Author Archives

Sari Botton is a writer living in Kingston, NY. She edited the award-winning “Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY” and the NY Times Bestselling “Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for NY.” She is editorial director of TMI Project, a non-profit offering storytelling workshops, and has a column on The Rumpus. She tweets at http://twitter.com/saribotton

Longreads Essays Editor Sari Botton’s Guide to Pitching

In recent months, there’s been a lot of hubbub and even a little hysteria over the fate of the personal essay. It began with a New Yorker piece by Jia Tolentino with the headline, “The Personal Essay Boom is Over.”

But Tolentino wasn’t proclaiming the death of the entire category, just essays of a certain kind: often sensationalized, barely edited accounts of very personal experiences with click-baitish headlines. The pieces tended to lack reflection, and offered little connection between their anecdotes and something larger.

Having regrettably fired off some pretty half-baked “essays” along those lines myself years ago, I’m not sorry to see that trend die. I see it as a good thing for readers and writers alike that the bar has been raised.

If any doubts still remain about the vitality of the genre, let me offer my beast of an inbox as an indication that rumors of the personal essay’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Tolentino’s piece was published around the same time that I put out some calls for personal essay submissions, and also around the time we updated our submissions guidelines. One of my calls for submissions was then picked up by a website popular with aspiring freelance writers, and as a result of this confluence, since then, I’ve been hit with an ongoing deluge of essays. At its peak, I was receiving more than 100 a week. (It didn’t help that between May and July, the The New York Times‘ Modern Love column was on hiatus from accepting new essays.)

Because there are so many people emailing me essays every day — more than I can respond to — and because I am ramping up from 8 essays a month to 10 or 12, I thought it might be a good idea to post here clarifying what I’m looking for, what are the best ways to pitch me, and what you can expect from working with me once I choose your essay.
Read more…

The Sun Was Going and the World Was Wrong

At The Atlantic, Ross Andersen excerpts Annie Dillard’s classic 1982 personal essay, “Total Eclipse,” from her new collection, The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New.

Dillard writes in exquisite detail about the haunting, surreal experience of witnessing the last solar eclipse to have been visible on the mainland of the United States on February 26th, 1979, after driving with her husband five hours inland in Washington State to catch the view from a hill top.

The full text of the essay will remain on the site for free until next Tuesday, August 22 — the day after “The Great American Eclipse,” which is inspiring eclipse tourism, and lots of astrological predictions.

Now the sky to the west deepened to indigo, a color never seen. A dark sky usually loses color. This was a saturated, deep indigo, up in the air. Stuck up into that unworldly sky was the cone of Mount Adams, and the alpenglow was upon it. The alpenglow is that red light of sunset which holds out on snowy mountaintops long after the valleys and tablelands are dimmed. “Look at Mount Adams,” I said, and that was the last sane moment I remember.

I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on Earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a 19th-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. All the distant hills’ grasses were finespun metal which the wind laid down. I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages; I was standing in it, by some mistake. I was standing in a movie of hillside grasses filmed in the Middle Ages. I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day.

Read the story

Body Positivity Nudges Plus-Size Fashion Forward

For New York Magazine‘s The Cut, Ashley C. Ford writes about the burgeoning plus-size fashion business, and how much of a surprise missed opportunity it’s consistently been for major manufacturers and retailers. When you consider that some 67 percent of women reportedly wear size 14 or larger, it’s remarkable how hard it is for them — Ford included — to find a selection of “fun and quality” clothes designed specifically with larger bodies in mind.

Ford comes at the story from a personal angle, not only as a plus-size customer, but also as someone who was discouraged away from her dream of designing plus-size clothes.

I began my freshman year of college double-majoring in fashion merchandising and apparel design. At the end of my first semester, a professor told me I would be better off changing my major. I had earned an A in her course — for the first time in my life, I was a perfect student. But I was already a size 12, inching closer and closer to 14 each day. My professor was also big, and she told me there was no place for a body like mine in the fashion world unless I was a man or a genius, so I was wasting my money and my time. I don’t believe she meant me harm. I believe she meant to save me: Her experience working in fashion as a fat woman had been abysmal. I wasn’t even comfortable enough to go into some stores at my size, so how was I going to design for them? I changed my major to psychology.

Read the story

‘They Used Deadly Force to Subdue Her’

LitHub has an excerpt of Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, by Andrea J. Richie, just out from Beacon Press.

Titled “Mental Illness is Not a Capital Crime: On the Disproportional Impact of Police Violence on Women of Color,” the chapter addresses the devastating impact law enforcement’s common misconceptions about women of color can have on the women’s safety, especially when mental illness is an added factor. Police officers often are misinformed about mental and physical disability, and because of that, tend to be violent toward women who aren’t dangerous.

At least half a dozen cases of police shootings of Black women documented in Say Her Name, the report I coauthored with Kimberlé Crenshaw, arose from police interactions with women in actual or perceived mental health crisis: Shereese Francis, killed in New York City in March 2012; Miriam Carey, shot in Washington, DC, in October 2013; Pearlie Golden, shot in Hearne, Texas, in May 2014; Tanisha Anderson, killed in Cleveland in November 2014. Although no official statistics exist, based on my experience tracking cases over the years, it appears that police responses to mental health crises make up a significant proportion of Black women and women of color’s lethal encounters with police. As was the case for Eleanor and Deborah, these encounters often reflect police perceptions of Black women as volatile and violent, portrayed, in the words of historian Sarah Haley, as “daft,” “imbecilic,” “monstrous,” “deranged subjects,” “lacking essential traits of personhood and normative femininity,” to be met with deadly force rather than compassion, no matter their condition or circumstance.

Indeed, disability — both mental and physical —is socially constructed in ways comparable to, and mutually constitutive of, the construction of race and gender. As disability justice and transformative justice activist Mia Mingus points out, women of color are already understood as “mentally unstable,” regardless of whether or not they are actually “disabled.” “This kind of racialized able-ism inherently informs how police (and society at large) interact with Black and Indigenous women, and women of color.” Actual or perceived disability, including mental illness, has thus served as a primary driver of surveillance, policing, and punishment for women and gender-nonconforming people of color throughout US history.

Scientific racism has been fundamental to conceptions of mental health and disorder. According to Vanessa Jackson, the first asylums for “lunatic slaves” were created in response to a case of a Black woman found to be insane after she allegedly killed her child. Indeed, resistance to slavery was pathologized as mental illness inherent in African-descended people. The same resistance-equals-insanity trope was projected onto Indigenous people. In her pamphlet Wild Indians, Pemina Yellow Bird, a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes and psychiatric survivor activist, describes how, from 1899 to 1933, Indigenous people who resisted reservation agents, refused kidnapping of their children to Indian Residential Schools, or violated laws that criminalized traditional spiritual practices were sent to the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians in Canton, South Dakota. There, “Indian defectives” were incarcerated and subjected to torture and physical, cultural, and spiritual abuses.

Read the excerpt

‘You Wouldn’t Think the Ashes of a Man Would Be So Heavy’: Remembering Sam Shepard

Broadway World reports today that Oscar-nominated actor and Pulitzer-winning playwright Sam Shepard has died at 73 of complications from ALS, AKA Lou Gherig’s disease.

In recent years, Shepard was best known as an actor, in the last few years appearing as the Rayburn family patriarch in the Netflix drama Bloodline. But he was a prolific, ground-breaking playwright, and a key player in the Off-Broadway movement of the ’60s and ’70s. According to The New York Times, Shepard won a Pulitzer in 1979 for The Curse of the Starving Class, and received nominations for two others, True West, and Fool for Love.

His work examined toxic masculinity at a time when that was rare. The son of an alcoholic farmer, he explored male aggression as it is often passed down from fathers to sons. In 2010, critic John Lahr touched on this in a profile of Shepard in The New Yorker, as part of a review of Ages of the Moon, Shepard’s most recent play at the time — his 40th of 42 — which was being staged at the Atlantic Theater in Manhattan.

Shepard attributes part of his father’s downfall to postwar trauma. “My dad came from an extremely rural farm community . . . and the next thing he knows he’s flying B-24s over the South Pacific, over Romania, dropping bombs and killing people he couldn’t even see,” he said. “These men returned from this heroic victory . . . and were devastated in some basic way . . . that’s mysterious still. . . . The medicine was booze.” The booze often led to abuse. “Those Midwestern women of the forties suffered an incredible psychological assault,” Shepard recalled. “While growing up, I saw that assault over and over again, and not only in my own family.” In 1984, Rogers was hit by a car, after a drunken quarrel with a girlfriend in a New Mexico bar. “You either die like a dog or you die like a man. And if you die like a dog you just go back to dust,” Shepard, who had his father cremated, said later. After the ceremony, Shepard picked up the leather container holding the ashes. “It was so heavy,” he said. “You wouldn’t think the ashes of a man would be so heavy.”

Read the story

Processing Clues About a Friend’s True Identity to Make Sense of Her Murder

New York Magazine has an excerpt of The Hot One: a Memoir of Friendship, Sex and Murder, by Carolyn Murnick.

Murnick recalls learning in 2001 that her childhood best friend, Ashley Ellerin — an ex-girlfriend of Ashton Kutcher’s — had been stabbed to death at 22 in L.A. Ellerin had visited Murnick at college in New York just eight months before. During that visit, Murnick got a peek into the fast life Ellerin had been hiding from her parents and others who’d been close to her growing up.

On our walk from the subway across 110th Street toward my apartment, she told me that her part-time job at Sephora was just something she held on to so her parents would stay off her back. Actually, she was spending more of her time — and making a lot more money — at a strip club, working bachelor parties and pole dancing for tips; occasionally there were arrangements that happened in hotels, too. She relayed the information with the same casual remove she had used to give the waiter her order at lunch: The chopped chicken salad, no onions, honey-mustard dressing on the side.

You had to have a manicure and pedicure every week, she was saying, which was kind of a drag, but even a tiny chip in your nail polish could ruin the fantasy. She usually did light colors or French; once she had put baby blue on her toes and it hadn’t gone over well. Tanning too — religiously. Men expected you to be a certain way, and attempting to work around that was more trouble than it was worth.

I tried to appear blasé, to take it in stride, but what I really felt was utter confusion. Was I angry at her? Was she telling me this to brag? Should I be wearing my concerned hat now, or would that be unfairly judgmental? I hadn’t yet seen any comparable life developments in a friend and didn’t know what it all meant, for either of us or the two of us. Maybe this was good, cool, right — To each her own? You go, girl? — and I was the one with a problem, a prude. Did everything make sense now, or did it all make even less sense than before?

We rounded the corner onto Amsterdam Avenue. Ashley’s confessions were picking up speed — actors, crystal meth, the lease to her car being paid for by some guy in his 50s, how much she charged for an hour. She talked of martinis and pills and being on top during sex; the guys always told you they wanted you to go as slow as possible, but she still found ways to get through it quickly. It was almost as if she needed to get everything out before we entered my apartment, an unmasking in public so we could be on the same page in private.

Read the excerpt

‘Trump Wouldn’t Be President Without the Neoliberalization of New York City’

Sari Botton | Longreads | July 2017 | 18 minutes (4,600 words)

In 2007, when a writer going by the pseudonym of “Jeremiah Moss” launched the blog Vanishing New York lamenting the closure of one iconic small business after another due to rapidly escalating rents, I was instantly hooked. It wasn’t long after, though, that I started to notice some major publications dismissing Moss as cranky, overly nostalgic, and naive about the inevitabilities of gentrification. I remember disagreeing with those assessments, and wondering whether I was missing something, or the writers of those pieces were.

It wasn’t until I read Moss’s new book, Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost its Soul, that I fully put it together: the difference between those writers and me was that I had lost my place in New York City. In 2005, when I was evicted from my apartment in the East Village so that a famous filmmaker could pay four times my rent, my foothold there, well, vanished. As a casualty myself of New York’s rising rents, I heard Moss’s message loud and clear.

Now I’m living in Kingston, New York, where, as was entirely predictable to me, a new tidal wave of what Moss calls “hyper-gentrification” threatens to displace me once again.

Last week I met with Moss — who recently came out from under cover in a New Yorker profile as psychoanalyst Griffin Hansbury — at a Cafe in the East Village, to talk about his book (we have an excerpt), and how artists and creatives like me can hang on, and play a different role, when outside money starts rolling in to the depressed areas we move to.

So, should I be talking to you as Griffin or Jeremiah?

I think Jeremiah.

Is the main reason you used a pseudonym, and didn’t go to your own demonstrations, that you’re a therapist?

Not really. The time I started to blog I was working as a social worker at a LGBT community clinic and I was doing copyrighting and copyediting freelance on the side to make ends meet, and I was just starting to get my private practice off the ground. So that’s where I was. When I started to blog, I didn’t put a lot of thought into it. I was sitting on my bed one night and was like, “Oh, I could do a blog. I have all these pictures and journal entries and why not?” And I had written this novel that’s not published about a guy named Jeremiah Moss and I liked writing in his voice. I wanted to keep writing in his voice.

Is his voice very different from yours?

No, not really. But it’s distilled . I just put the blog and the book in his name to kind of keep it separate and not have to worry about. It’s just easier.
Read more…

Women of Color Are Blazing New Paths on Old Trails

In a personal essay for Vox, Amanda Machado considers what it means to be a Latinx who loves to hike. When she shows up at an aunt’s house in Quito, Ecuador after a three-day hike in the mountains, her aunt seems taken aback by Machado’s rugged appearance and dirty hiking clothes. To her family, her passion for something their ancestors did out of a need — to get from place to place before modern modes of transportation —  seems like a step back down the class ladder. But in the United States, the class implications around hiking are the opposite. Here, hiking has largely been the domain of upper-class whites.

A 2011 report by the University of Wyoming found that only one in five National Park visitors in the US was nonwhite. For Latinxs, the number is 1 in 10.

For other forms of outdoor recreation, the numbers are bleaker: A rock-climbing survey found 3.8 percent of climbers were Latinx, and 0.2 percent were black or Asian. A survey by the Outdoor Foundation reported that just 8 percent of Hispanics participated in outdoor sports in 2014.

African-American outdoorsman James Mills called this “the Adventure Gap,” and many others have explored the reasons behind what a Sierra Club blog post called “the unbearable whiteness of hiking.” Ryan Kearney at the New Republic argued that part of the problem was class dynamics. He cited data from the Outdoor Foundation that found 40 percent of people who participate in outdoor recreation have household incomes of $75,000 or more, an income level that only a quarter of Latinx households have. (There’s a significant wage gap between white and Latinx families: College-educated Latinxs still only earn around 69 percent of what white men earn.)

Later in the piece, Machado writes about constantly feeling self-conscious about her identity and concerned for her safety out on the trail, echoing some other women of color who have been writing about finding their place in the great outdoors. In March, Longreads published Minda Honey’s essay, “Woman of Color in Wide Open Spaces,” in which Honey’s expresses her discomfort in National Parks after the oppressive whiteness of the MFA program she’d just completed.

I’d decided to spend four weeks as a woman of color in wide-open spaces detoxing from whiteness. But when I pitched my tent, I hadn’t known that about 80% of National Parks visitors and employees are white. Essentially, I’d leapt from the Ivory Tower into a snowbank. I should have known that Black folks weren’t the target audience for all those memes about the cleansing, revitalizing effects of the Great Outdoors. I should have known from the people in the images. Always white people in zip-up North Face fleeces, stretchy yoga pants, and hiking boots. But I didn’t know, and I gassed up my car and went.

And Rahawa Haile has been writing for various publications about her experiences as a black queer woman hiking the Appalachian Trail. In April she penned an essay for Outside about the trail that took her through counties dotted with confederate flags, locales where the vast majority voted for Donald Trump in the presidential election.

Heading north from Springer Mountain in Georgia, the Appalachian Trail class of 2017 would have to walk 670 miles before reaching the first county that did not vote for Donald Trump. The average percentage of voters who did vote for Trump — a xenophobic candidate who was supported by David Duke — in those miles? Seventy-six. Approximately 30 miles farther away, they’d come to a hiker ­hostel that proudly flies a Confederate flag. Later they would reach the Lewis Mountain campground in Shenandoah National Park—created in Virginia in 1935, dur­ing the Jim Crow era — and read plaques acknowledging its former history as the segregated Lewis Mountain Negro Area. The campground was swarming with RVs flying Confederate flags when I hiked through. This flag would haunt the hikers all the way to Mount Katahdin, the trail’s end point, in northern Maine. They would see it in every state, feeling the tendrils of hatred that rooted it to the land they walked upon.

Read the story

Men Explain Sylvia Plath’s Suffering to Us

Newly unearthed letters from Sylvia Plath to her therapist — apparently validating her accounts of abuse at her husband Ted Hughes’s hand — inspire Emily Van Duyne to raise the question of why many in the literary world cast doubt over Plath’s allegations, or treat them lightly.

At LitHub, Van Dyune looks at the way men like Peter K. Steinberg — co-editor of The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume 1: 1940-1956, a collection of Plath’s unpublished letters forthcoming from Faber in October — characterize her accounts of being beaten, in one case to the point of miscarrying her second child with Hughes. Steinberg is quoted in a Guardian article she refers to as saying the unpublished letters promise to be “tantalising” — a disturbing choice of words for domestic violence.

I don’t write this to argue that there is some kind of conspiracy or cover-up of Hughes’s behavior, or even that there is a single thread of golden truth about their marriage that these new letters, or any new document (oh, for those torched last journals!) will suddenly, gloriously reveal, allowing us closure on Plath’s biography. Instead, I want to point out the cultural bias against women’s voices and the domestic truths of women’s lives and the deep role this has played in painting Plath as both a pathetic victim and a Cassandra-like, genius freak. It is only in a culture where these two things be claimed simultaneously that Hughes, a known philanderer and violent partner, can spend forty years botching the editing of, or outright destroying, his estranged, now dead wife’s work, then win every conceivable literary prize and be knighted by the Queen. It is only in this culture that Plath can tell of his abuse, in print, for the better part of the same 40 years, only to have the same reports in a handful of letters recognized as “shocking.” And it is only in this culture that unseen letters detailing abuses as dreadful as a miscarriage induced by beating, and the expressed desire that one’s wife was dead, be described, without irony, as “tantalising.”

Read the story

Kingston’s Little Shop of Horrors

For the past few years, I’ve been fascinated with a bizarre murder case in Kingston, New York, where I live.

A local dentist, Dr. Gilberto Nunez, was charged with the 2011 death of his close friend Thomas Kolman, husband of Linda Kolman, with whom he was was having an affair. Kolman was found dead in his car early one morning in the parking lot of a Planet Fitness. He had the sedative midazolam in his bloodstream  — a drug Nunez not only used in his practice, but which he’d also just read up about on his computer.

In newspaper reports Nunez came off as both a cold-blooded killer and a bumbling amateur straight out of a Coen Brothers movie: failing to cover his digital tracks, faking emails from a CIA agent, as well as inventing emails from his mother begging Linda not to dump her son.

Read more…