Friday, November 22, 2013

Dear Writer: Kinder, Gentler Rejections

Rejection slips are a natural part of sending out work to magazines; in fact, rejection is the norm. If each magazine only takes 1-10% of what it receives, the odds are always against you. Except when a piece of your work sparks something in the editor and you get lucky.

Recently, I noticed a trend in the rejection notices: the wording is nicer, soothing, of the variety "It's not you, it's me." Did something change in the past three decades? I remembered a blunt "Thanks, but no" type of rejection. I was curious, so I pulled out my file of actual paper rejection letters to compare them. These are only from 2009 to 2013. Shorter ones are from some well-known publications: sometimes a little slip, sometimes a full page with just a few lines. Longer letters tend to ask you to subscribe. I'm really fine with yes or no at this point, but how the rejection is worded can make a difference, particularly if you are just starting out.

A very nice letter from Zyzzyva that begins, "Gentle writer."
And includes:
"Do not be discouraged by this or any other momentary setback.
The road is long; the struggle must go on."
And a little "Onward" handwritten from Howard.

The New Yorker is to the point:
"We regret that we are unable to use the enclosed material.
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider it."

Fiction, at City College of New York writes thank you and 
"after careful consideration, the editors were not able to accept your work."
The rest of the letter explains why they include no other response and that if you
subscribe and you say so, your work will be looked at more quickly.

"The return of your work does not necessarily imply criticism
of its merit, but may simply mean that it does not 
meet our present editorial needs."
Seems reasonable to me.

"It is not quite right for the Bellingham Review but we wish you the very best in
placing your submission elsewhere.…We understand
the success of our journal depends on the submissions we receive
and hope you will consider submitting to us in the future."
It is always hard to know what is "quite right."

Calyx, in Oregon includes, 
"At least two editors have read your work and found
that we are unable to use your submission to the Journal."
I'm not sure I feel better that two editors rejected it.

Chicago Quarterly Review: "We're sorry that it does not
meet our needs, and we wish you the best of luck in
placing it elsewhere."
Elsewhere, okay.

Elsewhere, again.

"…we are not reading new poetry at this time."

"…we can't use it in The Threepenny Review at present."
Or any other time, really. Don't make the mistake
of resending something that has already 
been rejected.

"…sorry to report that your manuscript does not suit 
the present needs of the magazine."
The "present needs" makes more sense and doesn't
imply the future as much.

Ah, McSweeney's. I think this is my favorite because of its upbeat nature.
(Or maybe it's the design of the card. Or the typeface.)
The first paragraph begins with "Greetings" and thanks you 
and tells you why you are needed as a submitter.
The second paragraph: "Unfortunately, we can't find a
place for this piece in our next few issues. Nevertheless, 
please feel free to submit more work in the future. Our 
themes and tastes change, and we are grateful for the community 
of readers and writers that keeps us busy. Thanks again for 
your efforts and for letting us see your work."
Okay, maybe I do care how I get the news.

Crazyhorse in South Carolina was nice, too.
A little humorous with the "…and we're sorry that this
particular story, selection of poems, or essay wasn't a good fit…"
I like the obvious impersonality of it.

thank. opportunity. regret. needs.

"Though your manuscript has not found a place with
The Atlantic, we thank you for the chance to consider
it. Best of luck placing it elsewhere."
It feels a little better being worthy of a full page,
rather than a fortune from a cookie.
But of course, it's not personal!

"We are sorry to report…"
"we wish you the best in placing it elsewhere."
No need to report.

The Sun says thanks and sorry and not right.
The two paragraphs that follow are earnest,
nice to read, but not entirely necessary. The first:
"This isn't a reflection of your writing. We pick perhaps
one out of a hundred submissions and the selection process
is highly subjective, something of a mystery even to us.
There's no telling what we'll fall in love with, what we'll
let get away."

New editor at Zyzzyva. But still a very encouraging form.
And, the gold star of rejections: a handwritten note.
They enjoyed reading my piece, anyway.

This one has a typo.
"Athough (sic) we will not be publishing your work
at this time and are sorry to disappoint you,
please be assured that your manuscript was read
carefully by editors and trained screeners."
Carefully. Maybe.

If you read back issues of the magazines before you submit—which all editors recommend you do—you may find some similarities in style or tone of the work accepted, or you just may continue to be deeply baffled. Many magazines want a point of view that doesn't come from a generic middle-class lifestyle. Some want the personal, first-person essay style, wanting to hear something "real" or "authentic, " not have the work be about "characters." Others love the surreal and strange, the just-on-the-edge of mean, or just the edgy. I've seen quite a bit of jam-packed adjectives and metaphors as the desire of some publications. It's always hard to tell if your work "fits." And you may not even like the idea of your work "fitting," wanting your work to speak for itself on its own terms. Be aware of what is out there, but don't try to write in someone else's style. (More on this in my post, "A Crazy Little Thing Called Competition.")

If you are still curious about what editors want, I recommend the article, "What Editors Want" by Lynne Barrett. It's perfect.

What to do with your rejection slips? Hang onto them. Maybe next year you can sew them onto a sheet and be a Ghost Writer for Halloween.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Interchangeable Postcard Quilt

I started making postcard quilts just before my daughter was born, many years ago. Now I find I am making one again: for a friend whose baby is due in February. She has a pack of alphabet cards she wants to display, so we designed this one to hold the cards, with additional spaces for some family photos or colorful ephemera. I included the instructions in (now out of print, but available used) Unique Handmade Books, thinking it might be a good display for pamphlet books and booklets as well.

This wider version hangs in my studio by eyelets. Incorporating a dowel (for a quilt narrower than four feet) makes it easier to hang.

Materials: heavy 12-14 gauge clear vinyl; Sharpie marker; large straightedge or L square; awl or hammer, nail, and wooden block to make the holes; X-Acto knife and cutting mat; nail polish remover and cotton balls, paper towel, or tissue; heavy duty needle; wooden dowel (2-4" wider than the anticipated quilt width, 1/2" diameter); walnut ink (optional)

Measure and cut two layers of vinyl. Stack them so their edges are as even as possible. Mark out the pockets and draw a grid, leaving room at the top for the dowel, about 2-3 inches. Make the pockets vertical or horizontal or a mixture: 5 x 7 pockets for items 4 x 6; 6 x 8 pockets for items 5 x 7. The final size of this example will be approximately 32" x 53".

About 1/2" from the tops of the pockets, measure and mark a line. Put the cutting mat between the layers and cut a slit in the top layer with the X-Acto knife.

Punch or poke holes along the lines. Once the holes are poked, the two layers will stay together for sewing.

Apply nail polish remover to paper towel, tissue or cotton ball and remove the Sharpie lines.

Thread a needle with embroidery thread. Tie a knot at the end. Start sewing from back to front. 

You might choose to change colors at every intersection or let the thread run out wherever it may.

Trim edges so they are even, leaving 1/2-1" margin.

Before I proceeded with the quilt, I stained the dowel with walnut ink by putting a little ink on a paper towel and rubbing it in.

Measure 2" from the top line of stitching, draw a new line, poke holes and stitch. Then slide the dowel into the sleeve you've created. The ends will protrude so you can hang the quilt.

On the dowel, this could be hung almost anywhere.

And so it went on its way from California to…

my friend in New York City,
where it received its lovely alphabet cards.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Mills College Journal Project for Jamaica

What are our responsibilities as artists? I wondered about this in the previous post, "Just Ruminating: Art to Change the World," but I didn't have any specific projects in mind. I've been seeing how social media has changed our attitudes toward community, how artists are using the process of artmaking with a group as the focus of a group, that the notion of "giving back" is prevalent. How, as book artists, can we do this? Certainly by teaching and sharing. Then I heard about a way that makers can work in a social situation and contribute to those in need.

Kathleen Walkup, Professor, Book Art & Director, Book Art Program at Mills College in Oakland, California and Julie Chen, Professor, Book Art Program, recently worked on a project together with the Book Art Club at Mills. Kathy's daughter is in the Peace Corps, and the club met for two hours to make journals for a group in Jamaica. I asked Kathy and Julie about the project.

photo by Veronica Sutter-Handy

—Kathy, can you tell us about the kind of work your daughter is doing?

KW: Claire Martin is a Peace Corps volunteer in her second year of service. She is working with a Jamaican governmental health agency doing HIV/AIDS education and outreach in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. This work has taken several different forms, many of which she has initiated, often by writing grant applications. Her core job is intervention: She visits sites such as strip clubs or other sites where sex workers operate, for instance. Claire has started after-school clubs for middle school children and ran a summer program that included sports and theatre activities around AIDS education. The journals will be used by an adult AIDS support group that she facilitates. This group, in addition to meeting for mutual support, is fund-raising through a variety of activities such as raising chickens for eggs and meat. The journals will be used by the group for their own writing and drawing. 

BTW, she has a cool tumblr: Jamaican Sartorialist. Nothing to do with her work, but she is getting some neat photos of the wild and crazy dress in Jamaica.

—What inspired the journal project? How did it become a community event?

KW: When Claire told me about the support group it occurred to me that they might appreciate something like simple journals. I visited Claire last year and saw how little many Jamaicans had in the way of possessions, and the idea that the group might like to have something to record their thoughts and feelings in just crossed my mind. I had worked with some adult community classes at various points in my career (for instance, with the adult literacy program through the Oakland Public Library and some continuing ed classes through City College of SF) and remembered how meaningful the journals were that we made in those settings.

—What was the purpose for restarting a Book Art Club? What did it do previously? What do you envision for the future?
JC: The book art program already consists of a pretty lively community, but the students in the individual book art classes don't often get a chance to get to know each other. One of the functions of the club is to allow the community as a whole to do things together. We also wanted to give the book art minors a chance to take leadership roles in book art-related campus activities. Lastly, we hope the club will allow interested students who have not yet taken a book art class to find out more about our program and about book art in general.

—What did you tell the students about the journal project? What level of skill did the students have?
JC:  The students were told that this event was all about making journals that would be used in the Peace Corps by Kathy's daughter. I think the service aspect of this project was definitely a draw for a lot of the students who participated. This event was open to all skill levels, including people who had no book experience at all. The students had varying level of binding skills, but Faith Hale, our grad TA who helped organize this event, and who taught everyone the sewing pattern, said that once everyone finished the their first journal, they were all eager to continue on to the next one. The 2-section exposed sewing binding that they used was chosen to suit all skill levels, and also, because it's really good-looking as well.
—What kinds of materials and binding did you use? How many journals did the group make? 
JC: The journals consisted of 36 pages of text weight paper with brightly colored folded paper covers. The students were able to choose contrasting colored thread to go with their cover papers. Each student signed their name in the back of the journal. I was not at the meeting, but the report I got from Faith was that they finished 18 journals for the Peace corps plus journals that they could take with them. And one student took parts for a couple of journals home with her to finish up and bring back to send to Jamaica with all the others.

—They got to make one and keep one? Did anyone donate theirs as well?
JC: I do not know if anyone donated their own copy, but I did hear that several students made more than one journal for the Peace Corps.  

photo by Kathleen Walkup

—Have you used bookmaking in a social context or as a community service project before this? Do you feel like this is a new path or something you would like to pursue?

KW: In addition to the instances I mentioned, I have also taught bookmaking skills to elementary school teachers in East Palo Alto and worked in many classrooms when my children were in school.

At Mills the Book Art Program has done community service from time to time, and it is always something I am interested in pursuing. We worked fairly extensively with the adult literacy program at the Oakland Public Library, as I mentioned, printing broadsides of writing by new readers/writers, inviting them to campus for a visit to the library and a chance to pull a print on the press, etc. We worked closely with a neighborhood Muslim school (no longer located in the area), having the kids come to campus to print and bind books in the studios.  Our studio director, Lara Durback, does a good deal of community-based work, often printing for community groups and the like.

Following the success of this Jamaica project, I would love to identify more ways that the Book Art Club can do service projects.

photo by Veronica Sutter-Handy

—Do you feel that Mills has a culture of community work or social outreach? How popular has social artmaking been on your campus? 

KW: Mills has a very strong commitment to social justice and community work overall.  Ethnic Studies, Education and Anthropology have all had ongoing programs of social engagement with the Oakland community. There has been social artmaking on campus from time to time, more in the sense of hosting craft fairs for Mills community makers.

—I hear the concept of "giving back" frequently in the culture today. Would you like to comment on that?

KW: I think many students at Mills and institutions like it are very interested in giving back, although they often are not sure how to do that. Our students are aware of their privileged position as students at a small private college and when given the opportunity to reach out to the larger community (local and otherwise) they are eager to do that. The population at Mills is diverse in a number of ways, generally do not come from highly privileged backgrounds themselves, and understand and are sympathetic to needs of the community outside the college.

—Anything either of you would like to add?

KW: Watching the students around the bindery table, chatting and sewing, I was aware of how natural it was for them to be generous with their time and talent despite the pull of school, work, family and all of the other responsibilities these students carry. This may be the entitled generation, but I wasn’t seeing any of that, only their collegiality and their generosity. It was inspiring.

photo by Veronica Sutter-Handy

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Speaking of Tongues in Boxes: A Tip

The Book Arts ListServe recently served up a nice course of instructions by way of a link to the Guild of Book Workers: The National Organization for All the Book Arts. Members of the group are professionals who have been working in the field, many for decades, and have vast technical knowledge. After perusing the list of handouts available as pdfs I found two in particular that you might be interested in.

—Karen Zukor, a conservationist, on Adhesives
—Hedi Kyle, with a trove of book structures and boxes, Preservation Enclosures & Architectural Book Environments

In Hedi Kyle's handout I found a reference to creating "tongues" when covering a box. A student in my studio years ago attempted to show me these, at the time calling them "legs," but I was teaching a different technique. Tongues or legs, whatever they are called, they are a good alternative to what I have been doing and teaching. A small detail, but they can make wrapping a box a little easier, eliminating the bunched-up material that can form inside the box if you don't make a series of strategic cuts. Here's what it looks like in photo form. Complete, detailed instructions (minus the legs) can be found on pages 226-228 in Making Handmade Books.

Wrap the sides, as usual.

Cut triangles at the corners at the base.

Glue down the flaps/turn ins.

At the corners, using a knife against a ruler,
cut two slits (tongues/legs), one on either side of the corner.
This will allow the large flaps to fit perfectly inside.

Glue down the tongues/legs at all four corners.

Apply glue to the flaps, one at a time, 
and smooth down with a bone folder, 
first making sure the top edge is flat.

I cut my book cloth extra wide, but you may need a rectangle
of book cloth to cover any exposed board inside.
I also glued a rectangle of black book cloth on the underside.

That's it! 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Artist's Book from the Past: Cut, 1982-84

I'm walking down memory lane today, thinking about the mail art with the picture of Alice and Gertrude that Wallace Berman sent to Jess and Robert Duncan (shown in this post). It brought me back to this raw book, Cut, made while I was still at student at CCA(C) that featured ephemera from my file cabinet and typed poems and fragments: a variation on a journal or scrapbook. Cut has photocopy of me wrapped around museum board as its cover. It is divided into titled sections: cornered; the mess/age; temper; pacing the porch.

I had thought I had placed the same image in the book, but my memory tricked me. The image Berman used:

The postcard sent to me (Image by Carl Van Vechten; now in the Beinecke Library, Yale University):

I believe I was fooled because they are dressed the same in both pictures. You can see a third shot with an airplane and the same outfits in the library collection here in the photo, "Landing at Cleveland."

Here is the first picture I drew on a Mac with a mouse. Once again, my memory proved incorrect. My memory tells me I made the drawing at my (now) husband's place of work in 1984 in Berkeley, but he tells me this is impossible because he hadn't started there, yet. Where and how did I make this, then?

Here's a photocopy of a letter, typed on a calendar page (!), accepting my very first story for publication in the Berkeley Fiction Review for a combined issue 2 & 3.

I used to photocopy certain kinds of junk mail postcards. Here, for "Cookware Set" and something about "Pardner for Rib Eye Steaks." Who decided that a bull wearing spurs would be happy to advertise steaks? Some text: "Includes! 40 lb. bonus pack," and "To the first 20 customers only! Hurry! Purchase Required." And on the Cookware Set: "You must be fully delighted."

The photocopier was my friend. I made photomontages (before there was Photoshop).

The binding is quite strange; it's a kind of hybrid sewn over ribbons. I remember that I wanted to have the individual section titles visible from the outside and this was my solution. I glued the gray paper from the back of one section to the front of the next.

An example of a newspaper clipping that continues to transfer itself to pages preceding it: acids and lignin over time, migrating. It looks interesting, but ultimately the book will self-destruct.

More photocopied junk mail, rubberstamped text, handwritten text and drawings:

I still collect ephemera, of a sort, but I don't have so many scraps of my own handwritten/typed work. I have 12,840 photos and probably hundreds of thousands of files of poems, stories, and digital fragments that may be part of a book someday, but probably not the same one. And never mind the stack of black journals. Somehow, it seems harder to throw things out when they are stored on the computer, harder to just make them all into one book and move on.

And this reminds me: if you want to see a beautiful book of fragments of Emily Dickinson's writings—she deliberately wrote on fragments of envelopes—you've got to see this new publication, with essays by Dickinson scholar Marta Werner and some inspiring page designs by the artist Jen Bervin: The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope Poems. Photos of each of the envelope fragments are reproduced, front and back, along with a key that is typeset so you can read it easily. There was an article about the book in the NY Times a couple weeks ago. I am fully delighted.