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…
A personal essay in which Emily Gould pays homage to the wide range of women food writers and cookbook authors who affected her own cooking, and her lifestyle aspirations, over the course of her adult life so far.
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 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:
At Elle, author Emily Gould has a profile of “The Handmaid’s Tale” star and executive producer Elisabeth Moss. While Gould manages to draw Moss out a bit on topics the actress is famous for being tight-lipped about — like the feminist messages of Margaret Atwood’s book and its television adaptation — she finds it difficult to get Moss to address what appear to be parallels between the fictional theocracy of Gilead and the Church of Scientology, which she was raised in.
There’s just one last thing left to pester her about, and I’ve saved it for last because it’s the most likely to piss her off. She’s said repeatedly on this tour and in profiles circa the last few seasons of Mad Men that she’s said all she’s ever going to say about being raised in Scientology. But… well, in the words of a recent Jezebel headline, “Isn’t It Relevant That the Star of The Handmaid’s Tale Belongs to a Secretive, Allegedly Oppressive Religion?”
Unsurprisingly, I get nowhere. To her, the show isn’t about the danger of religious extremism, it’s about the importance of religious freedom. “Whatever anyone believes, I don’t believe that Church and State should get too close. And some of the things that have happened recently have really frightened me. For me, what the book and the show are so much about is that separation. It’s a theocracy! No government should be run by any religion!” I press on, saying that after watching the show I’ve been thinking about the Hasidic Jewish women who live in my neighborhood in a different light. Their uniforms and constant pregnancy can’t help but remind me of the Handmaids. “Except there’s a huge difference,” Moss says, “that they would be murdered in Gilead.” (On the Wall that Offred and her fellow Handmaids pass on their walks, bodies are often marked with religious symbols; practicing a faith other than Gilead’s ultra-Christianity is a capital offense.) For what it’s worth, Margaret Atwood also considers Moss’s religion to be a nonissue; to her, the alleged abuses that take place within Scientology are par for the course for any religion: “They all have their pluses and their minuses,” she tells me, after listing a few of the lesser-known gory horrors found in the Old Testament.
As the first season of the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale wraps up, author Emily Gould profiles Elisabeth Moss, the show’s star and executive producer. Gould manages to draw Moss out out a bit on topics the actress is famous for being tight-lipped about, including the book and show’s feminist messages, and how her upbringing in the Church of Scientology might square with Margaret Atwood’s story of religious oppression.
Writing in LitHub, Alana Massey responds to Emily Gould’s essay on publishing’s “niceness” requirement for women to ask: what’s wrong with nice? Shouldn’t we ask men to be more nice, rather than giving women permission to be less so?
The idea that writers are good at writing and little else perpetuates a mythology that we are special creatures whose agility with language renders us more deeply attuned to the human condition than others and therefore exempt from doing the bare minimum: answering questions in full sentences at industry events and talking about our work when we are, indeed, at work. It is the decency of returned emails and speaking to your tablemates at a party thrown to honor you. Such decency is demanded in every other profession on Earth besides being a Real Housewife or playing in the NHL, and I don’t think that just because the men in our industry eschew this in favor of offensive levels of self-regard makes it courageous or authentic in women. This decency need not be the over-indulgence of cookies or new friendships on demand, but a manifestation of that thing we are allegedly so good at: seeing the human condition and responding to it with just enough tenderness to connect but not attach.
An insightful profile of Cat Marnell, author of the new memoir, How to Murder Your Life, a writer and beauty editor perhaps best known for the self-destructive tendencies that cost her various high-profile jobs and landed her frequently in rehab. Author Emily Gould casts Marnell as more together than many give her credit for, and relatively healthy—at least in her ability to keep rebounding from relapses, and writing about it all cogently and compellingly.
I would read anything by Kathryn Schulz, and this story makes a perfect case why. Ostensibly it’s the story of a man named Zarif Khan, who in 1909 found his way to Wyoming from the Khyber Pass, and made a name for himself selling tamales (the name: “Hot Tamale Louie”). Khan was a recognizably curmudgeonly chef (God forbid you put ketchup on his burgers!) of the sort writers reliably profile today. But “profile” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what this goosebump-inducing story is. Woven into this tale are captivating tangents—about Wyoming’s inclusive beginnings, the various histories of naturalization (and denaturalization), tamales, and Muslims in this country (a history that goes back so much further than Trump would have you believe)—that turn out not to be tangents at all: the heart of this story about tamales and burgers is a story about America, and the immigrants that make it. In Schulz’s hands it’s skilled and quietly hilarious. The story felt fitting when it was published in June; it feels even more essential now.
I read this story about food fraud slack-jawed. Laura Reiley’s basic premise is this: when you go to a restaurant advertising “local” or “farm to table,” it’s not only possible but highly likely(!) you’re being lied to. Years of working in restaurant criticism made Reiley rightly skeptical of menu claims, and suspicious that more was afoot than frozen cakes passed off as homemade. For her story she systematically investigates restaurants in the Tampa area that make declarations about their ingredients—sometimes embarrassingly high-mindedly—that they don’t exactly see through. A lot impresses me here, like Reiley’s persistence, guts, attentiveness, commitment, and spy moves (she kept ziptop baggies her purse to secrete away fish to lab-test later). The piece’s focus is on restaurants in Tampa, but it makes a broader statement about our convoluted food supply chains, and what it means to be an eater and consumer living in our increasingly weird world. Read more…
Derrick Harriell wrote a piece on Chicago State that challenged my understanding of what’s possible with form and content in the long lyric essay. The piece narrativizes educational place and the journey of learning in a beautiful black place that’s trying to survive.
Mira Ptacin Writer whose work has appeared in NPR, New York Magazine, Guernica, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Tin House, The Rumpus, and more. Author of the memoir Poor Your Soul, and teacher of memoir to women at the Maine Correctional Center.
I nominate this sharp-eyed and insightful piece not only because it brilliantly gave us a taste of Claire-Louise Bennett’s collection, but it gives it its proper place in the family tree of nature-writers by blowing “nature-dude” writing out of the water. Devers shows readers how important and triumphantly Bennett’s penmanship is, even in its simplicity: how even writing about the goings-on in the microcosm of a kitchen can dip into great depths to the mind and soul.
The right essay can turn an object or memory that I’d previously found mundane into the stuff of gripping narrative. Such is the case here, as Rouzard’s essay opens with descriptions of AOL dial-up in the mid-1990s before segueing into a capsule history of social media, and then extending into broader questions of identity and the sacred. It neatly parallels its author’s life with broader societal questions, keeping the two in perfect balance, and leaving me with a greater sense of both–I can’t ask a great essay to do more than that.
The Reverend Jasmine Beach-Ferrara of the United Church of Christ is a wife, a mother, a lesbian, a former college professor (I took her class at Warren Wilson College), and the executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality. In this piece, Jasmine takes a road trip across the Deep South to visit Hattiesburg, Mississippi on the occasion of its very first Pride parade. People like Jasmine do the work that all Americans need, whether they accept it or not. In her peaceful, dignified but impassioned manner, she fights for equality for all Americans. That she happens to be a damn fine storyteller is just icing on the deep-fried cake.
George Blecher paints a wonderful portrait of the diner he loves the most. He also gives a great bit of history about the rise of the diner in New York City. I grew up in New Jersey, which has its own brilliant and thriving diner culture but I lived in New York for many years. The old diner joints there are just as important as George says. Here in my newer home in Los Angeles, a city I love, I’ve got a few diners I can depend on: in Silverlake, Sunset Junction Coffee Shop; in Los Feliz, House of Pies; and more scattered around town. And in Manhattan, at 100th and Broadway, George has the Metro – for now.
Emily Gould Half of the Coffee House Press imprint and e-bookstore Emily Books, and the author, most recently, of the novel Friendship.
This year I started teaching writing workshop classes for the first time, and a lot of students want to learn how to do exactly what Sarah Resnick does here–and so do I! Addressed to a relative with a longstanding heroin habit, as well as a host of other problems, Resnick’s essay goes down several different paths, ultimately illuminating a lot of what’s circuitous and maddening about addiction and recovery as they’re currently understood in America, and how harm reduction programs work. The essay’s idiosyncratic, personal approach makes it more convincing than a straightforward argument for a new understanding of addiction could be. Reading it is memorable the way an experience is.
Owen publishes her essays about parenthood via newsletter as well as on Medium. She’s a journalist with expertise in publishing, tech and the business of journalism, and she brings the same kind of skepticism about received wisdom and eye for detail to her observations about children and parenting culture as she does to her other work. In this one, she takes on the hardest question of all — whether having children could be a mistake, whether parents can allow themselves to think it might have been. She writes about ambition so well. I will always remember the line here about lying on a couch reading in a beautiful house.
Porochista Khakpour Author of the forthcoming memoir, Sick (Harper Perennial, August 2017) and the novels The Last Illusion, and Sons & Other Flammable Objects, whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bookforum, Elle, Spin, Slate, and many other publications around the world.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah has become my favorite writer of my generation since I first read her writing about Dave Chappelle in The Believer several years ago (it was a National Magazine Award finalist, collected in The Best American Nonrequired Reading as well as The Believer’s anthology Read Harder). Since then I’ve been a fan of every piece of hers and this chronicle of traveling to the home of James Baldwin in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France is no exception. (It’s a highlight of what I consider one of the best books of the year, the Jesmyn Ward-edited The First This Time). Ghansah writes about Baldwin from all different angles and with every emotion, braided with her own issues of identity. The result is a hard, rough, beautiful diamond of piece, pushed to brilliance from considerable pressure. Ghansah is perhaps one of the only writers we have today who can live up to Baldwin in so many shades of style and substance.
Saunders has always been one of my favorite writers–it’s physically impossible for me to not read a piece by him–but this classic from last summer will be surely studied for decades if not centuries in the future. Trump and his supporters are a perfect match for Saunders, who although a liberal, often sketches the America Trump supporters know well in his fiction. The trademark Saundersian dark absurdism is a perfect fit for taking to the campaign trail and interviewing Trump supporters at rallies in Arizona, Wisconsin and California. The result is as funny as it frightening. It’s doubly a punch in the gut to read it now that Trump is, somehow, our president-elect.”Although, to me, Trump seems the very opposite of a guardian angel, I thank him for this: I’ve never before imagined America as fragile, as an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail,” Saunders writes, and ends almost prophetically: “But I imagine it that way now.”
Emily Perper Emily Perper is a writer, bookseller and contributing editor at Longreads. In addition to word-work, they’re on the board of The Frederick Center, which provides resources for queer people in central Maryland.
Both of my “best of” personal essay nominations concern the reaches and limits of parenthood. At GQ, novelist Michael Chabon writes about his trip to Paris Men’s Fashion Week, where his young son, 13-year-old Abe, catches a glimpse of his future and yearns after his tribe. I’d never presume to understand the intricacies of childrearing, but Chabon treats his son with a blend of kindness and respect we’d all do well to emulate with the young folks in our own lives–taking their desires, ideas and motivations seriously, and fostering their artistic instincts. And Chabon is simply an excellent writer, blending gentle self-deprecation with astute observation. He doesn’t need paragraphs of adjectives to transport the reader to the studios and runways of Paris. You are there, sweating in the French summer. You are there, checking out the throngs of stylish young men loitering outside shows. And you there, beaming (Guardedly! Be cool!) at your son, when he recognizes and is recognized.
Novelist Rufi Thorpe upends traditional discourse around the ponderous/condescending/exhausting query, “Can women have it all?” Instead, she makes a distinction between the selfishness of the artist’s way and motherhood’s requisite selflessness. Beyond her powerful and honest observations, the energy behind her language is distinct and exciting; it’s why I’ll read anything she writes. When I read the line “Children are a hinge that only bends one way,” I gasped.
Cheri Lucas Rowlands Story Wrangler, WordPress.com and Longreads
During the Second World War, John Temple’s parents hid in a basement in Budapest with a French doctor, underneath a home that German soldiers had made their headquarters. After they separated from the doctor, they never reconnected. For the next 70 years, they wondered what had happened to this man who saved their lives. After his parents’ death, Temple turns to the internet to search for this man, known to him only as Dr. Lanusse. This is a touching story about history, family, memory, and — ultimately — a lasting bond between two families, connected by extraordinary circumstances. Read more…