Bradley Johnson Productions

Become A Full-Time Writer

The 5 Best Neil Gaiman Stories On Film | Writer’s Relief

Submit To Our Watersedge Poetry Chapbook Contest
$500 Cash Prize + Publication!

DEADLINE: Friday, December 13th, 2019

On November 10, prolific fantasy author Neil Gaiman turns fifty-nine! To celebrate, Writers Relief created a list of his five best works that have been made into movies—with a special bonus production!

Good Omens: 2019 miniseries

Mirrormask: 2005 fantasy movie

Stardust: 2007 Hugo Award-winning movie

Beowulf: 2007 movie based on Gaiman’s screenplay

Coraline: 2009 animated movie

BONUS! Snow, Glass, Apples: 1999 audio play originally from Sci-Fi Network’s Seeing Eye Theatre.

 

Squish Me Tender

‘The body made soft / to keep us / from loneliness’
Ocean Vuong, ‘Into the Breach’, Night Sky with Exit Wounds

 

‘look with thine ears’
William Shakespeare, King Lear

 

Last Christmas, like lots of people, I had recourse to spend more time with teenagers than usual. My partner’s niece sat on the sofa opposite me covering a notebook with stickers. Something was playing on YouTube from her iPad. I glanced over to see what she was watching: it was a tutorial video on how to make slime. Now this intrigued me. I couldn’t understand; if she was watching a tutorial on how to make slime, why she wasn’t preparing, even mentally, to make slime? Or at least pausing and playing appropriately and taking some notes. In my adult naivety I assumed YouTube tutorials were instructions meant to be followed. This is always how I’d used them in the past. Yet, here my neighbour was, watching the video with absolutely no interest in the instructions being relayed. She was doing something totally unrelated in fact – she was decorating a notebook. For what purpose then, if not to provide tuition, was the video being watched?

I was still baffled the next morning when I found her lying on the floor with her headphones on, watching another video. A white woman beamed up at us from the screen; she was explaining that on a recent trip to Korea she had brought thirty different ‘squishies’. Squishies, I discover, are bits of memory foam made to look like miscellaneous items: pizzas, cheesecakes, teeth and tacos. She takes an ice-cream squishie, holds it up for the camera and presses it delectably. The video correlates with the one from the night before. They both feature people pressing into soft, porous, brightly coloured objects made from materials found in a lab. It is oddly satisfying to watch her do this. #Oddlysatisfying is one of the hashtags that crop up repeatedly on ASMR Instagram accounts, along with #anxietyrelief #euphoricasmrvibes and #asmrtingles.

Autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, is an experience described as a combination of positive and calming feelings, along with a tingling sensation on the skin. And it is wildly popular. There are 5.2 million ASMR videos currently on YouTube. The term was coined in 2010 by Jennifer Allen, who felt ‘people wouldn’t be able to discuss the feeling properly unless it had a name’. ASMR is commonly referred to as ‘a massage for your brain’. It has also been compared to a mild electrical current, or the bubbling of a glass of champagne. ‘I wasn’t sure how to interact with it’, a friend told me after watching ASMR content for the first time: ‘I didn’t know whether to watch it or listen to it.’ Another friend enjoys watching the videos while high, especially ones featuring soap or ‘things with texture’. I ask how the videos make them feel: ‘They make me feel kind of – hard to describe? Like stimulated and adrenaliny, like writhing my legs around.’ Not everyone experiences these sensations but those who are sensitive to it are triggered by specific auditory or visual stimuli which ‘ASMRtists’ use in videos ranging from a few minutes to multiple hours in length. The aim is to stimulate tingles, reduce anxiety and help with sleep.

When I was little my mum used to read to us from a book called Home-Grown Food by Roy Genders, recounting litanies of fruit fly species and glamorous strawberries. Words would settle from her mouth, pool and collect on the page, then seep into the chambers of our ears. These spoken wodges of botanical jargon would send us straight to sleep. ASMR is not meant to engage our intellect. It is meant to send us to sleep. These videos are crushingly banal, lacking even the predictable narrative of a how-to video. Some are arranged like reviews, but that is as structurally legible as it gets. The genre is defined by whispery vocals: usually two boom mikes pointing at someone’s mouth and lots of clicking and shhhing noises. Tapping is also important. Nails on soap, nails on cardboard, nails on any hard surface really. Bread Face is an artist who caresses and taps baked goods. Gibi is the ur-ASMR producer with content that barely deviates from the form. Tony Bamboni uses ASMR techniques to demo make up. These producers make their living through ASMR. In these videos words are repeated often and at different volumes and speeds so that sometimes watching ASMRtists can feel like sitting through a painful variety of spoken word. In her popular homage to the trend for W magazine, Cardi B mews: ‘Swollen-len-len-len-len-len-len’, ‘motherhood motherhood motherhood’.

I think of the intimacy of being read to as a child. There is a safety and a tenderness about being held in the auditory embrace of someone you love that resonates on a primal level. Audio manages to achieve a type of intimacy unlike any other form of communication. I don’t doubt that the rise of ASMR can be indexed to the podcast boom. It is five years since the murder mystery Serial emerged and changed the landscape of audio irrevocably. I listen to Jonathan Van Ness’s podcast to stave off the afternoon slump. He keeps me company over lunch. I use Harry Potter audio books to get to sleep. Stephen Fry’s voice must be so embedded in my psyche that if his Dumbledore voice asked me to rob a bank I probably would. The same intuitive aural intimacy that makes podcasts and audiobooks so successful can be found in ASMR. It can feel as if someone is speaking directly to you.

I had never thought of a sound, one that isn’t music, as something somebody might crave. But one rainy Monday I was with some friends watching a VHS of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet when someone beside me announced, ‘I crave Mercutio’s voice’. I began to rewind through my own autobiography of sounds. As a teenager I spent an inordinate amount of time playing Mario Kart and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 and 4. The sound FX have stayed with me far longer than the graphics have. How moreish were Mario Kart’s plinks and beeps! Moreish even, the almost imperceptible delay between riding the car and hearing the car build up on the soundtrack. The virtuality of the game makes us ‘feel’ the sounds differently. I think about the physics of hearing the sound of lightning after the lightning has struck. There is such a gap between event and sound that the sound is named something completely different. It is called thunder. The physical gap is mirrored by a linguistic one. My thumb taps the controller and my player careers off the screen, and the sound deck then translates this action into ‘crash’. I now recognize that the glitchy gap between these small events (thumb, graphic, sound) is ‘oddly satisfying’.

Maybe the virtual sound gap is also disturbing? Maybe that’s what ASMR is about? Take the experience of using a touchscreen and love–hate relationship we have with its virtual sound-feelings. I think about that distinctive ‘click-thup’ the touchscreen keyboard ‘makes’ when we type. ASMR, in some ways, is satisfyingly analogue, analogue, in that it aims to accurately capture the sounds of the body in real time. It is about real eye contact, real caresses and involves objects in the real world. ASMR is digital in the original sense in that it involves our hands. It’s fun watching ‘The Pickle Lady’ for instance, eating a pickle, because the crunch she is making directly correlates to the act of eating gherkins. The sound hasn’t been invented and tacked on later. And this realness is underscored by the technological practicality that ASMR is digitally recorded and transmitted. The screen both impedes our intimacies and makes them possible in the first place.

There is also the element of surprise. A friend told me that the aural experience she craves the most is riding over the loose pavement slabs along Regent’s Canal. She enjoys the bassy thud created when her bike tyre mows over them. She describes this sound using the onomatopoeic ‘plonky plonk gdonk plonk’. I ask her whether it matters that she is actively making the noise or not: ‘I think part of the thrill is not knowing which sections are going to make the sound and which will not.’ The surprise, this thrill of the delay, that ‘maybe it will, maybe it won’t’, is also present in ASMR. The joy of ASMR half comes from the fun of being tickled differently by domestic objects in unorthodox ways. When Bread Face slowly squishes her face into a hunk of bread, the feeling aroused is one of joy and faint rebellion, the objects are misbehaving – or being mis-behaved. Sometimes this feeling happens, sometimes it doesn’t; it’s a game of riding slabs.

Recently I felt the strange desire that I wanted to eat King Lear. Reading the play, or rather comprehending it gave me intense physical reactions like goosebumps and heartbeats and what felt like charged synapses. ‘I see it feelingly’, says the newly blind Gloucester to his son whom he cannot recognize as his son. The line is about the inner sight Gloucester has gained, ironically, upon becoming blind. This seems an important representation of how we live: most humans move through the world feeling-seeingly with plural senses. We do not always have to look down at our feet to know the ground is there. (If we have sight or the capacity to walk.) To know something is there without seeing it in the traditional sense – that is what intimacy is – that is what love is.

Gloucester has come across new terrain; spiritual, emotional and religious. The higher ground he perceives is not as his son-guide misinforms him, the cliffs of Dover, but actually a new emotional landscape. We are ‘touched’ by the things we perceive but not necessarily in any literal manner. ‘See’ in this case has to mean trust and understanding in the presence of something invisible. So sight is also a type of divine faith: to have a vision is really to experience a feeling. And ascension, the ascension Gloucester experiences in that moment on the cliffs of some Dover, is a kind of self-knowledge which also has to be the relinquishing of any assumed knowledge in the face of the self and the world. There is a faith and energy in this exchange. Hardcore ASMR aficionados attest to a similarly unaccounted-for layered sensory experience.

 

*

 

It was one of those nights in Soho where it felt like Soho was still a place where things happen when my partner and I were waiting to cross Greek Street. It was one of those nights in Soho where it felt like Soho is still a place where things happen when a car from a littoral dream glides past. I’m telling you at the sight of it our jaws went slack and our eyes widened. Wow just happened, which is how I know wow is truly onomatopoeic. The sublime synchronicity of the car’s glamourous slow creep, the five suited men inside and the play of streetlight on licked silver: it was aghast-making. The car had been dipped in glitter and God! How it moved! The specks seethed on the car’s body like beatific worms. I can’t relay adequately what this car did to me. The feeling went directly from my eyes to my throat; it was entirely sensory. I don’t know how to explain this reaction other than to say I had not experienced it before. I wasn’t sure if I was having an orgasm or evolving.

Seeing the car replenished me like fruit. Its beaming difference in the wet black of Soho provided my body with relief. I was touched awake by its sight. ‘Never had this kind of nutrition’ sings electro-pop musician Robyn in her song ‘Honey’. Its video is a hymn to the kind of visual stimulus made popular by ASMR content. We see honey dripping down crystals, feathers magnified in the camera lens and flowers suspended in ice that can only be described as looking ‘crunchy’. Little bubbles in the honey stream by. And close up, all the cascading glucose looks like Martian terrain. The video has bright yellow subtitles that mimic those of YouTube tutorials or karaoke. And the lyrics read like an evocation of the new ‘kind of nutrition’ ASMR and the wellness boom have ushered in. ‘Every colour and every taste / Every breath that whispers your name / It’s like emeralds on the pavement’, Robyn sings as more honey spools over the millennial pink. ‘The heart of some kind of flower, stuck in glitter, strands of saliva’ Robyn hits on the strange interplay of distaste and fluffiness that ASMRtists have made their métier. Wasn’t it Virginia Woolf, the great atomiser of experience, who said life is made equally of granite and rainbow? The best ASMRtists give equal time to saliva and glitter, granite and rainbow, in their videos. As I watch ASMR content, I find I am not hoodwinked necessarily, but blanketed softly by a genre I don’t fully understand. It feels like being topped by an algorithm.

For the video’s duration I am pretend-loved by a virtual dominatrix who cares about me and my needs. And the tipping currency? Likes and subscribes. Adverts bring in US$0.006 and $0.015 per page view for the YouTube producer and after the platform takes their cut, content creators make around $4.18 for every 1,000 views of ads shown on their videos. It is overwhelmingly femmes who make this content. And this collision of femininity and big capital brings consequences for the artists themselves, especially when they are below the age of consent.

Makenna Kelly, a thirteen year old white middle class person from America, runs the YouTube channel Life with MAK. Boasting 1.5 million subscribers, she makes $1000 a day and as of May this year she has a net worth of an estimated $360,000. In her most watched video she is eating a high heeled shoe made of sugar. Role-play ASMR is the genre that made Kelly famous. Her subscribers would leave comments underneath her videos suggesting what she should do next. That is, until YouTube disabled all comments on her videos.

YouTube cited inappropriate content as the reason for stopping comments on Kelly’s account. This was certainly the case, but should Kelly’s agency be compromised? The intersection between porn, minors and capitalism has existed for a long time and has its roots in advertising and screen cultures. ASMR differs from traditional advertising in that the suggestive content is created by the child themselves rather than a corporation or agency. When Britney Spears waggled her bum in uniform twenty years ago it was at the behest of an industry boss. Today the algorithm is boss, and the role of the algorithm in ASMR content is a level-up in terms of child sexualization. Today, the algorithm becomes the industry boss-bot no one can control. The case of Life with Mak highlights new questions in the dilemmas of child sexualisation, consent and corporate manipulation.

YouTube has a paedophilia problem, and since Makenna Kelly’s videos lie in a sexual grey area, they were removed by the moderator. To be clear, the majority of comments on the videos were genuinely concerned with participating in the surreal worlds she created, rather than veering towards paedophilia. In June, Kelly announced she was leaving YouTube for good (she didn’t). But the announcement was big news from an ASMRtist as high profile as Kelly. Twelve of her videos were taken down and the teenager retaliated by accusing YouTube of discrimination.

Dear @YouTube: Your blatant discrimination will not stop me. I will not let you use me as a target for your platform’s shortcomings. I am not sorry for being a confident young woman who speaks her mind

YouTube defended its position by deeming Kelly’s account and accounts of other underage users ‘potentially sexual’. This is where it gets murky. What does ‘potentially sexual’ mean? A Wotsit cheese puff could be potentially sexual. Should Kelly be penalized for the way she is objectified by adult men? Is this not another type of victim blaming? YouTube and Instagram are platforms fueled by desire and attention. ASMR feels good, we desire the feeling again which is what keeps us watching. The pleasure gained from ASMR is adjacent to sexual pleasure. YouTube has recognized and capitalised on this, with only an inept awareness of the dual role children play as both creators and consumers.

‘ASMR SASSY DOROTHY EATS HER HEEL ON THE YELLOW BRICK ROAD’ was the original title of one of Kelly’s most popular videos. In the video Kelly is dressed as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and appears against a CGI backdrop of the Emerald City. She carries a basket containing a stuffed Toto and begins the video by using her smartphone to call her friend and tell her how pissed off she is to be stuck on this ‘pee-coloured’ road. Shortly after hanging up, she eats a high heel. She eats the heel, made from sugar, for many minutes. There is certainly something fetish-like about the whole exercise but it is impossible to know whether Kelly herself has any idea how her videos may be interpreted. Does it matter? Kelly’s account looks like that of many porn stars on free streaming sites. But instead of ‘milf’ ‘schoolgirl’ and ‘stepson’, Kelly’s clickbait tags are ‘sassy’ ‘eating’ and ‘roleplay’. YouTube took action by deleting comments and releasing this statement:

We’ve been working with experts to update our enforcement guidelines for reviewers to remove ASMR videos featuring minors engaged in more intimate or inappropriate acts. We are working alongside experts to make sure we are protecting young creators while also allowing ASMR content that connects creators and viewers in positive ways.

To me this seems a clumsy response that absolves corporate responsibility. It additionally reveals an implausible lack of foresight for a company we know is constantly tracking the minute behaviours and tendencies of their users. And the fact is, a large portion of the revenue of these platforms comes from the distribution of exponentially extreme content. Every time we select and watch a video, cute cats for instance, a more extreme version of that video is selected for us to watch next. We get hooked on the cuteness-travellator, chaining and binging on a never-ending circus of cuter, fluffier and younger cats until we reach the bonsai kitten we never wanted to see. The algorithm is not neutral, and we need to use opportunities like these to have serious conversations about sex and consent in a digital age.

I think of what Robert Glück says on the intersection between horror and porn: ‘It’s the task of horror and porn to constantly replace image with image, each more intense than its predecessor’.

In an oedipalised world it is not that easy to delineate what is and isn’t porn. Some sex workers make money from camming, where clients will make requests online or over the phone for performers to act out in their videos. These, usually softcore, videos are then distributed by a channel or on the cammer’s own account. Kelly’s videos are a type of camming, yes, but femmes are objectified in everything they do. It seems morally hypocritical to isolate Kelly as sexual, when she is operating in a system that objectifies women for everything. They are objectified just for wearing clothes, walking down the street or going to work every day. Where there is money, where there is power and patriarchy, femmes are pawns in the consuming male gaze. Makenna Kelly disturbs because she makes this structure apparent.

Implicit within that structure is the predictably obscured world of online moderation. In February 2019, The Verge published a report on the conditions of Facebook moderators. The report detailed long working hours and strictly controlled breaks. The employees of Cognizant, the company Facebook uses to screen its data, resort to having sex with each other in the toilets and smoking cannabis whilst at work in order to emotionally process the sexually explicit and violent material they are required to vet every day. Sarah T. Roberts, author of Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media, says, ‘There’s really two exit pathways for people who do this work for the most part: burnout and desensitization.’

Cognizant has initated ‘wellness breaks’ to guard against the secondary PTSD brought on by this work. It is unclear what a wellness break actually entails but ‘yoga, pet therapy and meditation’ are all available to staff at its HQ. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, which works to support journalists who cover violence, has created a resource for people working with traumatic imagery. They advise having a host of ‘distraction files’ to act as an antidote to the grim and the bleak. These files, they suggest, should include ‘pictures of cute puppies to look at’. Many of these solutions, however, are not in the rubric of companies like Cognisant. The world of capitalist content moderation, as Roberts notes, means that suggestions and reforms – even the most common-sense ones – are very difficult to implement. Firms are worried about losing a contract to a company that can prove it is more efficient. ‘When a person is on a “wellness break” they’re not out on the floor.’ ASMR and wellnessTM have been subsumed into capitalism’s mania for efficiency. Cognizant’s ‘wellness breaks’ are reportedly only nine minutes long. On 30 October 2019, Cognizant announced it was leaving the content moderation business.

The ASMR community are quick to clap down anyone who calls kink on their practices. This is unsurprising given debates highlighted by Kelly’s case above. Some fans of the genre simply believe that ASMR cannot be pornographic because ASMRtists are clothed, while porn actors are not. I wonder if some ASMRtists outsmart the moderator because they are clothed, and a more nuanced type of sexual content is harder to detect, especially in the mix of extreme content moderators must be confronted with. Other ASMR buffs imply a link between increasingly sexualized ASMR content and YouTube algorithms. You can make more money faster if your videos are bumped up the pyramid. One way of doing this is to make provocative content. The ‘reply-girl’ phenomenon is one example. When YouTube’s algorithms were less sophisticated, all a user had to do was comment on a highly viewed video and harvest the clicks. By commenting on a video that was already popular, these users would gain more viewers for their own videos, thereby driving up their income. How did these users or ‘reply girls’ drive traffic? Sexy thumbnails. Some women reportedly made thousands of dollars through catfishing men this way. YouTube has since tailored its algorithms to stop reply girls.

The ASMR community is divided over whether to embrace the ‘potentially sexual’ elements of ASMR or to disown them. Nica Noelle, a porn actor and erotic ASMR producer, has faced a backlash from the community due to her interpretation of the genre. Many do not want her to besmirch a practice many believe to be ‘a pure, almost childlike artistic expression; the antithesis of porn’, as E.J. Dickson says in her profile of the artist. Noelle combines the whispery vocals and sustained eye contact of ASMR with pornographic content. There is a video of her discussing her cardigan at length before removing it and massaging her breasts. ‘Erotic ASMR is a special kind of porn that promotes a feeling of relaxation and of being nurtured and cared for,’ Noelle explains. ‘It’s not the harsh, impersonal stimulation of traditional porn. I’m telling you I love you and that you’re beautiful [and I’m] talking to you about sweet, gentle things.’ Noelle is bringing ASMR and porn together not to stimulate orgasm but to simulate love. This is radical in an industry driven by a capitalist incentive to reduce the forms desire takes. Physical pleasure is only one reason people visit sex workers, and only one type of sex work. Sex work is any type of labour that requires the use of sexual energy. Nica Noelle recognizes that sex and intimacy are distinct but overlapping. She is expending her sexual energy to make consumers of her work feel cared for and safe.

In what is an increasingly unstable and threatening virtual world, Noelle is meeting a demand for users to feel like special recipients of her care. I use Harry Potter audiobooks to recover from my nightmares. The growth of ASMR content indicates a yearning for intimacy in all its forms. Intimacy requires trust to build, and faith to maintain; the kind of trust Gloucester puts in the guide he does and doesn’t know. The trust and faith I had in my mother’s voice as she read to me as a child in her lap. Trust and faith are prerequisites for intimate acts. So, if intimacy requires time and trust to build then some might say that anonymous sex can never be an intimate experience. But this is not true. One-night stands can be touching, tender and romantic. What takes time to create is an intimacy that is not sexual at all. I have always found it impossible to fall asleep in the arms of someone I don’t know. Falling asleep feels like an act of greater vulnerability than the sex itself. You can’t really fake or recreate that type of sexless intimacy.

ASMR has built a sensuality that is not, in every case, intended to be sexual but may be indicative of a populace that craves to be held. One of the most enduring stories in Christianity is the idea that Mary gave birth without having sex – the divine infant written into being like code. I wonder if it’s the kind of imaginative leap that would help to think through ASMR. In some ways it’s a similar act: its inexplicability is part of its power. Would ASMR be half as fun or healing if we knew exactly how it worked? ASMR does something to us that is not altogether sexual but might be verging on intimate in an immaculate kind of way. What ASMR should provoke rather is a conversation about consent and power: just because ASMRtists don’t fall into traditional categories of sexual content, doesn’t mean we should abandon considerations of consent. The tech platforms would do well to remember in their top-down evaluations that, although there was no sex at the virgin birth, there was also no consent.

 

 

Photograph © Sita Magnuson

The post Squish Me Tender appeared first on Granta Magazine.

Cover Letter Must-Haves For Personal Essay Submissions To Literary Journals | Writer’s Relief

Submit To Our Watersedge Poetry Chapbook Contest
$500 Cash Prize + Publication!

DEADLINE: Friday, December 13th, 2019

Want to get your personal essay published in literary journals? Once you edit and proofread your creative nonfiction to perfection, the next step is to write a great cover letter to go with your submissions. Today, the cover letter writing experts here at Writer’s Relief will talk you through the best way to write a cover letter for your personal essays and other creative nonfiction. It’s not as complicated as you may think!

HELPFUL HINT: Short nonfiction pieces submitted to literary journals are usually referred to as “personal essays,” not “memoir.” A memoir tends to refer to a book-length work of creative nonfiction. Check out this link if you’re unsure whether your submission is considered fiction or nonfiction.

FAQs About Cover Letters For Personal Essays And Creative Nonfiction

Why Do Literary Journal Editors Ask For Cover Letters?

Most editors at literary magazines ask for cover letters from writers who are submitting creative nonfiction for publication. When done right, cover letters offer editors information that helps them…

  • Keep submissions organized.
  • Get to know the writer who is making the submission.
  • Publish an author bio if a personal essay is accepted for publication.

Some literary magazine staffers rely on submission managers (online forms) to organize manuscripts. Writers will be prompted to upload files containing cover letters for their personal essays, or the submission manager might be built of individual cut-and-paste fields that essentially require the same information that appears in a cover letter.

Occasionally, writers will discover editors who don’t request a cover letter, preferring nothing beyond contact information, but this is rare.

What’s The Difference Between Submitting A Cover Letter To A Commercial Magazine And Submitting To A Literary Magazine?

Articles sent to glossy commercial magazines and large corporate websites must often be first pitched to editors—as opposed to sending the complete manuscript.

HELPFUL HINT: Not sure which kind of magazine is best for your creative nonfiction? Learn more about media outlets that routinely publish creative nonfiction.

Literary magazines—which are usually more artsy than commercial—do not require writers to pitch submissions. In other words, writers don’t need to tempt editors to look at a personal essay: Editors carefully consider every submission that comes through the door.

For that reason, cover letters that are sent to literary journals should never contain any kind of summary of the work that’s being submitted—no teasing cliffhanger synopses, no descriptions of authorial concerns or themes. In fact, it is often considered poor etiquette to describe a personal essay in the cover letter that is being submitted to literary journal editors.

Since most conscientious editors plan to give respectful consideration to all submissions, it can be offensive when an author tries to tempt editors to do something they believe is their ethical and professional duty.

Also, literary editors are busy people—often they receive hundreds of submissions a day. So they want only the basics in your cover letter. This way, they can get to reading your submission that much faster!

The best plan is to stick with the traditional formula for an effective cover letter—which we’ll get to right now!

(You can also check here to learn more about how to write a cover letter for a freelance magazine article.)

What Are The Main Parts Of A Cover Letter For Submitting Personal Essays And Creative Nonfiction To Literary Magazines?

Contact information. While contact information once might have been limited to an author’s name, address, and phone number, nowadays contact info can also include an author website URL and social media profile/page addresses.

Salutation. The salutation of your personal essay cover letter should include the editor’s first and last name. There’s no need to write “Mr./Mrs./Ms.” unless the editor has self-identified using the honorific in the submission guidelines. Simply write: “Dear First Name Last Name.” Spend some time researching to try to find the full name of the specific editor who reads nonfiction and personal essays. “Dear Editor” is fine if that information is not available.

First line. The first line of the cover letter for your personal essay or nonfiction submission should stick to the facts: It should include the genre and name of the work you’re submitting. Resist the urge to “explain” any more than that. Most editors prefer that writers DO NOT summarize, clarify, or detail the themes and concerns of the piece that’s being submitted. We cannot emphasize this enough.

Author bio. The author bio section of your cover letter for nonfiction submissions to literary magazines should offer some straightforward details about your professional history, any publishing credits, and a hint of personal information. Learn more about how to write a fantastic author bio for a cover letter. If you’re hoping to publish under a pen name, you should note that in the author bio section of your cover letter.

HELPFUL HINT: Some writers stress out big-time over their author bios—even while they’re wondering whether or not an author bio matters at all. Check out both sides of the argument in this article: Does Your Author Bio Really Matter?

Closing line. In the last line of your cover letter for your personal essay, be sure to genuinely thank the literary magazine editor for his or her time spent reading your nonfiction submission.

Including Tricky Information In Your Cover Letter

Sometimes you might want to include information in your cover letter that is helpful to editors but that is also a little bit…well…tricky.

For example, you may want to mention that your personal essay is actually an excerpt from your published memoir (or your unpublished memoir). Or you might want to inquire if the editor would consider a personal essay that has been shared on a social media website  “previously published writing” (and therefore ineligible for publication in a literary magazine).

If your submission needs to be considered within a complicated context, your cover letter is the place to mention any necessary details.

But remember: There’s no need to write a whole book about your situation. Keep additional info as succinct as possible and invite the editor to reach out to you with any additional questions about your personal essay.

Example Of A Cover Letter For Creative Nonfiction (Personal Essay) Submissions To Literary Magazines

Name

Address

Phone

Author website URL

Any other URLs

 

Dear Jane Smith,

Please consider my personal essay “This Is The Title” for publication.

My creative nonfiction has been published in Name Of This Literary Magazine, Name Of That Magazine, and One Other Literary Journal. I’m currently a candidate for my MFA in fiction at University Name. When I’m not writing, you can find me at my day job as a high school English teacher or volunteering at the local animal shelter. I invite you to learn more about me at my website: www.itgoeshere.com. I publish under the pen name Penny Name.

Thank you so much for considering my submission; I welcome your feedback.

Sincerely,

Writer Name

Example Of A Cover Letter For A Personal Essay By A New Or Unpublished Writer

Name

Address

Phone

Author website URL

Any other URLs

 

Dear Jane Smith,

Please consider my personal essay “This Is The Title” for publication.

I am an English teacher at a local high school, where I also volunteer as the drama coach and lead an after-school creative writing group. I also oversee the school’s annual literary magazine. I hold a bachelor’s in literature from Name of School and a master’s in education from Name of Other School. When I’m not working or writing, you can find me taking flying lessons or jumping out of airplanes. You can check out some of my writing online at [URL here]. I publish under the pen name Penny Name.

Thank you so much for considering my submission; I welcome your feedback.

Sincerely,

Writer Name

Have A Question About Writing A Cover Letter For Your Personal Essay Or Other Creative Nonfiction?

Here at Writer’s Relief, our submission strategists are always happy to talk about strategies that will help our clients get their personal essays and nonfiction published in literary magazines.

Check out our different plans for helping writers get published, and then reach out to us via our online chat, telephone, or e-mail. We would love to speak with you about developing a strategy for getting your personal essays, creative nonfiction, and memoir published.

 

Question: Do you write creative nonfiction or personal essays, and have you had any published?

Making

‘Are you a writer who knits, or a knitter who writes?’

My mother asks the question, and her challenge gives me pause. Which is the thing that I am, and which the thing that I do? I have been knitting and writing creatively since I was seven, by chance developing the two skills side by side. In primary school I wrote my first story in the form of an illustrated poem about three witches and it was pinned to the wall of our classroom before my mother stashed it in her keepsake box, where it remains to this day. I do not remember the first thing that I knitted, but the feel of the needles at work in my hands is a memory muscle-deep, one which sparks each time I pick up a ball of yarn.

Knitting is the manipulation of spun fibres into fabric using a pair of needles. With the lift and slip of a thread, I conjure garments to adorn, warm and comfort. As I magic three dimensions from the flat two of a pattern, the power to shape worlds fizzes in my fingertips. In the familiarity of its repetitive movements, knitting is vaunted as a relaxing salve for mental and physical ills. Legion are those who attest to its rehabilitative properties.

But my relationship with it goes further: for me, knitting is an individually tailored creative spur. As I work my needles and see something new take shape in my hands, I feel joy spreading through me like warmth. It is the joy of creative immersion in a task, the heady satisfaction of doing something that simultaneously occupies, challenges and delights. In its construction of a coherent whole from a single thread, the physical reality of knitting mimics writing’s narrative drive. Already immersed in the process of creating, I find that ideas become words, words cohere into sentences, and sentences start to form stories. The trick is to knit enough to get the words flowing, but not so much that there isn’t time to yoke them to the page.

It is no coincidence that our terms for fibre and fable intertwine. When we want to recount a story, we spin a yarn. If we deceive, we pull the wool over people’s eyes. For centuries, female spinsters (the masculine form is spinner) spun wool to earn their livelihood, and the word gradually became synonymous with ‘unmarried woman’, one not dependent on a husband for her keep. We weave narratives as we weave cloth, and our words for them are bound together: text and textile share the same Latin root, textus, ‘that which is woven’. ‘Fabric’ has its origins in faber, an expert worker of materials including metal, stone and wood. ‘Forge’ shares the same root, the same practical, physical origins. Replete with echoes of blacksmithery, the word speaks of strength and skill, of effort and exertion. But fakery and fabrication lurk there too, threatening delusion, of fantastic duplicity. Fibre craft can be beguiling, and those that do it, dangerous agents for enchantment.

Women who spin, weave and knit are legend, from Homer’s Penelope, unravelling and reweaving a shroud as she waits for Odysseus’s return, to mythic Ariadne, saving Theseus in the Cretan labyrinth with her ball of yarn. In Greek mythology, the three Fates, the Moirai, hold the mother thread of life – Clotho spins it, her sister Lachesis measures it, and Atropos clips it short. In Norse mythology, the Norns, goddesses wielding shears and spindles, do likewise.

I am not alone in combining writing with knitting. Though now defined by the product of her pen, Virginia Woolf was well-known among her social circle for her skill with yarn and needles. Woolf viewed knitting as so important as to be ‘saving of life’. Sister Vanessa depicted Virginia holding yarn and needles, not pen and paper, in a painting now displayed in the National Portrait Gallery, and the voice of Edith Sitwell crackles with something like dismissive envy when she remarked in a letter, ‘I enjoyed talking to [Virginia], but thought nothing of her writing. I considered her “a beautiful little knitter”.’

Though we think of the primary function of knitting to adorn, warm or comfort, it too can speak. The very fact of the handmade-ness of a knitting garment tells of the love, time, effort and skill given willingly by one person to another. In this, knitting can be a powerful tool to communicate and connect. Literally and symbolically, it has things to say, and for all knitting’s old-lady-by-the-fire image, the reality of it is as varied, vivid and alive as the millions of people across the world who wield their pins. The invention of knitting machines precipitated the Luddite rebellions of the nineteenth century; knitters became icons of the French Revolution in the body of les tricoteuses; and the concept of ‘craftivism’ continues to be at the forefront of political debate around issues of race, equality and environmentalism. In 2017 millions of pink Pussyhats marched into the public eye in protest against the politics of Donald Trump, every one of them a hand-knitted symbol of resistance. Within knitting’s deceptively simple knit-and-purl lies the potential for soothing ills, strengthening communities, and speaking out.

Returning to my mother’s question, I decide to refuse the binary. The more I try to divide stories from stitches, the more I realise I cannot choose between them. Instead, I plump for a word that serves both my skills: maker. At first glance this seems too simple: one who makes. But in Scotland the word keeps a flavour of its other meaning – a makar is a poet, an artisan whose raw materials are words. The power of my hands and head are interlinked; to place one above the other would be theft.

 

Esther Rutter is the author of This Golden Fleece, available now from Granta Books.

The post Making appeared first on Granta Magazine.

Should I Copyright My Writing Before Submitting to Agents and Editors?

Should I copyright my writing before submitting to agents and editors? Could they steal my story or ideas? How can I protect myself? We look at copyright here.


Ask any serious creative freelancer (writing, photography, etc.) about rights, and they’re likely to tell you that rights are as important as money. That’s because whoever owns the rights also controls when a work can be used and distributed and how much money it will cost to use them.

(Why do submission response times take so long?)

Look at the wealth and success of creators like J.K. Rowling and George Lucas. Now imagine if they had accepted a one-time work-for-hire fee and not held on to all the subsidiary rights associated with their characters and stories. Rights are important.

So it’s not surprising to me that I’m often asked about copyright, especially in terms of whether writers should copyright their work before submitting it.


Writing strong first pages requires a great hook, a strong voice, and a clear premise. The first sentence should immediately catch the reader’s attention, while the subsequent text should leave the reader wanting to dive further into the pages of the manuscript. But making the first pages of your story absolutely un-putdownable takes practice, patience, revision, and an eye for detail. Which is why we’re here: to discuss what to do (and not to do) to make your opening pages stand-out. This course is designed for writers who are ready to roll up their sleeves and take their opening pages to the next level.

Click to continue.


Should I Copyright My Writing Before Submitting to Agents and Editors?

The simple answer to this question is that it’s impossible to submit your original work to agents or editors without it being protected by copyright. In the FAQs on Copyright.gov, it reads the following, “Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.”

(Read all the Copyright.gov FAQs here.)

In that sense, each draft of your writing is protected once it’s created in real time. So if it’s your original work, and you’re submitting it, then it’s impossible to do one without the other. But then, the next natural question is whether a writer should register their copyright before submitting.

Should I Register My Copyright Before Submitting?

While original writing (published and unpublished) is immediately protected under copyright law, one reason for registering the copyright is that it creates a public record and makes it easier to defend your copyright in a court of law and receive damages and attorney’s fees if you win your case.

Since we’re dealing with law (and I’m not a lawyer), now is great time to let you know that I can’t provide legal advice for specific situations. Always consult a lawyer for advice on your specific situation.

That said, here are a few things writers can consider:

  • Copyright does not protect ideas or facts. Rather, it protects the actual execution of those ideas in manuscript form. In that sense, it’s very difficult to protect ideas, which is a common concern for writers new to submitting their work.
  • Registering copyright costs money. Fees currently range from $25-400 for various forms of copyright registration (click here to view the fees on Copyright.gov). So those fees could add up rather quick, especially if you’re not guaranteed publication or payment.
  • Copyright registration could bring peace of mind. For some writers, it might make sense to register copyright just for the peace of mind it brings to know that the work is registered on the public record.

While the decision to register copyright before submission is a personal choice, always remember that your writing is protected under copyright law from the moment of creation, whether on paper or screen.

The post Should I Copyright My Writing Before Submitting to Agents and Editors? by Robert Lee Brewer appeared first on Writer's Digest.

Married with Kids: One Star, Difficult to Assemble

“Patience”
by Courtney Maum

After putting his daughter Roxy on the school bus in a parka he had won a battle over and flip flops he had not, Mark returned to a kitchen bright with detritus from the night before. Crusted cake dishes, garbage bags of torn up wrapping paper, pink sequins here and there. It was a milestone of consequence: Mark had weathered a princess party with something close to grace. 

And then he saw an object on the kitchen table that hadn’t been there earlier: an opened birthday present with a Post-It note attached. It was immediate, the disheartening. His swallowed coffee burned.

This was the gift that had caused problems; the low point of the night. Initially, their four year-old had been thrilled with the LED “Glowbrite” drawing easel whose neon markers made your sketches look all psychedelic, but there was no way for mortal humans to wipe the markers off the screen. After Roxy had presented them with a slate full of “R”s and demanded room to make her “O”s, he and his wife had tried soap and water, even an ancient burp cloth, but the markers were immutable; these efforts only transformed his daughter’s letters into a beaming smear. 

Well after Roxy had been bribed into bed, Laurie had been sore about the botched cleaning, turning the scratched screen over and over with calculated sighs. Because his wife had been out of the room when Roxy had actually opened up the present, Laurie remained convinced that the challenge they were facing was Mark’s fault. That he’d misplaced the instruction manual, even though there hadn’t been one. 

Research? the Post-It on the easel asked, the question mark so coy it made Mark want to go back upstairs and take a sleeping pill. Tomorrow is another day, unfortunately, a college friend wrote recently on Facebook. Mark had pressed the heart button and liked it. And then he unliked it, because he didn’t want anybody to think that he didn’t like his life.

Mark sat down at the kitchen table with the offending item, the room almost indecent with October light. These Post-Its were a sickness. A manifestation, their upscale hippy friends would say. Laurie knew Mark was being visited by existential questions and she used it to her advantage. He’d spent most of last Friday researching toddler size 9 waterproof boots because of a sticky note he’d found on his own shoe.

Mark looked up the Glowbrite drawing easel up on his cell phone. The company didn’t even have a website, just terrible Amazon reviews. Only two of the markers weren’t dried up when we got it, read the first one. Impossible to clean. What a headache. Worthless and scratched. 

Mark scrolled through the various ways that strangers felt cheated by their products. And then he came to this: If the markers don’t work, the toy doesn’t work, and the markers don’t work.

He sat very still. He held his phone and waited. He had a feeling that this consumer review might hold something magical for him. Then his phone pulsed with a phone call. It wasn’t even 8:00 a.m.

“Hello?” he asked, his question mark, hopeful. 

It was his assistant producer. The lead in their new feature film quit. 


It wasn’t that Mark Lambros was an opera buff, exactly, but he was interested in the story of a once-famous opera star who, in the 1860s, refused to sing in public anywhere but her country house in Winsted, Connecticut, a humble river town which, back then, was reached by horse, train, horse. She spent her weekdays refusing different public concerts, and on the weekends, she would cart her favorite friends out for days and nights of opera, her singing it, them enjoying it, all of them discussing how much such singing meant. 

Mark wasn’t entirely sure why he was drawn to the project. The arbitrariness of this woman’s decision, her wish for control, maybe, her wish for something special that took place entirely in private. The director was young and fiery and convincing, and he’d done prize-winning shorts. Plus, he’d thought, how beautiful would it be to hear opera in the woods. 

What r we going 2 do?!! his assistant producer texted, even though they had just spoken. The star’s deflection was urgent; the calls coming were urgent. But Mark did not feel moved. At forty-six, he’d done this twenty times. It was so exciting in the beginning, producing indie films. The undiscovered talent, the electrifying hustle, even the gummy turkey wraps at film festivals and the weird seasonal beers. But now, distribution, the goal you used to aim for, and once in a while, get, had become such a pipe dream, that it didn’t really seem worth it to make movies any more. He could post a video of his daughter singing about poop and have more eyeballs on it than he’d ever have for his three-million-dollar doc/fiction-blend about a niche group of opera fanatics living in the woods. Who cared? No one really did. 

A duck fell out of the sky into the small pond outside his office. The pond was man-made, and had seemed like a charming water element when they’d visited the house. Now Mark spent as much time parenting that pond against infestations of filamentous algae and duckweed as he did his daughter against head colds and Lyme. Shouldn’t there be two of them? Shouldn’t that duck be south?

The director called. Mark let it go to voicemail. When he thought about the size of the thing he needed to accomplish, the cinematographer and the Belgian lighting director and the wistful supporting actress who’d all signed on to the film because of its big star, when he thought of the important people who would also quit when they heard that Mark had lost her, well this was a hurdle he wasn’t ready to run toward at 8:30 a.m.

He put his cellphone in a drawer where he kept the expired family passports and searched until he got back to the review about the toy not working if the markers didn’t either:

My two year-old received this easel as a birthday gift, and we decided to put it away until she was three, because at two years old, she could not properly handle the markers that came with this product.

Waiting for another birthday might account for why some of the markers were so dry by the time we gave it to her. We stored the gift in its original box which took up a lot of room in our house. Maybe it needed a different environment, the basement, for example.

This product is almost impossible to clean and it looks scratched after the first time that you use it. Before this, our daughter was only allowed to draw on paper though so she is very proud of it. Even our six year old plays with it sometimes. 

The reviewer’s dignity was striking. No agenda other than the sharing of a personal opinion, an opinion that didn’t point any fingers at the children who maybe left the caps off of those markers, or the husband (Mark bet it was a husband) who’d bought the wrong thing at the grocery store, again. Together, as a team, these parents had decided to delay the giving of the gift until their child could have a successful experience with it. It was awe-inducing, truly.

Mark looked above the review for the person’s name. Debbie Meyer. Debbie’s community activity board showed a smiling woman wearing a fleece coat. She appeared to be holding something, maybe a falcon. Her reviewer ranking was 2,250,249. She lived in Salt Lake City.

The drawer started rattling from the vibrations of his cellphone. The less quickly Mark responded to the assistant producer, the more frequently he texted. Mark looked at the other products Debbie had reviewed. A baby sun hat. A Nalgene water bottle. Metallic two-tone shoes. A “Better Life” floor cleaner that smelled like citrus mint.

Something in Mark’s heart twinged at this last product. Was he not living his life right? Should he have fragrant floors? There were a lot of people he knew who were having shameful problems in their home lives, but Debbie Meyer maybe wasn’t one of them. This was a woman who had kind and good solutions, who was probably raising a child who faced forward at the dinner table, instead of backward, with her feet up by her ears. Was she a pragmatic wife and mother and a falcon-tamer, as well?

Mark turned back to his computer, his hand shaking a bit. The most recent thing that Debbie had reviewed was a box of “Happy Belly Decaf.” She’d given it four stars. Delicious and FRESHLY ROASTED was the title of her review.

Mark got up and walked around his office. He felt moved—maybe irreversibly—by this woman’s praise. He let himself imagine what it would take for him to be the kind of person who took the time to leave four-star reviews of a bag of decaf coffee. When I got this, Debbie had written, it had only been roasted five days earlier. How awesome is that?

Mark felt sick to his stomach. He turned off his computer. He’d do the breakfast dishes, now. There had been a Post-It note about this, right next to the sink.


“Have you ever reviewed anything on Amazon?” Mark asked his wife that night after they’d reheated the food their daughter had refused to eat and eaten it themselves. 

Laurie was cutting up that day’s school notices into an ever-growing scratch pad. She didn’t like to waste paper, and every time Roxy’s backpack came home stuffed with all these notices, she threatened to say something to someone at the school. From the stack of flyers in front of her, Mark noticed two identical ones about “Socktober.” 

“Books,” she said, cutting both notices in half. “I’ve reviewed books.”

“Never a product?” he asked. 

“No,” she said. “Why?”

“I don’t know,” he said, disappointed that she wasn’t going to surprise him. “What would make you want to leave one?”

“Of, like, what?” she asked, her eyes meeting his.

“I don’t know, a thing. Or a kid’s toy.”

“I guess if it caught on fire or something, I’d want people to know that.” She shrugged. 

“Would you ever review, like, coffee? If it was really, really good?”

“Well, no. I wouldn’t.”

“Why?”

She squinted at him. “Because who has time for that? And also, there’s too many kinds of coffee. People are totally out of control about caffeine.”

“What about a decaf? Like if I found a really good decaf?”

Laurie looked to the lacquer tray they kept above the fridge with the unfinished bags of potato chips and an ancient Fed-Ex envelope of pot edibles that had a Post-It taped to it, DON’T EAT. 

“Are you high?” she asked.


The next morning, after learning of the star’s departure, the film’s supporting actress told her agent that she felt like she was working “in an unstable film environment” and Debbie had a new review up. It was for a “Utah Riffic Snapback Trucker Hat” from a company called, “THATS RAD.” It was fifteen dollars and forty-nine cents, and she’d given it four stars. 

What a fun hat but toooo big for this lady! was what she’d gone with as a title. Except, no, she wouldn’t have “gone with” anything, not Debbie. She didn’t question herself, try to present herself as anything; she cleaned her floors with “Better Life” floor cleaner and did not do coy:

I got this hat to hike in because my toddler pulls on the neck protector of my other hat. I am a woman with an average head size, I would say, but this hat was really big! What a disappointment because the hat was very cute. Unfortunately, this hat only comes in one size. So I had to return it. 

Mark indulged himself in the flood of good feelings that this news brought to him. Debbie had been excited about something, and it hadn’t worked out, but she was going to keep climbing up life’s mountain, regardless. Faced with the revelation that she didn’t have an average head size, Debbie hydrated her children and sunscreened the lot of them and went on without a hat. It occurred to him, as it did sometimes, in a burst of adrenalized clarity, that there was  beauty in his life that a simple change of attitude could help him to admire. Obstacles were challenges. Challenges were opportunities. When life put a big rock in front of Debbie Meyer, she just climbed around it. 

This mindset was challenged when Mark went into the kitchen and found a new Post-It note attached to the coffeemaker. The note read, Beans?☺


The thing was, Laurie hadn’t always been a castrater. (The couple’s therapist asked Mark not to call her that the first-and-only time he’d tried to; she suggested “deflector,” instead.) Laurie was a novelist who worked around the clock when she was inspired, and in the beginning (“their salad days,” as Laurie liked to call it, which wasn’t right, really, because they ate way more salad, now), they’d had a loosey-goosey life. A lot of things—a lot of them—fell through the cracks. They had to pay back taxes one year. The car would sit with the same sludge of unchanged oil for months. Or years, until something cracked. They’d run out of coffee and it would be something they complained about until one of them complained the hardest and finally made the trip out to the store, which was kind of far away, because in their early thirties they’d made the decision to leave the city for the country so they could have more time for art. 

Laurie had weathered that move phenomenally: she produced untold amounts of work in the new peace and silence. In the beginning, Mark had been inspired, too: he’d produced some award-winning shorts, and even written one himself which made it all the way to Tribeca, three hours away, but a big deal in the film world. And then, the projects had stopped appealing to him, or stopped feeling urgent, and he’d started tinkering with the house, learning a little carpentry, which was useful to the both of them because the house was kind of falling apart, and he was no longer doing the two-film a year thing that would keep him in the scene, and his name started to carry less weight, until it didn’t carry any weight at all. And the real problem was that it didn’t really matter because Laurie’s books were selling gloriously, so she told him to take time, take all the time he wanted. When really, if he really looked back on it, what she probably wanted was for him to fix more things around the house.

He had pushed for a child. He wasn’t allowed to forget this, by the way. And it felt awful to admit this about a being who brought him so much simple joy, but their little girl kind of decimated their marriage. Or at least, Roxy changed the way they were married to each other. They were married worse.

To Mark and Laurie’s credit, they’d fought off the operations management roles that parenthood auto-suggests. They tried not to have the mundane “checklist” conversations they’d witnessed other parent-friends tick through with defeated eyes. Do you have a snack, the bottle, do we have diapers, do you have the disheveled T-shirt blanket that probably is riddled with Ebola? They skipped these domestic check-ins because doing so felt like proof that they were still “spontaneous” and maybe even “in love,” but these forced inattentions usually resulted in Roxy pissing in her car seat because each of them thought the other one had put the diaper on.

It had never been a conversation. Something about parenthood had depressed Mark, in the full sense of the word, it had filled him and had slowed him, and it hadn’t done this to Laurie, so she was still working furiously and making money and he wasn’t, or he wasn’t making much, and so without either of them really talking about it, he’d become the eighty-nine percent-of-the-time caretaker of their child, and Laurie was the winner of the whole grain, sprouted bread. And the fact that they had never talked about it, hadn’t used words like “time out” or “depression,” hadn’t used any words at all, really, but just kind of shifted into these new positions that saw Laurie leaving Post-It notes that were punctuated as love letters but were obviously chores, had Mark feeling immobile. He resented his wife, and she resented him, but he needed her, and she needed him, also, but not for the kinds of things that he wanted to be needed for. 


That night, Mark asked Laurie if she had an Amazon wish list. In between trying to find a replacement for his opera star and convincing the panicked cinematographer not to jump ship also, he’d been tracking the things that Debbie wanted. She had a lot of stuff on hers. 

“A what?” Laurie was separating the school notices at the kitchen table, again. There was going to be a field trip to the fire station Friday. Their child was going to have to walk through a “smoke trailer,” and if they didn’t want that to happen, he was going to have to call the school. 

“An Amazon wish list. Where you put the things you want.” 

Laurie squinted. She was always squinting at him. “I just buy the things I want.”

“Exactly,” Mark said, pleased. There was an apple on the table for some reason, and he decided to eat it. 

“Are you accusing me?” she asked.

“Of what?” he crunched.

“Of, I don’t know.” She was holding onto a blue piece of paper. The Socktober notices had changed color. The need was urgent, now. 

“Well, what would you have on your wish list if you had one?” he asked.

“I would have less notices from this stupid school.” 


Debbie Meyer’s wish list had 27 items on it. Mark monitored it daily. She wanted a book of poetry by Mary Oliver, a replacement mop head for her spin mop, and a travel memoir by Bill Bryson. But she also wanted a lot of books about God. How incredible to see someone’s desires listed out so plainly! It made Mark dizzy to imagine a world in which he could see what Laurie wanted. The transparency, the happiness, the access of the thing! To know with a single click that you were living with someone whose heart sung for an expandable pull-out cabinet shelf, waterproof adult sandals, a 6.5 inch cast iron pan for making homemade donuts, and a turquoise shawl. It made him start with longing. It was a freedom—a freedom with a framework that he would never know. 

Mark and Laurie had composed wish lists once, under the supervision of their therapist. They’d had to fill out sheets that read, “What would make me feel loved?” at the top. It was bad, definitely, that Mark couldn’t remember what Laurie had on hers. He’d put “speak to me with the same face she uses for her girlfriends,” on his.

They’d made it three sessions with that therapist. Things improved, so they stopped going. Then things got sad again a year later, so Laurie called for an appointment, but the therapist had moved. To North Carolina, the voicemail said.


Socktober passed; 272 pairs of socks were gathered which didn’t come close to the 383 pairs received the previous year. “Humanity is fucked,” Laurie said when she fished the disappointing news from the “Parent/Teacher Communication Folder” in Roxy’s glitter backpack. 

Well it was true, wasn’t it—there wasn’t much hope left. They’d started 2016 with so much fury, tipsy with the potential of their specific rage. Laurie set up automatic payments from their checking account to ACLU and Planned Parenthood; they attended sign-painting parties with Roxy, and took those signs (and Roxy) to crowded government lawns; they hand-wrote postcards to senators; bought sheets and sheets of stamps.  

But you can’t stay in the fury stage; it’s followed by defeat. If you bang and bang on a door, and nobody opens it, barring the exception of the person who actually knocks the door down, most people walk away from the door with a new hunch in their shoulders, burred shame in their heart.

Mark’s wife was a fighter, but she disliked wasted time. Laurie wanted results for her actions that she could track online. At a dinner party the other night, she announced that the lack of action around gun laws had gotten to a point where she fully expected to be shot. That every time she went to some big chain place like Target or Trader Joes, she wondered: Is this the day it happens? In the patio and garden department, considering a pouf?

It was a lot to reckon with. It was. In so many ways, Mark understood why Laurie left him all these Post-It tasks. They ran out of coffee beans, and he got some. Roxy wanted to be a mermaid for Halloween, so he found her a costume. Laurie was worried she’d trip on her mermaid tail getting into the school bus, so on the 31st, he put it in his Google calendar that he’d drop her off at school. On the micro level, their world was manageable and functioning, they were winning every day. He ordered things from Amazon and like clockwork, they showed up. There was a gaping, spreading hole underneath their driveway, enlarging weekly, widening its gullet to swallow the whole world, but at least Laurie could go down knowing that Mark had stocked the fridge. 

A lot of his friends seemed like they were on the brink of losing it. But nobody did.


That Thursday was date night, every second Thursday was. They’d chosen a new place their friends had raved about that had an eighteen-dollar burger. Was this considered a good deal? The burger came with fries so Mark supposed it was.

The waiter handed them the menus, and they took time looking through them even though they’d probably order burgers. While they were waiting for the waiter to return, Laurie made an announcement. 

“I’ve sent the new manuscript to my agent,” she said.

“That’s great!” he answered.

“She’s going to hate it,” she added, pulling at the menu’s tassel.

Mark didn’t say anything else because this was probably true about the agent, who didn’t like Laurie to take risks of any kind. His wife wrote romantic chic-lit comedies about busy moms who did things like send their kids to school plays in an Uber. She’d put some lesbians in this one. 

“Well,” he said. “What now?”

Laurie actually looked at him. She had put on earrings. The unexpected effort both flattered him and made his stomach clench. Three years ago, she had asked him if they should try an open marriage. While they were folding laundry, he recalled. He said he’d rather not. He really did not want to have this conversation again. 

“What now is…” she faltered. The waiter had come back. But then he left again because he’d forgotten his writing pad. 

They both searched for something to say in the gape of the waiter’s absence. 

“How’s the opera proj—film?” Laurie course corrected. There had been hot water over this at the therapist’s, the fact she never called his films films, she called them “projects.” “That’s because so few of them actually become films,” is how she explained it to the therapist. Right in front of him. 

“I think what we’re going to do,” he said, picking at a tear in the menu’s lamination, “I think what we’re going to do is change the filming dates. To…accommodate her new schedule. So, like, April probably, instead.”

Mark watched Laurie work through the way this information would impact her own schedule. Her lips tightened, brow furrowed, the whole thing. 

“You couldn’t have mentioned this before?”

Mark stopped himself from saying that he was mentioning it now. He stopped himself, but it didn’t feel very good. “If we don’t get her back, the whole film will fall apart.”

His wife was going to say something, but the waiter re-appeared. 

“Are you ready to order?” the waiter asked.

“Um, we’ll have the burgers?” he replied. “Medium, for both?”

Laurie exhaled. She shut her menu. “I’ll have the mussels, actually.”

“Oh,” said Mark, once the waiter had left them. “Wow.”

“I know,” said Laurie. “Wild!”

Her earrings made a swoosh-swoosh sound when she laughed her little laugh.


In November, the cinematographer quit because April didn’t work for him, and Debbie added a new book to her wishlist: The Uncertain Church. She also posted a two-star review of her garlic press. We have now been using it regularly (a couple of times a week) for 8 months and the metal has become bent and rendered itself useless. It is possible, she accommodated, that we pushed too hard.

The fact that Debbie seemed to be flailing in her life and her belief system made Mark want to be strong for her. It made him want to be strong for the entire world. It made him want to be the exceptional person who knocks down the fucking door. 

He called up the cinematographer and used strong words. He ordered a drain cap and installed it in his gutter so that the leaves and chipmunks and whatever wouldn’t keep going down the S drain and clogging everything up. He went to a new Tai Chi class at the town recreation center and let everything flow. And when he found a Tupperware in his fridge with a Post-It note that said Really bony whitefish? Mark stuck another note on it that said, This is NOT my problem.

That night, for the first time in forever, Laurie initiated sex.


By December, Mark had convinced their original star to come back into the fold using the age-old solution of flattery and cash. They’d shoot the film in May, which was a terrible month to shoot in (black flies, persistent mud), but they’d shoot the film with her. Mark celebrated by taking Roxy and Laurie to the local church.

It had been something he’d been thinking about for quite a while now, going to a church. The catalyst had been the underlying piety of Debbie’s careful wishlist (she’d purchased a new copy of He Whispers Your Name, but had bought God Has a Plan for Your Life, used), but also, there was the quagmire of Roxy’s current age: she didn’t take what her parents said as fact any more, for each question, there were more questions—her mind was like an existential set of Russian nesting dolls. 

And then there had been pet week: the disastrousness of that. One day, Roxy came home with a missive in her Communication Folder to bring in a pet photo: this was what the kindergarteners were doing, bringing in photos of their pets. This was going to be difficult for Roxy, because the Lambros’ family pet was dead. Or at least they thought he was dead: Muffins had not come home one night and after three days of steel-hearted optimism, Laurie told Roxy that he’d gone to Coyoteland, which she had meant as a euphemism, obviously, but just made things more complicated. (“When will he be back?”)

So an irate Laurie had sent Roxy off to school with a picture of their dead cat, Muffins, when he’d been alive. (“What kind of public school assumes that everyone has a pet?” she asked.) It did not go well. No it did not go smoothly, and now Roxy was talking about death all the time, and because Mark didn’t have the answers, he had started thinking that they should go to church to find them. They had one right across the town green, a nice place that flew the rainbow flag and offered monthly “maker space” activities where the elderly passed on their knowledge of…well, Mark didn’t know of what, exactly, because they hadn’t been yet, but the young received instruction in something from the old. Aside from gratis activities and the fact that they had something to do on Sundays other than make pancakes (which, honestly, took Mark all day to digest), there was something stronger pulling him—all of them—to the Northwest Congregational. Wasn’t it kind of irresponsible to raise a child without religion? Not that religion was ever something he or Laurie had. Laurie’s parents were admitted atheists, and Mark had grown up thinking he was “epa-skopp-lian.” 

But still. A person should have answers. Especially right now when everything…felt hard. A person should be allowed to indulge in the belief of a master plan holder if it enables them to floss, drive on the right side of the dotted line, not phone all of it in.

To Mark’s astonishment, Laurie was enthusiastic about the church outing when he found the courage to suggest it. She spoke of it like a field trip—like a trip to the museum. At an ice cream social fundraiser for the school’s roof (which needed reinforcement, an assurance of some kind), she regaled their circle with a teaser about “their upcoming trip to church.” What she didn’t tell their friends is that—after that initial visit—the Lambros’ had kept going.

Roxy loved the little “houses” for the Bibles in the backs of all the pews. She liked to follow along in her prayer book like a “real” reader, and sing the grown-up songs. As for Mark, he loved the Pastor. (It was “Pastor,” right? The Fathers were Catholics?) Mark loved Pastor Rick in a way that made him think (worry?) that he was opening to the wonders of the world outside his house. Plus, he was so progressive! PR—as Laurie called him—was tall with boyish skin and a pair of glasses that weren’t interesting at all. He was a new kind of hip—earnest, vitamized. PR incorporated pop culture into his sermons and he ran around the neighborhood in freshly laundered sports gear; if Mark and Roxy made it out of the house five minutes earlier than usual, they could watch Pastor Rick run by in his ironed clothing while they waited for the bus. 

It was becoming very important to Mark, the church-going, but it was a fragile thing. He had no idea why Laurie was encouraging it—participating in it—and he was too afraid to ask. If he asked, he worried that it would wake her from some reverie, cause her to announce that now that they were expected there on Sundays, it was time to stop.

So Mark didn’t prod and Laurie didn’t say anything, and soon enough the holiday gauntlet was upon them, and they powered on. The church-going felt even more restorative and significant during the holidays—plus, it distracted Mark from the guck of daily life. In church, Mark didn’t need to consider whether Roxy was too young for the computer tablet she desperately wanted for Christmas, or ponder where he was going to find three-hundred-and-fifty-thousand dollars’ worth of lighting equipment with the hundred-thousand dollars he had left to light his film. No. On Sundays, Mark could think about babies in mangers, and what myrrh actually smelled like, and whether there was any way—like, scientifically?—that there actually was a God. Church kept him from, well, grinding, really. It sprung him from the cog. And it got him thinking of the big thingsthe great big, great beyond.

The best thing was the sermons, though. Thanks to these, Mark was finding answers to questions he didn’t know he’d been holding in the closed-up interrogation room inside him. Last week, Mark had spent hours mulling about the Pastor’s view on credence: “Don’t put a question mark where God has put a period.” But two weeks ago was the really good one; Mark’s favorite so far. Pastor Rick talked about Tom Petty, who had stopped living, recently. He used some of Petty’s lyrics to explain God’s relationship to his flock. 

It’s alright if you love me
It’s alright if you don’t
I’m not afraid of you running away, Honey
I get the feeling you won’t

“God waits,” the Pastor said. “He is patient. He’s the most patient man there is.”


Laurie was changing, too, from church, and definitely for the better. Normally, by this time of year (post Thanksgiving, pre-Christmas—or rather, the “Winter Holidays,” as Mark had recently been corrected by a woke gaffer), Laurie would have had Mark researching different thread counts and scouring holiday listicles for teacher appreciation gifts that made elementary teachers feel “seen,” but this year, she declared an entirely different tack. They were going to focus on giving experiences instead of things; privilege memory making over buying. So far, all of the ideas that Laurie was culling off of lifestyle blogs actually did entail buying things, but Mark was game. They were looking at different camping tents, and Laurie really wanted to find an ice skating rink for a family outing—they could rent the skates and get one of those little hobbly things for Roxy, who had never been on skates before. They were going to bake, also. They were going to bake for other people. Roxy was not going to take the news well that she would be giving, rather than getting this Ch—holiday season. There would be no tablet. But they agreed to present a united front about it. They agreed to stay the course.

Meanwhile, in Utah, things were not so good. The formerly steadfast Debbie Meyer seemed to be experiencing a real form of malaise. She was adding all kinds of funky items to her wishlist, but her actual purchases remained run-of-the-mill, which made Mark think that her soul’s song wasn’t being heard. For example: she wanted a weighted blanket; she purchased a second set of “Tike Right” drink trainers which she only gave three stars. Worse still, she left a one-star review of the choose-a-sheet paper towels she’d switched out for the basic family roll from a “bulk retailer” she’d previously favored. (“This product might be appropriate for a family who can’t easily make it to a supermarket, but I plan to switch back to my old paper towels after this because those towels were cheaper.”)

It was just defeatist, this attitude, defeatist and not like her. The Debbie who had taught Mark something important about faith and its rewards would have credited her children for making fewer spills than they used to, so she was one of the lucky few who didn’t have to be concerned about a superior absorption rate for a higher price. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:9, she might have added, the Debbie he rooted for.

Even though it would break the “memories over materialism” credo that he and Laurie had aligned on, it just didn’t seem right—it didn’t—to let Debbie go ungifted. It was in Mark’s power to buy something off her Amazon wish list—he had looked it up, it was a new service they were offering called “Be an Awesome Neighbor.” And while Mark recognized that it was a little weird to buy something for someone that you had never actually met, the truth was that they had been through something together, he and Debbie, and so it wasn’t invasive, what he was considering doing. It was modern friendliness; a long-distance version of goodwill. 


Mark had been eyeing the Warm Tartan Checked Shawl that Debbie had had on her list forever, but then—two weeks before Christmas— it went out of stock. (This occurred before Debbie checked the item off as “purchased,” which pained him, on her behalf.) Of course there were the Mary Oliver back titles, but even Mark recognized that the sending of poetry was a step over the line. Laurie—if she knew any of this—would consider it all over the line, that you didn’t buy things for strangers that you had effectively been surveilling, but Mark had come far enough along in his intrapersonal efforts to recognize that this would be Laurie’s criticism of the situation, not Mark’s. As for Debbie? Debbie in Salt Lake with the falcon and the spills? Debbie would appreciate having her bird call answered, even if it was by a customer named “Spyro the Dragon” with no customer reviews.

Reminders about the Mitten Tree and the Cookie Drive flooded Roxy’s backpack; Laurie’s purchases of buckwheat flour and silicone oven mitts and Healthy Cookie Cookbooks flooded their mailbox. It became December 18th, 20th, and still Mark hadn’t found the perfect thing for Debbie. In search engines bearing mistletoe logos and chili pepper Christmas lights, Mark browsed gift lists for friends who were “having a hard time.” He found a furry worry monster with a zippered pouch that you could put your scribbled doubts inside of, compression socks with affirmations on them, non-stick egg rings in the shape of hearts. Mark paused —not for the first time—over the weighted blanket that had been on Debbie’s list for months now, his internal sensor zinging because of 1) the price and 2) the fact that Laurie would think it way over the line to give a stranger an item for her bed.

Grey and queen sized, non-toxic and hypoallergenic (which were kind of the same thing?), the blanket that Debbie wish-listed had glass beads inside that aided Deep Pressure Stimulation for an epic sense of calm. One-hundred-and-forty dollars (without shipping!) was way more than Mark should spend on a stranger—honestly, it was approaching the most he’d ever spent on Laurie from his own account—but still, the blanket felt just right. This was his parting gift to Debbie, proof that Mark wished her the very best on her particular path, which couldn’t be his path any longer—Laurie was keen on them doing a digital detox for the new year, so his access to the Internet was going to be severely pinched.

Mark ticked the blanket from her wish list and followed the “Be an Awesome Neighbor” instructions that an Amazon video tutorial had showed him how to do. He manifested the happy life he wished for Debbie inside of her new blanket, along with dreams that smelled of Nalgene bottles and citrus mint-cleaned floors. In his stomach, in the dark part where he kept the things that even PR hadn’t troubled, Mark registered that he was going to miss Debbie’s children and the things they spilled on floors, miss the demanding titles of the books she wanted to read, the real-time tracking of the money that she was saving up to spend. But you had to let go of an apple seed to grow an apple tree. (Pastor Rick that Sunday.) And so, with a sentiment closer to resignation than acceptance, Mark confirmed the buy.

The post Married with Kids: One Star, Difficult to Assemble appeared first on Electric Literature.