How to Live the Writing Life

Mary Gannon and Kevin Larimer, the two most recent editors of Poets & Writers, want you to know how to be a writer. That means understanding every step of the process, not just when to pick up the pen (or put it down) or open up the laptop (or close it shut). Their new book, The Poets & Writers Complete Guide to Being a Writer, includes tips on finding and entering writing contests, applying for and taking writing retreats, navigating the seas of self-publishing, finding an agent and working with an editor, and building a sustainable career.
Larimer said that the duo “tried to balance practical, no-nonsense tips and insights from successful authors and publishing professionals with a decidedly more human, humane, and emotional approach to the writing life.” Their hope, Adler said, was that the book would “reflect the hearts and souls of the writers we’ve worked with and come to deeply admire over the past two decades as much as their boundless creativity and bright intellect.”
The effort, according to some of the biggest names in writing and publishing, paid off, with Graywolf publisher Fiona McCrae calling the book a “teeming compendium” and Riverhead Books associate publisher and director of publicity Jynne Dilling Martin adding, in a blurb for a book published by a rival company, that she found the book “lucid, lively, [and] enormously helpful.”
To help distill some of their knowledge for the masses, The Millions asked Gannon and Latimer to round up six pieces of advice from the book they found both representative and particularly helpful. Here are six shortened selections they sent us:
1. Read literary magazines—and subscribe to them, too.
This seems like a no-brainer, but not all writers take the time to do it. Reading literary magazines not only demonstrates good literary citizenship, but it also provides essential information about the field and the chance to discover the work of writers you wouldn’t otherwise find. You can take note of where your favorite authors are publishing their work, hone in on particular magazines’ missions and aesthetics, and support the very magazines you hope to be published in one day. And as writer Yuka Igarashi says, “A literary magazine puts a writer in conversation with other writers and, depending on the magazine, with a community, with a lineage or tradition.” — chosen by Mary Gannon
2.Write a fan letter to an author.
All writers, even the most established, need a little love. And you’d be surprised to know how meaningful receiving a fan letter can be to a writer. Plus, carving out the time to think through and articulate why a book or piece of writing moves you, what you found important, and possibly even transformative, gives you a gift as well—the opportunity to understand what you value most and why. This clarity can inform your own writing practice in significant ways. —chosen by Mary Gannon
3.You don’t need an MFA to be a successful writer.
Pursuing a master of arts degree in creative writing has become a well-travelled path toward becoming a published writer, but it’s not the only path and it can be expensive. (If you do choose to pursue an MFA, we highly recommend researching programs that offer full funding.) What the MFA provides—the time and environment for refining your craft with like-minded people—can be achieved through other means. Think writing conferences, writing groups, and DIY retreats. Talk to any agent or editor, in New York City or elsewhere, and they’ll all say the same thing. If given a choice between a mediocre manuscript from a writer with an MFA and a remarkable one from a writer who never even went to college, they will always choose the best writing. —chosen by Mary Gannon
4.Don’t feel guilty if you’re not writing.
Too often we hear the advice that all writers really need to do is force themselves to sit there and write. As Mary Heaton Vorse purportedly said to Sinclair Lewis over a century ago: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat on the pants to the seat of the chair.” While it’s true that nothing was ever written without a significant amount of time spent, you know, writing, you shouldn’t feel a constant sense of guilt if you’re not in that chair writing at every available moment of every day. Some authors talk about how they’re able to plant themselves in the writing chair on a strict schedule, which can be inspiring, but it can also give beginning writers the impression that everyone works that way. Or that everyone should want to work that way. So, in the book we wanted to guard against the assumption that if you don’t keep a rigorous writing schedule you must not want it enough, that you must not be serious about writing if you aren’t dedicating a set number of hours to the act of writing. This is nonsense. It ignores the reality for many of us—the reality that is composed of varying levels, degrees, and amounts of responsibility, of inequality, of privilege, of access. Your level of passion and commitment to writing is not commensurate with the number of hours per day that you write. Being a writer is about more than just writing. There’s a reason we refer to it as “the writing life.” An important part of being a writer is living—and truly living is ensuring that you’re not chained to a desk staring at a computer at the expense of lived experience (which will, of course, inform and enliven your writing). —chosen by Kevin Larimer
5.Be proud of yourself.
Too often, especially for writers, pride can sound like a bad word. Many of us downplay our contributions and accomplishments, forgetting to take a moment to feel proud of what we’re doing on the page. Having grown up on a farm in the Midwest, in a family where modesty was held up as a kind of unspoken principle, I can find it difficult, even under the sheen of social media, to take time for the good, healthy, valuable feelings of accomplishment that come after a long writing or editing project is finally complete. We wanted to make sure that our book included some reminders to writers to take a moment and give yourself permission to brag a bit. Don’t automatically dismiss what you’re doing if someone brings up your writing over dinner or in casual conversation. You’re a writer; you’ve written something unique. And there are millions of people out there who cannot say that. It’s a special thing you’re doing, unique to you. Go ahead, be proud of yourself! —chosen by Kevin Larimer
6.Feel your post-publication feelings.
Honestly, this is something we were able to write about only after our own book was well on its way to being published, and we added it as the last chapter because the feelings we were writing about were so strong. Not a lot of writers talk about it, at least not publicly, because unless you’ve been through the process yourself, you likely wouldn’t know to ask an author about it. And so many writers hold publication as a top marker of success; it makes sense that authors wouldn’t want to be perceived as complaining about how emotionally difficult it can be. Plus, it’s kind of personal. It can be a little embarrassing when your eyes well up with tears when you hit send on the final manuscript to your editor. There are so many emotions—joy, relief, excitement, and happiness, yes, but also fear, sadness, exhaustion; heck, maybe you’re feeling a little let down after the rush leading up to deadline. All of these things are normal. So don’t be embarrassed of your feelings. You’re engaged in something really big. This work involves every part of you, and there are highs and lows at every step. We want to remind writers to feel it all, and use every piece of it to fuel and empower your next writing project. —chosen by Kevin Larimer
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Breathing New Life into Old Books

Books are constantly being made into movies, but rarely is a movie actually about books—let alone the people who sell them. Earlier this month, The Booksellers, a documentary on the antiquarian book trade and the buyers and sellers of rare books, hit theaters to overall acclaim, and while the film is very much about its characters, it’s also about the trade as a whole, and how it’s surviving in an era of dizzying technological advancement.
We spoke to the film’s director, D.W. Young, about how the movie came about and what the future of the rare book world looks like to him.
The Millions: How did this project come about?
D.W. Young: The very first idea for the project came from our producer Dan Wechsler, who is also a prominent rare book dealer. He has also done some film work, and he and Judith Mizrachy, our other producer and my partner and my wife, and we’ve worked together on lots of things over the years. She had worked with Dan on something, we’d all kind of worked together on some projects like eight or nine years ago and become friends. We were talking about future projects and he mentioned he’d always thought a documentary about the rare book world would be a great idea. It had never been done. And from his perspective from inside the book world, he had a lot of ideas. And Judith and I immediately agreed that it was a great idea. We each had some peripheral sense of the rare book world, we’re both people who love books. So we enthusiastically agreed. But we were all tied up in other projects at the time and we didn’t really get to it until about three years ago when we were actually working on something else which hit a standstill. So at that time I said, you know what, I think this would be a great moment to pursue the rare book idea. And so we did.
TM: How did the process of reporting it go?
DWY: Dan provided some shortcuts. He got us to some people sooner and easier and kinda got the ball rolling faster than it might’ve. I think we would’ve gotten to the same place in a lot of respects left to our own devices. But it would have been more work and taken longer. And in a few cases he helped get some people on board who might’ve been reluctant or taken a lot more cajoling. But in terms of the reporting, I think with something like this, it’s a kind of organic process where you have things in mind but you also need to be receptive to it being a learning experience and kind of discovering things as you go. I was doing research on my own and, and talking to people also, and that’s kind of how I was acquainting myself with this world. So first, I think we wanted to talk to a certain base of people and from there, certain connections started being made about what was possible and a sense of how many aspects of the trade we could fit into a movie started to clarify. Then it gets a little more interesting when you start to try and fit people in a more specific way. That became about thinking of a further set of dealers—certain collectors who would be complimentary to what we already had, and a few external voice, Fran Liebowitz being one and Susan Orlean being another. It’s a building process.
TM: What was one of the things that you learned along the way that surprised you or changed the way that you were looking at the rare book world, or even just how you would frame it in the film?

Rare book dealer Adam Weinberger appraises books at a residence in Manhattan in The Booksellers.
DWY: One thing that I really was not so aware was how much the trade handles material that’s not just books or paper, although that’s still the dominant component of what people in the rare book trade transact with. But I didn’t realize how much ephemera and other historically relevant material could fall under the umbrella of the rare book trade. We saw 19th-century board games from France and enigma machines from World War II, certain photography, and other material.
TM: Did you find the breadth of the trade surprising?
DWY: Absolutely. I was super enthusiastic when I realized that hip hop magazines and that kind of material was starting to become part of the rare book world. And I was very excited to bring it into the film, because hip hop is an enormously important cultural factor. But I think the very key point is that it’s not albums themselves as musical collectibles, as music, that it’s relevant to the rare book world. It’s historical significance. The magazines that Syreeta Gates collects, many of them haven’t even been digitized yet. You would think they would be, but even so, they haven’t. The understanding of the historical context of say the eighties and the nineties is important. To further enhance the context of our historical understanding of that period, there’s great value to collecting that stuff. I needed stuff like that for the film, the more recent stuff, the zines and stuff like that. It seems like it was just yesterday, but it’s kind of in the rear view mirror already. And it weirdly falls into the rare book trade.
TM: The rare book business is heavily white and male, even today. But the types of books being collected are obviously not just about the history of white culture, but about the history of everything. Knowing that, do you think there’s a possibility for more diversification in this side of the business?
DWY: I think so, and I think that’s really the position of a number the younger dealers, who are very smart, and they really advocate that belief, and I think it is expressed in the film. From what I’ve seen, I think it seems to have a lot of merit. The rare book trade is not an institution. No one’s in charge of it. It’s comprised of just a bunch of individuals. Most of them have a shop that’s just them or maybe one other person or a couple of helpers. So there’s no clear path to adding diversity to the trade at the higher end. We focused on established dealers who were generally fairly established in the higher echelons of the market. Adding more diversity there, it’s not like some of those dealers who are now older have not been at the forefront of providing access to a lot of interesting material that is diverse. They’ve helped bring new collectors and new institutional interest to all kinds of material. That said, I have to clarify that I feel like I’m still very much an outsider’s perspective on this. But I think that’s one of the things with Syreeta collecting hip hop magazines, or some of the stuff that Arthur Fournier collects in the film, that’s clearly speaking to a different generation than your traditional model collector from the past. I think that there’s good reason to believe that the more that material stretches out into encompassing more and more kinds of things that will hopefully lead to some more diversity in the trade. There’s a potential I think for a broadening of the trade—who engages in it—that could go hand in hand with a broadening of what’s collectible.
TM: What’s something you weren’t able to explore in the film that you wish you could have?
DWY: One thing I never got a satisfactory answer to, and I don’t think there is a right answer, but I kinda think is really interesting as far as institutions are concerned—and also collectors, but even more so institutions—is, to what degree do the dealers influence what’s considered new and interesting and collectible, by being at the forefront, and what degree are they responding to the institutions and the collectors and their own groundbreaking interests. I think, ultimately, it’s a two way street. Both things are happening simultaneously, and each instance is different of why and to what degree. The dealers of course probably feel a little more strongly about what they’re bringing to the table, and I’m sure the librarians feel the opposite. But I think it’s interesting that there’s a kind of dialogue that’s going on there. It’s kind of too complicated a thing to get into a documentary, but in other kinds of discourse, it would be interesting to delve into further.
In terms of a specific scene, one dealer who appeared in the film, Dave Bergman, showed me these amazing catalogs from the late 1800s, I’m guessing, of fittings—like, the brass and other fittings—for caskets and funeral materials. It’s just an entire catalog of brass fittings and stuff. There’s no comparison for today. That doesn’t exist anymore, a lot of what’s in this catalog. And no one 30 years ago likely thought that this was very interesting at all. But we’ve changed our appreciation for how that could speak to us historically, or be collectible. I looked at that and thought it was really interesting how something can go from being literally something someone would throw on the fire to having value. It’s just a question of people seeing it differently.
TM: At the end of The Booksellers, the rare book sellers weigh in on how they see the future of the trade—some are hopeful, some are not. How do you feel about the future of rare bookselling?
DWY: I feel like I’m somewhere in the middle. That said, I choose to feel positive, insofar as it is a matter of choice. I think at the end of the day, having to go one direction or another, I would choose to take the positive approach. If your experts are that down the middle, sometimes I think just the act of believing is what tips the scales. What’s more interesting to me is how little anyone agree on this point in the book trade. You could get book dealers talking about this endlessly. The degree of uncertainty in the moment is kind of the most compelling factor in the end. We’re really in this moment where everyone is so uncertain about this. It’s reflective of the technological zeitgeist as well. Everything in our world is in flux at an increasingly rapid rate. The rare book trade is certainly not a mirror of society as a whole, but it’s undergoing many similar changes to those that are happening elsewhere. It’s interesting, I think, to compare that experience of this one very specific world to the larger world beyond. Where are they similar? Where do they diverge in their responses to some of these changes. Regarding diversity and the book trade, for instance, I think it’s interesting to see how that relates to questions and issues of diversity in society at large, and the push for that. For the younger dealers, there is a great sense of passion and importance placed upon that. One of the functions of a documentary is to exist as a historical record of the time and place in which it’s being made. Obviously that’s something we hope the film does.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

“Cancelled” Is Canceled

Welcome to Do You Copy, a semi-regular column on copyediting (copy editing? copy-editing?) that investigates some of the editorial life’s deepest mysteries. When is an en dash a better hyphen than a hyphen? Why are there so many stylebooks? Should we give a dang about the interrobang!? Learn the answers to these questions and more, and prepare for punctuation pedantry.

The word “cancel” is very popular these days. So-called cancel culture has been in full swing for a while, and with the new coronavirus affecting pretty much everything in our world right now, all kinds of things are getting canceled. Yep. That’s right. One “l.”

Circumstances, therefore, demand that your favorite friendly neighborhood copy dork—eat your heart out, Benjamin Dreyer!—speak up to settle things once and for all: If you are writing in American English, “canceled” and “canceling” are spelled with one “l,” but “cancellation” is spelled with two. This is, of course, unless you work at The New Yorker, where the style guide is both a sexy renegade and very incorrect.

That’s right, folks! Whether it’s a bad man or a public event you’re canceling, be sure to do it with impeccable spelling and fewer wasted letters. And if you disagree, please feel free to challenge me to a duel, to be held sometime when all the events aren’t getting canceled. (One “l.”) We can even film it, and call it L-raisers.

Or, of course, you can ignore me and go ahead spelling it “kåñçèŁ’d” or some such madness. It’s just copy, after all. Go nuts! Who cares!? Just please stay inside!!

Image Credit: Pixabay.

Laying Cromwell to Rest: The Millions Interviews Hilary Mantel

With the publication of Wolf Hall—the first book in what was to become a trilogy chronicling the life of Thomas Cromwell, the lowborn man who became one of Henry VIII’s closest advisers—in 2009, novelist Hilary Mantel became a global superstar. Three years later, its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, cemented the deal. Now, Mantel wraps up the most critically acclaimed and widely-read historical fiction saga of the 21st century with The Mirror and the Light, which begins with the death of Anne Boleyn and ends with the death of Cromwell himself. On the eve of the book’s publication, we asked Mantel about the challenges of writing historical fiction, what it was about Cromwell she found so fascinating, and what tricks of the trade she relied on.
The Millions: You recently told The New York Times that, now that you’ve finished telling the story of Thomas Cromwell, you’ve finished with historical fiction and will pivot to writing plays. What is it about Cromwell that made his story irresistible where others were not?

Hilary Mantel: I’ve had Cromwell in view all my writing career. It seemed like a story with endless ambiguity, which is what sustains a writer. You can’t completely account for Cromwell and you can’t add him up. There’s so much we will never know, and what attracts me as a novelist is the combination of documented fact—the heavily-inked paper—and what’s missing and unknown—the white space.
TM: Which characters in the Court of King Henry VIII were you surprised to find yourself drawn to throughout your research, besides Cromwell?

HM: I try to see my characters through Cromwell’s eyes—that’s the essence of the enterprise. So I find Thomas More endlessly intriguing. Among less famous figures, I’m drawn to Rafe (or Ralph) Sadler, Cromwell’s apprentice, who grew up in his household. Rafe survived Cromwell and survived Henry, and was still working for the Tudor dynasty in his 80s.
TM: What do you think it says about your readership in the U.S. that so many were drawn to a nearly 1,800–page trilogy chronicling 16th-century English politics?
HM: Perhaps it shows that it’s about more than 16th century politics—that it addresses certain lasting truth about power and sex and love, public image, and private dreams.
TM: Setting aside the work of Mary Robertson, which you’ve often cited as a major influence, what sorts of works did you find yourself drawn to: primary or secondary sources? narrative or scholarly histories? historiographies? Why?
HM: I found myself drawn to the sources. I like to get as close to the 1530s as I can. One of my tasks was to reappraise Cromwell, who has not been well-served by biographers or popular historians till very recently. Now there has been a new interest in him, a return to source, and an end—I trust—to the rolling forward of some of the old mistakes and misperceptions.
TM: What’s a skill you developed over the course of writing the series that is specific to adapting a historical saga into a work of fiction?

HM: I think I developed my skills in handling information when I wrote my first big historical novel, A Place of Greater Safety, set during the French Revolution. I’m old-fashioned, and believe in a card index—or a series of them, as needed. The making of them is what puts the data into your head. But only time and imagination makes that data personal and useful.
TM: What are some works of historical fiction you find extraordinary that have flown under the radar and that you hope readers of your series will find and read?

HM: Barry Unsworth had a robust historical imagination, and won the Booker prize for Sacred Hunger, but less famous is his novel Losing Nelson, where a present-day observer interrogates the legend of the 18th-century admiral, and has to rethink his hero worship. It’s this questioning attitude that speaks to me.
TM: This book was initially due to publish in 2018, and the British press hasn’t let you forget it. Is this a case of journalists not understanding how, or the pace at which, novelists and historians work?
HM: The press has all sorts of fantasies about dates when books are due. (I have even seen announcements of books I have not started, and perhaps never will.) But as you imply, novels take their own time, and my publishers in every country were willing to let me have the time I needed. But it is mildly irritating to be told you are “blocked,” when you are writing every day of the week.
TM: What’s harder for you: finding the right fact, or turning the right phrase?
HM: The first needs some luck and the second needs plenty of practice.
TM: What one fundamental aspect of history do you wish readers, or the culture at large, knew that you now know after years of researching the period you’ve fictionalized?
HM: The past has to be respected and valued for its own sake. It is not a rehearsal for the present, and its people are not us in a primitive form.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

All Poetry Is Political: The Millions Interviews Olivia Gatwood

Author Olivia Gatwood’s debut collection of poems, Life of the Party, was a hot ticket at last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, and was published by Random House last month. In addition to being an accomplished poet both in spoken word and on the page, Gatwood is also a Title IX Compliant educator in sexual assault prevention and recovery, and her new collection interrogates issues of the body and sexual trauma. The Millions spoke with Gatwood about the process leading to her first published collection, the distinction between poetry and spoken word poetry, and the importance of feminism and politics in art—and asked for a recording of her reading a poem from the collection as well.
The Millions: Was there one poem, or a few, in this collection that was harder to write than the others? If so, is there a story behind that you’d be willing to share?
Olivia Gatwood: The Babysitter poems and the No Baptism series were both really difficult for a variety of reasons. One, because they both unfold throughout the book, so I had to consider their narrative arc of the specific series as well as within the individual poems and how I would weave them in conversation with the other poems in the book. But also because they are both deeply vulnerable, personal stories that, to be honest, I don’t remember quite well but affected my life in significant ways. I felt like I was investigating my own life, forming a hypothesis based on what I remember and how I felt, then throwing my findings into the hands of other people.
TM: Do you distinguish at all between slam and written poetry in your work? Do you write differently when a poem will be published in print before it’s spoken, or vice versa?
OG: Slam poetry is a competition in which I am no longer active. The only distinction I make between spoken word and written word is that one is spoken aloud and one is not. When a poem is read aloud, no matter where or in what way, that poem is spoken word. I know that seems obvious, but I think a lot of people (often those who don’t perform) enforce this very strict boundary between spoken and written word in order to preserve some understanding they have of what makes something “literary”. Which is often just rooted in racism and misogyny. Anyway, I do think it can be important for poets like myself who were brought up in slam to learn how to consider their work on the page—can your poem still stand up for itself when you’re not there to give it life? That came later for me and when it did, it drastically changed the way I understood my craft. I think poets who haven’t historically performed their work should challenge themselves to do the inverse, too. Now when I’m writing, I’m considering both (performance and page) equally and in constant conversation. I don’t want people to rely on me to read my poems aloud to them. But also, when people come to my shows, I want them to leave feeling like that was exactly how they needed to experience it.
TM: How did you work to strike a balance between the more traditionally lyric verse in your book and the more prosaic?
OG: I studied fiction in undergrad so I think it’s pretty natural for me to tell stories in prose. I love how much permission poetry gives me to write a story, to honor the form that it takes despite genre. I wish I had a more concrete answer but that’s really it. I write the poem how it’s asking to be written and rarely do I try to sculpt it into something else.

TM: This collection mines personal experience very explicitly, in ways that would seem to encourage readers to see its author as the speaker in many of its poems. Do you see yourself as a “confessional” poet? Why or why not?
OG: I don’t really know what it means to be “confessional.” To be honest, I just had to google it. Okay so it means the poet uses “I” versus I guess, writing about what is happening outside of the self. In that case, I’m extremely confessional. Or maybe just a narcissist.

TM: In addition, this collection is strongly feminist and takes a stand against patriarchal values and the representations of domestic violence in pop culture. Do you see yourself as a “political” poet? Why or why not?
OG: All poetry is political. Even the freedom to be indifferent is political. Poetry by white, cis, straight men that doesn’t explicitly talk about politics is political because white, cis, straight men feeling unburdened enough to not talk about politics is political. So yeah, I’d say my work is political.
TM: Which poets working today whose work you see as similar to yours do you most admire, and why? Similarly, what poets do you see as writing very different poetry from yours whose work you admire?
OG: Melissa Lozada-Oliva and I are super close friends and came up alongside each other in poetry—I admire her work so much because she is bending genre in really interesting ways. She’s merging comedy and poetry and performance and challenging her audiences to come with her, which they are. I see a lot of similarities between my work and Kim Addonizio’s. When I came across her book, I read every poem aloud to myself and was overcome with how much of myself I saw in it. I’m endlessly inspired by Ada Limón. Discovering her work taught me more about writing than any class I’ve ever taken. Same goes for Lucille Clifton, Ross Gay, Kristin Chang and Carrie Fountain. I love Remy Ma, Amy Winehouse, Lorde. All of their work is super different from my own, because of genre but also lyrical content, but I turn to their work and their careers for guidance all the time.
TM: What did you find to be the hardest part of putting together a book of poetry?
OG: Building a clear, narrative arc with a bunch of soundbites that you didn’t write in chronological order. Every wall in my house had poems taped to it.
TM: What can you tell us about the poem you chose to read and why you chose it?
OG: I chose this poem because it functions as a kind of retroactive disclaimer for the entire book. It explains something explicitly that I think I’m trying to explain all along.

This Is the Right Way to Capitalize Headlines

Welcome to Do You Copy, a semi-regular column on copyediting (copy editing? copy-editing?) that investigates some of the editorial life’s deepest mysteries. When is an en dash a better hyphen than a hyphen? Why are there so many stylebooks? Should we give a dang about the interrobang!? Learn the answers to these questions and more, and prepare for punctuation pedantry.

Headline writing is a mug’s game. In print, there’s rarely much space to play around. On the web, there’s too much space, and readers don’t click on anything interesting. And no matter how hard headlinese writers may try, they’ll never beat Variety headlines from the 1940s. It’s rough out there.

But when a hed is finally finished after much hemming, hawing, and editing, writers and editors are faced with an even tougher challenge: knowing which words to capitalize and which to keep in lowercase. There are just so many parts of speech! And so many words with multiple uses! Recalling all the ins and outs of proper headline capitalization is a daunting task indeed.

Which is why, after being shackled to a table adjacent to a whiteboard with nothing but pamplemousse La Croix to hydrate him for nearly an hour, Publishers Weekly managing editor Dan Berchenko laid out for me a strategic plan for capitalizing correctly in headlines (and in any titles, actually!) in the remixed and modified University of Chicago style that is PW’s own. It has been birthed in the form of this handy flowchart, the product of the blood, carbonated sweat, and grapefruity tears of an expert grammarian. Use it wisely.

But wait, you say. Surely there must be exceptions. What about the phrase take on, for instance? Or team up? Surely both those words would be capitalized! Well…. “The word up in team up is not a preposition—it’s an adverb,” Dan clarifies between gulps of sweet, sweet seltzer. “It modifies team as a verb—‘I teamed up with X.’ If it were a preposition there, you’d literally be talking about teaming above something, which is nonsensical. Almost all short words have multiple functions, and you have to think about the function, not the word. In other words,” he clarified, “it’s not an exception.”

Exactly. There are no exceptions in copyediting. Except for all the exceptions, of course. Check some of those out in our next Do You Copy column, in which we’ll dig a bit deeper into the knotty world of names and how, exactly, to denote them.

Image credit: Unsplash/Amador Loureiro.

Telling Toni Morrison’s Story: The Millions Interviews Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

A new literary documentary, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, which chronicles the life and career of the prolific author (and, less famously, influential book editor), hit theaters last week.
The film touches on a number of milestones in Morrison’s wide-ranging career: fighting for a salary equivalent to those of her male colleagues at publisher L.W. Singer; editing, among others, Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, Quincy Troupe, and Muhammad Ali; and the backlash from the white male publishing and literary zeitgeist following her Nobel Prize in Literature win. The Millions spoke with the film’s director, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, about what he hopes his film will achieve.
The Millions: How did this documentary come about?

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders: I first met Toni Morrison in 1981 when she sat for a portrait in my East Village studio. Tar Baby was just out and I shot her for a cover story of the Soho News. Our friendship continued, and over the years I photographed her for book jackets and press images. As the years passed, I split my time between portraiture and documentary filmmaking. It was a 2006 conversation with Toni in my kitchen that sparked the idea for my film series on identity. Toni was the first to sit for HBO’s The Black List, which ultimately featured 50 leading African Americans. It became clear to me then that Toni deserved her own feature documentary.
TM: Morrison is known for being extraordinarily perceptive. How did she make for an interview subject?
TGS: The key to any great interview is trust. Toni trusted me to make this film and, consequently, was very open about her life. Additionally, Toni is a master storyteller, and the camera loves her. Her warmth and wisdom come through…and she is blessed with a magnificent, mesmerizing voice. As filmmakers, you could not ask for anything more.
TM: How did you strike a balance between portraying Morrison’s family life, her publishing career, and her writing career?

TGS: We wanted audiences to see more than just Toni Morrison the Nobel laureate. She had a huge career at Random House, where she edited bestsellers like Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest: My Own Story and published voices that might have been lost without her support: Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, Lucille Clifton. She “cracked the ivory tower” of the publishing world and did all of this while she was writing her own incredible novels, teaching college, and raising two boys as a single mother. We wanted to show all of Toni’s hats and how her life of books had all of these lesser-known facets among her many achievements.

TM: How did you come to choose the other voices from the publishing and writing worlds that appear in the documentary? How did Hilton Als, Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Robert Gottlieb, Walter Mosley, Russell Banks, Fran Lebowitz, and Sonia Sanchez get involved?

TGS: We started with a long list of names, and a very sharp pencil to cross most of them off! We became very specific about what each interviewee would bring to the narrative. For example, Oprah, the Book Club and Beloved; Gottlieb, his experience as her editor; Lebowitz, her humor and long friendship with Toni, etc. I didn’t want too many other voices, so there would be plenty of room for Toni. Visually, my idea was to shoot Toni direct-to-camera and the other interviewees looking off camera. This way, Toni talks directly to us and the others talk about her. It was a risky decision because once you go down that road, you’re stuck with the format. It did work out beautifully.
TM: Writing is not an activity that’s visually interesting. How did you manage to tell Morrison’s story on film, considering this challenge?
TGS: There are more than 600 archival images and video clips in the film. Our editor, Johanna Giebelhaus, was also the researcher, and she pulled remarkable material from the Library of Congress, the National Archives, Howard University, archives in Toni’s hometown in Ohio, the Random House archive, and Toni’s personal archive at Princeton. Toni’s old interviews with Charlie Rose, Dick Cavett, and Bill Moyers were also important elements. Additionally, we incorporated stunning fine art paintings from a wide range of African American artists such as Kara Walker, Kerry James Marshall, Rashid Johnson, Lorna Simpson, Jacob Lawrence, and Faith Ringgold, to name a few. These artworks help illustrate the themes Toni explores in her writing. Mickalene Thomas came onboard and used my images of Toni to create a spectacular opening credit montage.
TM: Were there any interesting publishing tidbits you chose to leave out of the film? If so, can you share one?

TGS: The one person we interviewed, who sadly didn’t make the final cut, was Peter Sellars. Toni and Peter worked together at Princeton in the atelier program that Toni created and had many debates about Shakespeare. Peter challenged Toni to write an answer to Othello and Toni’s play Desdemona, which focused on the female characters, was the result. We edited a riveting discussion of Toni and Peter’s artistic collaboration, but ultimately didn’t have room for it. Hopefully, this will be in the DVD extras. Toni’s thoughts on writing about sex for her book Jazz was also cut for time. Fascinating stuff!
TM: In what ways do you think this film, through telling Morrison’s life, gets at a fundamental truth about American publishing and literature?
TGS: An important section of the film explores the mostly white and predominately male world of 60’s and 70’s publishing. Toni describes how she navigated that. Her own writing and her publishing had profound impact, and fundamentally changed the canon by introducing African-American writers to a large audience. We also show how she brought to publishing her experience as a teacher, which gave her a critical insight into what literature and books were missing from the “catalogue.” It was a heady time, and while people were demonstrating in the streets, Toni’s mission as an editor was to create a permanent record of the ideas percolating outside—most importantly about race and the American experience.
TM: What do you hope audiences will take away from your film?
TGS: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am presents Toni as the person that I know…and I think one that her other friends will recognize too. That’s a rare achievement for a documentary. Audiences will see her as the brilliant, strong woman that she is. They will also love her more than ever. I also hope the film introduces Toni and her writing to a new generation that might not have read her books.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

How Do You Like Your Copy?

Copy editors are a serious bunch to whom excitement comes slowly and furor over a misused semicolon comes quickly. At least, that’s what the popular narrative would have you think. Enter “comma queen” Mary Norris (of The New Yorker) and Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer, both of whom have written whole columns or books (or both!) about copy that were, believe it or not, riveting. Literary Hub has brought the two together to discuss their love of editing, copy mistakes writers often make, and more. It is technical. It is also fun.

Image Credit: Pxhere.

An Imagined Possibility: The Millions Interviews Claudia Rankine

On March 19th, poet Claudia Rankine published her debut play, The White Card, which, according to Graywolf Press, poses an essential question: Can American society progress if whiteness remains invisible?
The Millions sat down with Rankine to discuss the differences between writing for the page and for the stage, and watching her work take life in the theater.
The Millions: What made you decide to write The White Card, and specifically to format it as a play?
Claudia Rankine: Our inability to have conversations is manifesting as a national crisis. As poet T.S. Eliot writes, we must “after tea and cakes and ices,/ Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis.” Since plays can perform an imagined possibility, I wanted the genre to help me see what a continued discussion around race could look like.
TM: Why publish the play in book form a year later? In particular, why now?
CR: Never has it seemed more urgent for us to begin to trouble the conversations we attempt regarding a dynamic that is costing Americans and others around the world, their lives and livelihoods. The book seemed to me a beginning look at the anxieties and fragilities we encounter in these encounters.

TM: Did you think of this play as an extension of your work in Citizen: An American Lyric, or as something completely different? Why?
CR: The play would not have happened were it not for the discussions about Citizen that I had around the country in Q&A sessions, onstage interviews, and conversations with various artists and thinkers. It was only then that I understood our limitations when trying to discuss issues of racial difference face to face.
TM: What are some of the differences between the way you write poetry and the way you write for the stage?
CR: Playwriting is a deeply collaborative endeavor. The work of The White Card could not have been made without the efforts of the dramaturg P. Carl, the director Diane Paulus, and the rest of the crew. The text shifts based on the voices and personalities of the actors, their lines of inquiry into the characters they were embodying. In many ways I feel like I entered the room with an idea, and it was only through the interaction with others that it came into fruition.

TM: The play premiered staged last year in Boston. What are your thoughts on its staging?
CR: The staging of the play was brilliantly realized by the scenic designs of Ricardo Hernandez, the costume design of Emilio Sosa, the lighting design of Stephen Strawbridge, and the sound design of Will Pickens. I communicated to the designers that I wanted people to understand the structural nature of whiteness, and in this way the set (a white box) became a metaphor for troubling, immersive structures of white dominance.
TM: Do you think the premiere’s location—in Boston, which is often called, as the Boston Globe has itself noted, the country’s “most racist city”—was appropriate, considering the play’s themes? Did you think it might have prompted a different audience response in another city?
CR: Though Boston holds the dubious categorization, I think the play could have opened anywhere in the United States, given that we are talking about structural segregation that has predetermined the nature of our institutions and interactions.
TM: Are you working on any other works for the stage presently?

CR: I am presently working on a monologue about illness with affect theorist Lauren Berlant, who recently published The Hundreds.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

2019 Whiting Awards Winners Announced

The 10 winners of the 34th annual Whiting Awards were named last night in a ceremony featuring a keynote by author Adam Johnson, winner of the 2009 Whiting Award, the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the 2015 National Book Award for Fiction. Based on “early-career achievement and the promise of superior literary work to come,” the annual prize gives $50,000 each to 10 emerging writers in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama.

“Every year, our corps of expert anonymous nominators point us to some of the most exciting and vital work happening today,” Courtney Hodell, the Whiting Foundation’s director of literary programs, said in a statement. “These names may be new to us, but they’re writing the future of literature in this country.”

The fiction recipients are:
Hernan Diaz, author of In the Distance (And a Year in Reading alum)Nafissa Thompson-Spires, author of Heads of the Colored People (Featured in various 2018 Year in Reading entries)Merritt Tierce, author of Love Me Back

The nonfiction recipients are:
Terese Marie Mailhot, author of Heart Berries: A Memoir (A Millions Most Anticipated title)Nadia Owusu, author of Aftershocks, a forthcoming memoir.

The poetry recipients are:
Kayleb Rae Candrilli, author of What Runs OverTyree Daye, author of River HymnsVanessa Angélica Villarreal, author of Beast Meridian.

The drama recipients are:
Michael R. Jackson, playwright of the forthcoming musical A Strange LoopLauren Yee, playwright of Ching Chong Chinaman

In his keynote, Johnson spoke on the dying tradition of observation of the world around us in the era of earbuds and ubiquitous screens. “The literary arts have always excavated memory, topographized terrain, resurrected voices,” he said. “But the times are changing. I believe we now need writers not only to show us the realm behind the curtain, but the one before our very eyes.” He added, “Is the world too much? Too much to gaze directly upon?…Perhaps the delamination of life is too much to bear…All the more reason why we need writers to take our hands and say, ‘Look! See what I see.'”

Previous winners of the award, which was first bestowed in 1985, prove the point. That list includes Colson Whitehead, Denis Johnson, Tracy K. Smith, Jeffrey Eugenides, August Wilson, Lydia Davis, David Foster Wallace, Suzan-Lori Parks, Michael Cunningham, Z.Z. Packer, Mary Karr, Jonathan Franzen, Tony Kushner, Alice McDermott, Terrance Hayes, Jorie Graham, Deborah Eisenberg, Anthony Marra, Ben Fountain, Yiyun Lee, Tyehimba Jess, Justin Cronin, Alexander Chee, Jericho Brown, Adam Johnson, Elif Batuman, John Jeremiah Sullivan.

More recent winners include Tommy Pico, Catherine Lacey, Tony Tulathimutte, Lucas Hnath, Esmé Weijun Wang, Lisa Halliday, Layli Long Soldier, Ocean Vuong, Francisco Cantú, Weike Wang, and Antoinette Nwandu.

The honorees are chosen by an anonymous panel of six judges.