I am thrilled to see that Renée D’Aoust’s essay “Gratitude is my Terrain” has been named a 2016 Transformative Essay! We first spoke in 2011, and I am so happy to invite her back to talk about her fabulous essay, a mix of music, grief, love, strength, and beauty. Renée is the author of Body of a Dancer, a memoir of interlacing personal essays that explore the captivating but brutal world of modern dance in New York. Many of her essays have been named as best Notable Essays in the Best American Essays series. She is the Managing Editor of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies and volunteers as mentor in AWP’s writer-to-writer program. Today, she generously talks about her experiences of writing, editing, and submitting work.
Can you talk about the time frame for “Gratitude is my Terrain”?
Thank you so much for reading it—and for asking me about it.
“Gratitude is my Terrain” took about six months to write and to edit, which is a short process for me. I probably had about six drafts and three different titles. Usually I write closer to fifteen or twenty drafts of a piece. The form here was very clear to me from the start, and the form contained the content, so there was much more flow on a global level, which let me zero in sooner on the word choices and sentences. But I always make changes along the way, so I made various edits after a rejection and before the next submission.
Would you talk about the submission process? How long did it take you to hear back from the editors?
I started submitting “Gratitude is my Terrain” in December of 2014, and it was published by Sweet: A Literary Confection in January of 2016. It was such a special experience to work with them.
I submitted to over fourteen journals, which in retrospect seems like a small number. For this piece, specifically, journals took three to six months to reply. Of the fourteen journals, two sent me personal (rejection) notes, expressing how much each editor admired the piece, explaining what was not quite right for that journal, and requesting that I submit other work in the future. Those are wonderful letters to receive. One should keep in mind that most literary journal editors work as volunteers, and their time is incredibly valuable. So to receive a personal rejection letter is cause for celebration and recommitment to the piece—and that journal. For Sweet, I heard about the acceptance very quickly, about three weeks, if I recall correctly.
How many pieces did you submit in 2016?
2016 was a slow year of creative nonfiction submissions for me, because I was focused on writing book reviews, primarily of women nonfiction writers. I wrote and published six major book reviews (around 1000-1500 words each) for four different journals. I submitted nonfiction work to six different anthologies. A friend and I have a collaborative letter-writing project, in response to the US election, and we submitted a snapshot of that project that to a few journals.
What advice would you give to writers who are interested in submitting to literary journals?
Well, first, if one is planning to submit to literary journals, one must read literary journals. Better yet, subscribe! If finances are difficult, haunt university libraries and bookstores. Subscribe to Poets & Writers magazine and get to know their submission section, which is excellent. Haunt online venues and read. Read beyond your comfort zone. Read as an act of literary engagement. The writing process is not all about you and your work. It’s about being part of a community. Literary journals make the writing world go round, and some of the best work today is being published in them.
Know the journal to which you want to submit. Don’t be desperate about publication. Your work needs to find the right home, and journals need to find the right work. That process requires patience and time.
Once you are in the submission process, if you receive a rejection, get that piece out the door again within a week.
Absolutely do not denigrate the process of submitting work. The process can feel hard, but it’s great practice. Be realistic, but keep the impossible goal as a possible outcome.
And, finally, don’t be afraid of rejection. Rejection is simply an affirmation that you are offering up your work to the writing gods. What could be better?
When you have work accepted, celebrate. Cookies, I think, are in order.
What is the best writing advice you have ever received?
Oh, from my mom! “Butt on chair, pen on paper, write.”
What is your process when you are revising your work?
Let’s note that walking, or some kind of regular movement like swimming, is essential for a writer. I also think a rescue pet is a must.
I love editing more than I like the initial process of writing first drafts, which I find painful. Editing is all about craft, and craft is the way we build the foundation of every piece of writing, every page, paragraph, sentence. Editing, for me, is like taking a daily dance class, or taking my miniature dachshund Tootsie on her daily walk. I love the process of revision—it’s full of possibility and recalibration and focus. I love to print out work and cut it up with scissors and tape it back together. Highlighters are a must. Old school stuff. I love it when the dog walks across a manuscript spread out on the floor and scruffs it up and I see a sentence I don’t like that must be revised. I try everything during the revision process—different tense, different point of view, different structure, different whatever. I’ll work on a piece for years. It’s much more rare that I finish a piece in three to six months, say, as I did with “Gratitude in my Terrain.”
What are your writing goals in 2017? How important is it to have goals?
My goal in 2017 is all about doing the daily work. I want to show up at the page and write new material. I also have a goal of reading fifty books. I have to say again how much writing is about reading. I have a great desire to write about my dachshund, so I’m doing posts at Bicontinental Dachshund about dog literature. I want to write about climate change, an issue of great urgency with the current take-over of the US government by a climate denying, bullying, racist and misogynistic demagogue and his cronies.
I think goals are an essential part of the writing process, but I am suspicious of them, too. For example, I want the process—words on the page—to be as important as publication. If my goals become too external, I like to refocus. What do I need to say, why do I need to say it, and how might my experience(s)—if we’re talking about creative nonfiction—be placed in a greater context that matters, that is useful, that includes the earth and those with less access than I may have, that has resonance to our dark times?
Thank you, again, and I send all good courage to you and our fellow writers.