Monday, July 21, 2008

Guest Blogger Gina Vozenilek on slush piles, sports, journal editing, and MFAs

Note from Lisa: When I very briefly met Gina Vozenilek last year, I was struck by what sounded like her very cool job because at the time I was looking for a home for an essay about my former life as a hunter/jumper horse show competitor. Later, it was a pleasure to have Gina edit my work, and I was pleased too to discover her writing and that we had each written about some of the same mothering dilemmas.

Please welcome Gina Vozenilek.

When Lisa asked me to post on her blog while she labors in the final throes of her MFA, I was simultaneously honored and jealous. I met Lisa briefly at the NonFictioNow conference in Iowa City in the fall of 2007 and know her through her words, which I first admired as an editor at Sport Literate Magazine.
Her essay entitled “A Well-Jumped Fence,” which we published this spring in our “Winners and Losers” issue, really stood out from the pile. I thought I might muse a bit about it from an editorial perspective, assuming that if you are reading Lisa’s blog, more likely than not, you’ve got submissions in slush piles all over the place, too.

But first to the jealousy bit. I can’t help marveling at a mom finishing an MFA. Kudos! A mom finishing a sentence is pretty noteworthy in my book these days. I have four kids myself and usually feel entitled to someone’s congratulations if my family all has two clean socks and three squares a day. I dream of finding the time for my own literary art in a world dominated by cartoons and crayons. Being a freelance writer and editor seems to suck up every artistic minute I can squeeze from a day. I realized with a start just today as I sat at the public pool, chauffeur to the kids’ swim lessons, that if I started an MFA program now I would not be finished by my 40th birthday.
[I’d be happy for some suggestions on good creative nonfiction programs in the Chicago area, or low-residency options anywhere.]

Lisa’s essay is about the forward movement of life, simultaneously away from old passions (in her case, equestrian competition) and grounded in them. Her work appealed to me as a mother. She evoked some feelings I have had myself: how I traded in a sporty stick shift for a minivan and drove away from my PhD program in English at Iowa. “I love that my sons want to know about this part of my pre-Mom, pre-wife life,” Lisa writes of her horse memories. Similarly, I need my children to know that there was a “before” to their mother.

But as an editor, just the resonance of Lisa’s theme alone would not be enough to recommend her essay for publication. I don’t suppose writers get lucky merely by hitting on editors’ favorite ideas. It was the art of her writing that did it for me. She executed her theme and packaged those memories, without sap, in a solid wood tack box, the artifact of the life she left behind:

“ …in addition to equestrian equipment, the tack box held a former me—someone who could judge distances, calculate strides, and evaluate footing, while holding the reins to a 1,200-pound horse, galloping fast toward a four-foot fence; a mediocre though competent rider, but an excellent horseperson, someone who aspired and achieved …the tack box, kept all those years, serving no obvious or useful purpose, is really about passion, and about once-in-a-lifetime.”

Many times as an editor I read things that are well written at the sentence level but poorly realized on the larger scale, or vice versa. Editing for a publication topically interested in sports presents a further layer of complication. It’s an unusual niche; perhaps the writer is a sportsperson first and a writer second. So my eye is trained on the superb writer who has a story to tell through the vehicle of sport. I don’t care a jot myself for horses, but the tack box Lisa uses as a motif throughout her work proved to be a treasure chest of literary nonfiction.

As a postscript, I’d also like to say that
Sport Literate’s fall football issue and contest is in production, the winning essay having been selected by Creative Nonfiction’s Lee Gutkind. But we are taking submissions for our spring general issue, and I welcome you to give us a read and send us your essays and poetry.


Kristy Lund said...

I was thinking the same about Lisa being a mother and doing an MFA program. Amazing!

And Gina, with four kids I'm impressed you can do anything other than provide clean socks and meals. I only have two, but when they're not at school, it's a full time job, and then some.

Thanks for sharing with us what you look for. It was interesting to hear. Kristy

Lisa R. said...

I have to credit my husband, who truly stepped up while I was in the MFA program. He and both my kids (ages 8 and 12 when I started) simply learned to do a lot themselves. I doubt I could have done it had the children been much younger, so I can completely understand Gina's hesitancy and also her yearning.

Gina, give yourself plenty of credit for keeping your writing and editing career in shape while raising FOUR kids. I'm tired just thinking about that.

You know, maybe those 6 years when I was procrastinating about the MFA worked in my favor. By the time I started, my kids were not quite as needy.

That said, the truth is, I don't sleep much no matter what is going on in my life. I write long into the night.

Unless you live quite close to a good traditional MFA program, low residency is probably the way to if you can carve out the time, and have the discipline to work independently. Hey, doesn't that describe every mom?

Joanne said...

Hi Lisa, Just found your blog and enjoyed browsing. I like this interview, it's nice to read the editor's pov when considering our work. Your MFA accomplishment is commendable, as well as inspirational to others' aspirations. Congrats, and great blog!

Lisa R. said...

Hi Joanne, nice to have you here.
I too just love hearing the behind-the-scenes at journals, mags and other media, and I'm planning to have more from those editor-type folks in future.
Thanks for stopping by.