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 firstname.lastname@example.org — 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 creating a routine “entirely alien to his normal life,” Alexander Chee attempted a real vacation from his work as a writer on a recent trip to Greece. For the New York Times, he sketches his way around Sifnos, capturing both the “least famous” Greek island and his memories of it in a Moleskine notebook. In rediscovering the pure pleasure of art, he draws fresh strength to fuel his writing. (You can read the first chapter, The Queen of the Night, Chee’s latest novel, here.)
Drawing is an excellent way to remember a place. In my mind I can still see clearly the towns I drew and the mornings I spent there.
When I left on the ferry home, I could feel I had in fact relaxed, deep down, in some way that was entirely new to me. But also, drawing had opened that new door to the old place. It had brought me back to the pleasure of the art you make just for yourself, where all art begins, easy to lose track of when you become a professional writer. Your own private conversation about ideas and aesthetics.
Vacation is so often cast as a luxury now in America, a bourgeois game of Instagram tagging and food photos. But for me, in Sifnos, I came to know it as the time in the year when you find not only rest, but also the strength you need to meet your work and your life when you return to them. In the years since, it’s been hard to be an American writer and take vacations like this. But I would never want to live the other way — without them — again.
In my role on the Editorial team, I end up touching a lot of different parts of Automattic. I work on learning resources, company blogs, highlighting great users, longform publishing, and brand work, with the occasional theme and conference design thrown in. This sort of variety is absolutely amazing, and one of my favorite things about working here.Of all the projects I get to work on, my favorite thing to do may be illustrations for Longreads. It’s lovely to focus on reading and reflecting on stories, and to have the freedom to explore and experiment with visual representation.I’ve done over a hundred illustrations for Longreads over the years, and I thought I’d share a few notes on the concepting process I go through for each one.
I always start by reading the story (obviously!). While reading, I take note of all the visuals that pop into my head along the way. Most of them will end up being tossed out, but usually there are a few that help build the base of the illustration.For example, we recently published an essay where Jami Attenberg describes her battle with flight anxiety. Here’s the list I jotted down while reading her piece:
When I’m finished reading the story, I run through a series of mental exercises that I picked up years ago in my “Visual Communication” class from design school. VisCom (as we called it) was a required course for all Design, Illustration, and Advertising majors, since at their core, all of those fields center around utilizing visuals to convey or enhance an idea. We were taught about symbolism, juxtaposition, and how to use use color, shapes, and text to get a message across. Here are the questions I ask myself:
Are any of these items a common symbol? If so, does it represent something that relates well to the story?
Can one of these items be turned into a new symbol?
Can I smash some of these images together to make something new?
Is there a scene from the story that I can build using these images?
My favorite of the bunch is the “smash things together” exercise. This usually involves taking two seemingly unrelated things and combining them to create greater meaning. In the case of Jami’s essay, I smashed clouds together with Xanax pills to depict the anxiety-ridden, Xanax-fueled flights she described throughout her story.
Illustration by Kjell Reigstad (Airplane photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)
Another great example of this approach is the illustration I did for Alexander Chee’s piece, “Our Well-Regulated Militia.” I smashed together a map of the United States and a gun rack to echo the article’s statement about the prevalence of guns in America:
This technique doesn’t always work, but it does help kickstart creative thinking, and can help generate other solutions. I often run through 2–3 ideas for each illustration before finding one that sticks.
We’ve been building up our publishing pace and coverage lately at Longreads, and illustration plays a key part in making this successful. Our illustrations help attract readers, and if done well, they can amplify the message of the story itself. We’ve been bringing in some amazing freelance illustrators lately, and I want to close by showcasing some of the great work they’ve been doing too:
When the New York Times asked authors to share stories of love intersecting with travel, Alexander Chee recalls a summer in Granada, Spain, with M. — his boyfriend at the time — who betrayed Chee at a local hammam. “He thought I wanted monogamy more than him, and I didn’t. And I couldn’t forgive that I didn’t get to choose.”
I liked M. I was having my first summer in Spain and he was good in bed, funny at dinner, smart about books. Enjoying that was not a mistake. Hiding himself from me was. When I eventually discovered the truth, I was more offended that he wouldn’t tell me. He thought I wanted monogamy more than him, and I didn’t. And I couldn’t forgive that I didn’t get to choose.
Some things I remember very clearly from that summer: learning to love the feel of cold red wine in my mouth on a hot day. The beautiful boy on the bus the whole way to the beach at Carboneras from Granada, burning the back of the rubber and vinyl seat with a lighter, but slowly, never enough to catch fire, who stopped only to take pictures of himself on his phone. The man putting saccharin in his fresh orange juice. And the streets paved with stones taken from the river, smooth and shining in the dark, like the backs of fish.
M. can keep his secrets, I told myself then. I have this. That was my bargain. I still think it is a good one.
Thanks to funding from Longreads Members and a generous match from WordPress.com, we were able to publish another fantastic year of original reporting, essays, book excerpts, and exclusives in partnership with other publishers and some of our favorite writers. If you like what we do and want to support us, considering becoming a Longreads Member today.
Our latest Longreads Exclusive is the first chapter from The Queen of the Night,the second novel by award-winning writer Alexander Chee, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor A. N. Devers:
“In the opening pages of The Queen of the Night, we are transported to a celebratory night at The Luxembourg Palace in Paris, 1882, where a legendary opera singer, Lilliet Berne, is trying to avoid attention (self-conscious of a poorly-designed dress she must wear), only to step accidentally into an intimate conversation with a writer who wants to put her at the center of a new opera. The one trophy missing on her crowded shelf is an original role in a new work, and she throws caution away as the stranger flatters her with the offer. As the soprano with the delicate voice tempts fate, we learn of her long-kept secrets, deep ambition, quick wit, and keen powers of observation. In Berne, Alexander Chee has created a fully-formed diva from a glamorous age that has long since passed, yet her role as her own mythology builder is as contemporary as ever, as seen daily in tabloids and online, as actors, athletes, fashionistas, Kardashians, politicians, Real Housewives, and yoginis shape their stories for column inches and Instagram followers—some, like Berne, have true talent. Chee’s Queen of the Night is a spectacular and balletic historical novel, its intricacies offer insights not only about fame, but also about the Second Empire in France and its rich musical and literary history.”
WHEN IT BEGAN, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands. He is perhaps a demon or a god in disguise, offering you a chance at either the fulfillment of a dream or a trap for the soul. A comic element—the soprano arrives in the wrong dress—and it decides her fate.
The year was 1882. The palace was the Luxembourg Palace; the ball, the Sénat Bal, held at the beginning of autumn. It was still warm, and so the garden was used as well. I was the soprano.
At Catapult, Alexander Chee has a self-reflective essay about a period in the early aughts when he got to sublet a friend’s plum 19th-story apartment in Gramercy Park. She let him have it for just $900 per month, a steal, which took a great deal of financial pressure off of him. This was after the release of his first novel, when his stock as a writer was rising and he was commanding a little more money–by writer standards, anyway. Bonus: Chee soon learned that actress Chloë Sevigny, of whom he was a big fan, was his upstairs neighbor. This revelation, and a few nervous encounters with her, made the author take a hard look at himself. Double bonus: He got a great chandelier out of the deal, which he has to this day.
Every day, the apartment felt like some just reward after a long period of hard work, even a sign that further success was close by. The paperback of my first novel had just come out from Picador and with that money, in addition to money from teaching, I felt rich for the first time in my life as a writer. I knew I was not rich in a way that anyone else in the building would recognize, but I was writer rich. I had money earned from writing that I would spend on more time to write, and the cheap deal on the beautiful apartment meant the money would last even longer—it even felt like the beginning of more of that money and more of that success. It was a beautiful moment, when the money and the time it represented added up to a possibility for the future that felt as vast as the edges of the known world. The apartment’s vast views resembled the way I wanted to feel about my own future each time I looked at them.
The only sign of darkness was that I was trying to begin work on my second novel and it was not going well. Each week I abandoned it by Friday and returned to it on Monday, as if it was a bad love affair. I think somehow I knew even then that the novel would take me a decade to finish. But the apartment made my despair easier to bear.
The excellent and underfunded nonprofit art and politics magazine Guernica has a special issue this month dedicated to exploring the boundaries of gender. In it, novelist Alexander Chee writes about the surprising realizations he had the first time he dressed in drag for a night on the town with the man he loves:
He is really spellbound, though, in a way he hasn’t been before this. I have never had this effect on a man, never transfixed him so thoroughly, and I wonder what I might be able to make him do now that I could not before. “Honey,” he says, his voice full of wonder. He walks closer, slowly, his head hung, looking up at me. I feel my smile rise from somewhere old in me, maybe older than me; I know this scene, I have seen this scene a thousand times and never thought I would be in it; this is the scene where the beautiful girl receives her man’s adoration and I am that girl.
In this moment, the confusion of my whole life has receded. No one will ask me if I am white or Asian. No one will ask me if I am a man or a woman. No one will ask me why I love men. For a moment, I want Fred to stay a man all night. There is nothing brave in this: any man and woman can walk together, in love and unharassed in this country, in this world—and for a moment, I just want to be his overly made-up girlfriend all night.
The Op-Ed Economy meanwhile means that whatever the event, we’re treated to what is essentially “commentariat tryouts.” Twitter was already the free-floating comment section ready to wrap itself around whatever the topic is. But once CNN began reading tweets aloud on-air sometime around the first election of President Obama, and op-ed columns spread across every site, the auditions began in earnest. Now Twitter is filled with people hoping their complaints are favorited, commented on, favstarred, and viral. Complaint as aspiration—everyone competing to be the star complainer. And increasingly, to that end, the key players in each scandal are suddenly accountable for something they tweeted in 2009, 2011, their Facebook from high school. Every blog they ever abandoned is combed for something to take them down and prove they are not good enough, pure enough, to keep their status. All of it is conducted in the manner of possible oppo research, as if it were all a campaign for president. It’s no longer enough to expose politicians and celebrities and reality stars—social media is increasingly everyone trying to be a reality star, because reality entertainment has become one of the few remaining ways you can transcend your economic class.