wait, and the writers wait. Then, an assistant editor narrows down the field to maybe fifty—that also takes time. Then our managing editor, Hattie Fletcher, reads the fifty and, for a magazine issue, narrows it down to about fifteen, while I wait, and eventually she passes that batch over to me. Then she waits. And the writers wait.

And while all of the above is happening, we are also waiting for students to register for classes in our online school so that we can assure teachers they will have assignments, and, if it is the beginning of the year, there’s also our annual conference to plan and wait for.

Which is all to say, there’s a lot of waiting going on at CNF, but what we wait for most of all is compelling, informative, enticing narrative essays—like the ones in this issue of Creative Nonfiction—our fifty-sixth over twenty-one years of publishing. Being able to publish great work is what makes all the rest of the waiting worthwhile.

As it happens, one of the writers in this issue reminds me of a long wait I had some years ago. It was when Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather was being considered for publication. One of the outside readers had been delayed by some personal problem. I don’t remember anymore what the holdup was, but I remember two things about that experience. First, the waiting drove me crazy. This was my first collection of essays—I had published many narrative books before, but nothing so personal—and I really wanted this book to be published. I was excited and anxious, more so than usual. What I also remember is the incredibly good editing advice I got from this reader when she finally weighed in; she suggested a simple but key restructuring of my book that made the entire collection significantly better. I was delighted, as was the publisher. The long and anguishing wait was worth every minute; the book was published in 2003, and it is still in print—with a note of acknowledgment to this terrific reader. 

That reader was the incomparable Judith Kitchen, for many years a good friend to Creative Nonfiction. Judith’s impact on the field of creative nonfiction—as a teacher, a writer, an editor—was significant. She died of cancer less than a year ago, not long after submitting an essay, “Any Given Day,” to us for this “waiting” issue. It is our great honor to publish it posthumously here.

About the Author

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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One thought on “What’s the Story #56

  1. As an impatient soul, this
    As an impatient soul, this essay on “waiting” struck a true chord. There is always something we’re waiting on because that’s how life is. Right now you’re waiting on my essay on marriage, and I’m waiting to finish it and submit. But we’re each waiting on other things as well. You’ve got my mind to churning here! Thanks for another excellent piece and issue.

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