One of my favorite personal essays published this year was Rahawa Haile’s stunning “Going It Alone,” for Outside. She uses a personal story, her own journey on Appalachian Trail, to try and answer a larger question: Just who is the outdoors for? To answer this, Haile doesn’t just rely on her own experiences on the trail, she also does a ton of research, bringing in past interviews and stories, and interweaving anecdotes from other through-hikers she meets along the way. I really appreciated how, with all these other voices in play, we get a clearer vision of Rahawa and her journey, too. At the conclusion of this piece, which is so gorgeously written and urgent and honest and full of life, Rahawa closes with the perfect ode to those she met on her way: “It is no understatement to say that the friends I made, and the experiences I had with strangers who, at times, literally gave me the shirt off their back, saved my life. I owe a great debt to the through-hiking community that welcomed me with open arms, that showed me what I could be and helped me when I faltered. There is no impossible, they taught me: only good ideas of extraordinary magnitude.”Read more…
In some corners of the internet, personal essays are derided as frivolous and narcissistic, but I couldn’t disagree more. I find personal narratives to be deeply compelling and important. I believe they can be as effective as hard reporting in conveying important ideas, and sometimes even more so in terms of opening people’s minds by engendering empathy, first for the person telling the story.
I consider myself very fortunate to serve as Essays Editor for a publication that recognizes the value of personal essays, pays writers fairly for them, and makes room in its editorial calendar for at least two of them each week.
Member support — which WordPress.com is matching times three! — makes this possible. (All the money in Longreads’ story fund goes toward paying writers, illustrators, photographers, copyeditors and fact-checkers.)
While it’s difficult to single out particular essays as favorites, or most important, in the interest of possibly persuading some of you to contribute, I’d like to point to a few that have made me especially proud to have the opportunity to do this work and be part of the incredible Longreads team.Read more…
Are you looking to publish a personal essay on Longreads? Be sure to first read these guidelines I’ve put together, and scroll down from there to check out examples of essays we’ve published. (If you’d like to instead pitch features or blog posts, or want us to choose something you’ve published elsewhere as an Editor’s Pick, check out Longreads’ more general Submissions Guidelines for more information.)
What I’m looking for:
• Well-written, well-told stories with narrative arcs that are easy to follow, and which illustrate some relatable human experience readers will identify with, even if their own experiences in life have been quite different.
• The pieces should be 2,500 words and longer. The longest we’d likely publish is about 10,000 words. The sweet spot is usually between 2,500 and 4,500 words. We pay $500.
• All essay styles are welcome — singularly focused, braided, lyric, collage — as long as there is one clear thread that runs through the piece.
• The main story arc should begin close to the top of the piece. On the web, where it’s easy to lose readers’ attention, there’s not a lot of room for beating around the bush in the opening.
• The stories can be about very unique experiences, or fairly common ones. Good writing can make a reader understand a common experience in a new way.
• I’m interested in hearing from a wide range of voices from all backgrounds, genders, abilities, experiences, and perspectives, including those from writers who haven’t been published before.
What your pitch should include:
• First of all, the word “pitch” might be misleading. I mostly do not assign essays from pitches. I consider completed essays. Because I receive exponentially more essays than I can use, and I hate to keep a writer from publication, I encourage you to do multiple submissions. (Telling me in your email that you aren’t going to submit it elsewhere because Longreads is your first choice is nice to hear, but not helpful. It serves only to apply undue pressure.) If you sell your essay elsewhere, drop a line and let me know.
• Right at the beginning of your email — which you should address to email@example.com — give me a paragraph-long synopsis of your piece. Receiving as many pieces as I do, all of them several thousand words in length, I can’t read through them all. I need a strong paragraph telling me what the piece is about and also giving me a sense of your writing. I made the mistake of instead asking only for a “summary” in one of my earlier calls for submissions, and some people responded by writing things like, “This piece is about forgiveness” or racism or body image or… That just doesn’t give me enough to go on. Tell me not only what it’s “about” in a larger sense, but summarize the story for me.
• In the next paragraph, tell me who you are as a writer and as the person who is telling this story. Include some links to other work. If you haven’t published anything, that’s okay. Tell me that, and let me know why you’re still the best person to tell this particular story. Help me to easily assess whether your essay is for me. If it’s not, I will be more open to future essays you submit if you made this part of the selection process easier.
• Attach your whole essay, in a Word doc or a Google doc.
What I don’t like:
• Footnotes. I HATE FOOTNOTES. They remind me of term papers, and they’re also not terribly web-friendly. Instead of footnotes, insert links to your references. If you’re into those David Foster Wallace-y footnotes — like, you use them to expand on your thoughts, almost parenthetically — just make life easier for the reader (and me) by expanding on your thoughts right in the text of your piece.
• Locked PDFs that I can’t edit. Send me a Word doc or a Google doc that you’ve given me access to. And put your name on it. So many people don’t put their names on their documents, and then they float, nameless, around my downloads folder.
• When writers say, “I hate Track Changes” in Word or “suggesting mode” in Google Docs, and then update their piece with new edits that I have to hunt for.
• Please don’t @ me on Twitter about the essay you just sent my way, alerting me and the rest of the Twitterverse that you’re waiting to hear back from me.
• Definitely don’t address me as Daniel Jones, the editor of The New York Times‘ Modern Love column. (This has happened three times.)
• When people don’t take the time to first polish their work, and want me to do that for them. More than a few people have sent pieces that they knew were way too long, and wanted me to find the perfect essay within. One person sent me a 47,000 word piece someone else had written because they wanted to surprise that person with publication, and asked me to pick a portion to publish.
• If I take the time to email and let you know that I am passing on your essay (which I don’t have time to do for everyone), don’t write back, “Can I at least ask why?” or “Well, then can you just give me some feedback on it?” (Really???)
• Being scolded for not getting back to someone. In most cases, I only reply when I am interested in your piece, or if it’s close enough to what I’m interested in. In a perfect world, I would have time to get back to everyone. But I don’t. It’s weird putting out calls for submissions, and then not being able to respond to them all. As a writer myself, who submits essays elsewhere, I get how frustrating it is to send out into the void a piece of very personal writing that you’ve put so much of yourself into and never hear back. But that’s the reality. That’s why I suggest multiple submissions. That said, it’s okay to drop me another line to see if your piece has slipped through the cracks. But please, only do that once. It’s also okay to try me again with another piece if you haven’t heard back from me on your first.
What you can expect from working with me:
• I’m a very collaborative editor. If your piece isn’t already in Google docs, I’ll likely move it there and then make my edits in “suggesting mode” so you can see, and if necessary push back on, the changes I’ve made.
• I’m also not interested in making unnecessary changes, and I’m pretty easy-going to work with. As a writer I’ve had my share of bad and mean editors over the years — ones who felt they had to put their stink on a piece to justify their jobs; ones who took out all their aggression on writers. At one job, there was an editor named Mort who was so mean that after going over their work with him, writers would often run back to their desks in tears, saying they’d been “Mort-ified.” I know being edited can be anxiety provoking, especially when the work at hand is so personal. I am very interested in making the editing process a positive experience.
• I might need to change your title, or headline. People tend to be very attached to the ones they came up with. But online, “heds” need to give enough information about the central conflict of a piece to interest readers, without telling them the whole story. I’ll go back and forth with you to arrive at a web-worthy hed and dek that you feel good about. Just be glad this isn’t one of those places where a copy editor who has not been involved in the editing slaps a headline on just before publication, and it’s a real clunker. (This has happened to me too many times.)
Examples of essays we’ve published:
While it’s difficult to single out particular essays, here’s a mix of some we’ve published in the past year or so, to give you a sense of the range of subjects and tones.
It was an honor to work with brilliant novelist and essayist Alexander Chee. After one of the many senseless shootings in this country, Alex wrote this piece for us about his feelings regarding gun control as the son of a late firearms enthusiast. It was recognized as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2017.
Civil rights attorney Britney Wilson recalls a ride home from work on NYC’s paratransit that exposed her vulnerabilities as a Black disabled woman. It was recently picked up by This American Life and adapted as a segment. When I emailed Britney to congratulate her, she wrote back, “Thank you for seeing the value in this story. I pitched this essay to seven different outlets, some of which told me things like, ‘It’s a beautifully told, horrible story, but we don’t think it would generate national interest.’”
While visiting national parks to detox from the oppressive whiteness of the MFA experience, Minda Honey is reminded the only places to retreat from whiteness in this country are the spaces women of color hold for each other. Personal narratives by people of color are especially important right now, when we have a racist president who serves as a painful mirror through which even the most liberal in our country must view ourselves, and our difficulties in confronting our country’s deeply rooted racism.
This piece gave me hope. After changing her conservative grandfather’s mind about affirmative action, Danielle Tcholakian commits to trying to get through to people whose politics are very different from her own. Danielle is a great reporter, but she’d never written a personal essay before. She could have fooled me.
Michele Filgate reflects on her teen years with an abusive stepfather and a mother whose silence protected him. It’s a story she says she had been struggling to tell for 14 years. Unfortunately, it remains painfully relevant now.
Here’s another story that spans back many years but remains unfortunately relevant. Months before women were emboldened to join the the viral #metoo campaign on social media that was inspired by Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men getting busted as sexual predators, Eva Tenuto found the courage to share this story with us. She’d been living with shame about it for decades. Then, around the election, hearing Trump’s predatory attitudes towards women transported her straight back to a high school teacher’s abuse of power and the relentless criticism of her junior high peers that made her an ideal target.
Sorayya Khan recalls racist threats to her young sons after the 2001 attacks, and worries about them as young men living in “Trumpistan.” (Seeing a recurring theme here? It’s stunning how many subjects are affected by the election of our current president.)
Vietnam Veteran Ray Cocks, who’d eagerly enlisted in 1967, writes about how he was forever changed by the realities of war. After struggling with alcoholism and PTSD, he becomes a pacifist, and later returns to Vietnam to offer healing there. I find that to be incredibly inspiring, especially at this difficult moment in our country.
Yet another brilliant novelist, Jami Attenberg, discovers a surprise antidote to the anxiety that has plagued her each time she’s had to get on a plane to promote a book. Some of my favorite personal essays and memoirs are those in which great writers take familiar experiences and deliver them in a way that crystallizes your own, or helps you too see them in a different way.
I’m a longstanding fan of Emily Gould’s writing — fiction and non-fiction — not to mention her taste in books. She observes life’s mundanities with a sharp eye, allowing the reader to identify, but also see things in a slightly different light. In this piece, she writes about the time after her son was born, when she read 25 books about babies and sleep, but wound up only more confused.
Memoirist and YA author Jen Doll tries to make sense of a breakup that happened the day before a romantic vacation — and blindsided her in the same ways the presidential election did. Jen applies humor and absurdity to a painful breakup in a way that is imminently resonant, and fun to read.
Sometimes it’s incredibly refreshing to read essays that take a less serious view of even the most serious matters. In this one, Sarah Miller uses dry wit to eulogize a relative who was kind of a jerk, and whose death, frankly, doesn’t faze her.
You can find a complete list here. I look forward to your submissions!
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.
While visiting national parks to detox from the oppressive whiteness of the MFA experience, Minda Honey is reminded the only places to retreat from whiteness in this country are the spaces women of color hold for each other.
I loved being one of your girls. I wasn’t your favorite, but I didn’t need to be. What we had was different.
I found you on that hiking trip to the Spanish mountains. At first I was wary — at our all-girls’ secondary school you were never alone. But in the thin air we climbed together, lotioned each other’s backs, and hand-washed our socks side-by-side. By the end of the week we felt joined, invincible. Remember how we made those campsite boys pitch our tents? That’s not character-building, the male teachers sneered. We just laughed. We were girls: 13 and power-thrilled. While the others hauled their packs up the dusty hill, we lay together on sleeping bags. Your hazel eyes beamed noise and mischief, and I had found my place.
Back in London, I came to you each day, bounding to your classroom after lunch in the cafeteria. The others were with you, but that didn’t stop me. It made me want you more.
Before all the danger, we dashed about, frantic. We sprawled on desks or piled in a corner. You whispered about our classmates — plain girls, weird ones — and the four of us laughed in sly peals. It was both cruel and loving.
Five sounds like an unstable number, but it wasn’t. It was safe. Maybe because there was one of you, and four of us. We gathered at your house each Saturday, and I passed the journey — the bus, two tubes, and the uphill walk — listening to those songs you liked that I’d Limewired onto my iPod: Death Cab for Cutie, The Arctic Monkeys, Coldplay.
The others lived far away, too, some farther than me, but we all hauled our clothes and makeup across the city to get dressed in your bedroom for whatever we had planned: Smirnoff Ices in the park, a lax-bouncered bar, a house party with boys from our brother school.
We shook out our stuff on your big bed, which had space on either side like an adult’s bed, like my parents’ bed, not like my bed, pushed against a wall. We tried on each other’s things and crowded your full-length mirror as Jack Johnson sang through your iPod speaker.
“Pass the panox!” Ashley said, and you tossed the thumb-sized tube of medicated zit cream that you could only get in America, where your mom was from, and where you went every year. In the drawers that pulled out from under from your bed, you stored the things you brought back from New York: moisturizer with fake-tan, spray deodorant, and panoxyl.
We called it panox because we abbreviated everything.
“Emma, your skirt looks beaut,” I said, as you smoothed the white denim.
“Oh em gee, totes,” Ashley said, dabbing her chin with the pad of her pinky.
We all spoke the same way, rhythms charged and exclusive like an electric fence.
Ashley was your best friend. She didn’t need panoxyl. Her skin was clear and framed by gold hair that reached the lean arcs of her waist. But even though she had all that I didn’t envy her. She didn’t crackle and sparkle like you did; she couldn’t combust into cackles like you and me.
As Ashley capped the cream, I sprayed the air around myself with your perfume and pulled on your leggings. I’d liked my legs covered since I was 6 or 7, back when my friends in gymnastics learned back handsprings while I was stuck with walkovers. In the cool gym, my thighs stayed pink when chill laced theirs with that wine-colored mottle. Mine touched all the way up. Theirs didn’t. To practice, I wore shorts over my leotard.
But you didn’t need leggings. Your legs were firm, cut with muscle down each thigh and behind the knees. I liked your legs. I also liked your straight white teeth — American teeth — and your full, flushed cheeks. I liked your honey-colored hair, the way the thick drape glinted in the light like amber. You were insecure about your stomach and hips — a little bigger than mine and the other girls’ — so I pretended not to notice when you tugged your shirt off your skin so it didn’t cling. To me, all parts of you, hard and soft, were lovely.
Once we were dressed, spritzed, and painted, the five of us — you, me, Ashley, Kat and Kay — trooped down three flights of stairs. In your kitchen, we piled around one corner of the wooden table that could seat 12, and ate whatever your mom cooked, something like pasta with tomato sauce, because she, like you, was a vegetarian. Your mom perched as we ate, not eating herself, but watching you chew with bird eyes, hard and blue. I was usually still hungry because she didn’t cook that much, so I’d buy a chocolate bar from the shop at the station. I always shared it around, but you never took any. Neither did Ashley. The two of you linked arms as Kat and Kay and I ate it up, square by square.
We also bought drinks at the station shop. Kat was 4’10 and looked even younger than 14, but she flashed her older sister’s passport and heaved our low-shelf vodka onto the counter. Glenns or Kirov tasted fine with enough Diet Coke. Kat and Kay bought regular Coke — “full fat Coke,” we called it. You glanced at them and clutched your own bottle closer.
At house parties, we’d flirt limply with whoever, but then you and I would run off. We peeked in bathrooms, jumped on boys’ beds, had swordfights with baguettes grabbed from bread bins, and gave each other hickeys. We looked each other in the eyes and laughed — laughter like a fist around our stomachs as we shook with devilish synchrony.
When we left one party for another, staggering down the sidewalk and dodging the cracks, I wanted to walk all night instead of going to some boy’s preened Hampstead house. I liked the in-between times best, and the befores and afters.
The afters looked like this: when we’d banked enough fun to last the school week, we all turned to you. We caught the last tube or you called a cab from Addison Lee, which we called Add Lee or just Add, and we lay our heads on each other’s shoulders as we waited to pull up at your front door. At the top of your house, in the “upstairs living room,” we flopped on those couches big enough to sleep four. The fifth, usually Kat, who was small and unfussy, lay on the carpet so thick she didn’t even need a sleeping bag. At home it took me hours to fall asleep. But beside you, my body unclenched and I slept deep and dreamless.
My daughter was 10 days old the first time I was asked if I were her grandmother.
It was the second week of an unseasonably early Baltimore heat wave and I had managed to maneuver her stroller across my neighborhood’s bumpy, narrow sidewalks to my favorite coffee shop. Almost nine years later, I still remember the one spot on our street where the juxtaposition of a tree planter and a set of rowhouse steps made it physically impossible to push a stroller through at any angle. One either had to lift the stroller a foot in the air or bump it over the curb into the street, a solution I figured out only after much grunting and angling. By the time I arrived at the coffee shop, I was sweaty and unkempt.
A young man peered into the stroller, then glanced at my face: “Oh, are you her grandmother?” Only three days earlier, a woman had seen me boarding a plane with my newborn, eyed me approvingly and whispered: “You look amazing!” An unearned compliment — my daughter didn’t come out of my body and my body’s not that great, anyway — but I had been happy to take it. I’m not dumb. I knew the grandmother question would be asked again and again, and that compliments would be rare.
I tried out a simple, direct reply, the one I use to this day: “No, I’m her mother, but I am old enough to be her grandmother, so it’s understandable that you would ask.”
I thought my answer generous. But in the years since my daughter was born, I have discovered that people who ask rude questions feel terribly affronted if you say anything that implies they have just asked a rude question.
“But I’ve seen that baby with a young couple,” the man said. “Out and about in the neighborhood.”
“I don’t think so.”
“No, I absolutely have,” he insisted. “She’s been going around with a young couple.”
I let it go. I live in a city that, year in and year out, has a startlingly high teenage pregnancy rate, and consequently a high number of young grandmothers, some of whom end up raising their grandchildren. I’d be proud to be one of those women. But I am not. I’m just an old mom and I’m cool with that. Say a word or a phrase often enough, and it loses its power. I’m an old mom. I’m 60. I’m a 60-year-old woman with a third-grader. I am old. I am 60. I am old. I am old. I am old.
“You don’t look old to me,” my daughter has said on more than one occasion. “You could be in your 40s, your 30s, you could be in college, you could be in high school.”
Uber drivers say something similar, but at least I know why they’re blowing smoke up my ass. I’m not sure what my daughter wants, but she’s been eyeing the American Girl Doll spaceship, which lists at $449.99 on eBay. Good luck with that, honey. Mama’s got money, but she’s not crazy.