No matter what kind of reading you’re drawn to—long-form journalism, short stories, novels,
cultural criticism, personal reflection, even comic books—you’ve probably come across some beautifully woven words by the prolific and wide-ranging Roxane Gay.
She has published hundreds of pieces in top venues, from women’s magazines (Elle, Glamour, xoJane) to literary journals (including Tin House, McSweeney’s and her own co-founded PANK) to popular online hubs (among them Salon, Buzzfeed and, most famously, The Rumpus, where she served as the original essays editor) to long-standing newspapers (The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, where she is now a contributing opinion writer entrusted with book reviews for such talked-about titles as Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things).
This guest post is by Sharon Short. Short is the executive director of the Antioch Writers’ Workshop at the University of Dayton and the author of the novel My One Square Inch of Alaska.
Whether on social media or instructing young writers as an associate professor of creative writing at Purdue University, she is skilled at engaging an audience no matter the venue, with more than 200,000 followers on Twitter alone.
She was a darling of literary journals when her first collection of short fiction, Ayiti, was released in 2011. By the publication of her next books in 2014—her critically acclaimed debut novel, An Untamed State, and runaway hit essay collection, Bad Feminist—Gay had distinguished herself as a literary star and astute cultural observer who pulls no punches in sharing her point of view.
This year brings another pair of new titles from Gay: the fiction collection Difficult Women and her much-awaited memoir, Hunger, published in June. Hunger is perhaps her most personal book yet, exploring with candor Gay’s experiences with weight, self-image and an act of violence in her youth that shaped her worldview.
In my role as executive director of the Antioch Writers’ Workshop at the University of Dayton, I’ve met Gay three times. The first was shortly after Ayiti was published, when she served on a panel of editors at one of our events. A few years later, she led an afternoon session on fiction writing for our weeklong summer workshop. By 2016, when she was our keynote speaker, Gay’s fame and respect in the literary world had skyrocketed. Yet in terms of how she interacts with budding writers—witty, gracious and kind, yet instructive, without sugarcoating any of the challenges of either the craft or the business of creative writing—she hasn’t changed a bit. Look for our feature-length interview with Gay in the September 2017 Writer’s Digest. In these online exclusive outtakes, Gay dishes on when to know you’re submission ready, how to embrace rejection, and more.
Do you feel there is a “best” path, such as earning an Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, for learning the craft?
No. Not at all. I think that whatever way you come to writing is the right way. There are a lot of great options. For some people, an MFA program is an appealing idea. [But] there is absolutely no need to go into debt to learn how to write. You can be self-taught, take writing workshops, find a writing group—there are just so many different ways. Most of my favorite writers are self-taught. You can tell because their work is original, exciting and vibrant.
Your Ph.D. is in technical communication and rhetoric. Did that training and experience in technical communication help you as a creative writer?
Absolutely. I was planning originally on getting my Ph.D. in creative writing, but Michigan Tech made me an unbelievable offer to study there, and so I couldn’t say no. I learned so much about audience, rhetorical analysis and rhetorical writing. It made me a better writer and particularly helped my nonfiction.
Having worked as a literary magazine editor, what advice do you have for writers?
It’s the small things! Follow the submission guidelines. Honestly. It’s not that hard. Proofread. I can’t tell you the number of submissions I’ve read with typos in the title or the first paragraph. When you are reading hundreds or thousands of submissions a month, that just sets you off. You don’t want to be ungenerous—but it is really hard to be generous to a writer who hasn’t taken care with their work. Which is not to say that you can’t have typos in your work; everything has typos. But the first paragraph? That’s the welcome mat! Come on!
I wish writers would take another five minutes, because it’s so easy to submit. I’ve done this myself—you over-submit, and you submit work that’s not quite ready.
At the same time, you don’t need to baby your work either. Don’t sit on it for years because you’re afraid. Get it out and be ready to take the rejection. Recognize that rejection is part of the process and that everybody gets rejected at some point—that’s just how it works.
Make sure that you’re putting work into the world that you actually care about. Oftentimes, I think writers put work out into the world just because they want to build credits. But credits are meaningless if the work isn’t good. Do you want a list of credits full of your mediocre work? No.
So believe in your work before you send it out into the world. Even though I think we are all as writers inherently insecure, you also have to have this gut belief that, OK, I have something to say.