A Man of Many Projects and the Encouragement of Rejection
By Monica Prince
Writer Jonathan Escoffery’s manuscript, If I Survive You, was selected as one of the top ten finalists for the SFWP Literary Awards Program. He is the recipient of a 2017 Somerville Arts Council Artist Fellowship, the 2017 Ivan Gold Fellowship from The Writers’ Room of Boston, a 2017 Kimbilio Fiction Fellowship, and a 2017-2018 Wellspring House Fellowship. His fiction has been published in numerous journals, including Passages North, where it won the Waasnode Fiction Prize and received a Pushcart Prize nomination; Prairie Schooner, where it was a Book Prize finalist; and Solstice, where it was the Editor’s Choice selection. Escoffery earned his MFA in fiction from the University of Minnesota where he was a DOVE fellow and a fellow at The Anderson Center residency. Escoffery currently teaches creative writing at GrubStreet in Boston. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram, and check out his website to keep up with his writing.
SFWP reviewer and editor Monica Prince picked the brain of Jonathan Escoffery to talk projects, motivation, and the beauty in one hundred rejections a year.
Monica Prince: What is your educational and work background? Have either of these had an impact on your relationship with writing? Do you have a job other than writing?
Jonathan Escoffery: I attended the University of Minnesota’s creative writing program and earned my MFA in 2014. My teaching assistantship there marked the first time my day job vaguely related to my writing career. One of the surest ways to test what you believe as a writer is to teach it to others. Teaching writing, in turn, forced me to apply the lessons I brought to the classroom to my own work.
My graduate education, and even my undergraduate education, helped turn me into a more careful thinker and storyteller, which, unfortunately, has made me a much slower writer, but I’m thankful all the same.
Currently, I help manage the Wellspring House retreat for writers and artists in Western MA, as their Writer-in-Residence. I also teach creative writing for GrubStreet, where I was a staff member for 2+ years. I’m also a freelance editor and writing coach. The hustle is real.
MP: How did you first get involved with writing? What does your writing practice look like?
JE: I’m one of those people who really did always want to write, from as early as I can remember wanting to do anything. I can probably thank my mother and my first few teachers for cultivating my love of reading.
The thing about wanting to be a writer from early on—and not quickly losing heart—is that you need people to encourage you, despite your limited abilities. I was lucky enough to receive this encouragement. What took much, much longer was finding people with a complex understanding of the paths one might take to sustain their writing life and attain their publishing aspirations.
I didn’t really feel “involved” with writing until I won an undergraduate poetry contest, and was invited to participate in a reading. The validation felt nice, but what was perhaps most encouraging was that there was a real audience; people had come out on a Thursday night to listen, and applaud, and discuss this art form. I think that’s when I knew I had to do whatever was necessary to continue surrounding myself with people who value what I value, which makes bearable some of the more difficult hours spent writing alone. When the writing is going well, there is no better feeling, and the outside world matters very little. But when the writing is difficult, it helps to know that there is a community out there that believes what you are doing is worthwhile.
My writing routine at this point is simple. I write from 9am-1pm every day.
MP: What are you working on now?
JE: My thesis advisor once called me Jonathan, Man of Many Projects. One such project is a novel about a racially ambivalent adjunct professor of African American history who, desperate to outbid his brother for their family home, resorts to moonlighting at a slave plantation-themed brothel.
MP: What type of writing excites you the most? Has any of your work scared you?
JE: Fiction that reads as though it is creative nonfiction, and which captures the complexities of human nature, really excites me. When I write something that is close to having been true, but fictionalized, or when I create a character that could be mistaken for me, but who thinks and says and does things I wouldn’t—or certainly wouldn’t admit to—but who makes for a great complex character, that sometimes scares me. I’ve had people write to tell me they enjoyed how brave my “essay” was, when it’s a piece of my fiction that they’ve read. Mostly I think, “Well, as long as they enjoyed it!”
MP: Why did you decide to enter the Literary Award Contest with SFWP? How do you think submitting to contests impacts your future writing life?
JE: I have to admit that I’m an optimist, and a bit of an addict, when it comes to submitting to writing contests. When you hear about the odds of winning one of these contests—how many submissions did SFWP get, around 800?—it feels virtually impossible. Some contests get thousands of submissions. But if you believe in your writing, and you factor in that some of those submissions you’re up against might not be so good, or might not be from people who’ve spent the decade or more that you’ve put into your work, the odds start to seem more manageable. I don’t play lotto and I don’t gamble, but contest submissions make me feel like I’m putting my hard work out into the world and that it may come back and reward me at any moment. Plus, the more you submit to things, the more you are forced to reread your work; and with each reread, you are likely sharpening your prose, striving to make it undeniable, if not making even more fundamental improvements. So submitting can make you a better writer, thereby improving your future odds of finding success.
Any time that I am a finalist for a contest, I feel encouraged to keep at it. It helps that I’ve won a couple too. Winning means some degree of exposure, plus the money to cover future submission fees.
It was SFWP’s 2040 Contest that first drew my attention, as the mission of diversifying the publishing landscape spoke to me and my professional goals, both in and outside of my writing projects.
MP: What do you believe is a key to successful publishing?
JE: Relentless self-belief.
MP: What advice do you have for writers just starting to make this their priority?
JE: If you are just starting to send your writing out into the world, find ways to feel good about your submissions. There are articles that encourage you to aim for one hundred rejections per year. What I take from this is that if you want your writing out in the world (via traditional publishing routes), it’s your job to submit a lot and increase the odds of getting published. If you get a hundred rejections, you’re accomplishing something. You’re hitting a goal. It means you’re doing the work. The work is not controlling who will appreciate your art, but doing your part to find those who will. Some people make a game of submitting. Some, like me, are good at compartmentalizing. I hardly remember ever getting rejections until I look in my submissions folder in my email. Everyone gets rejected more than accepted. It’s the name of the game. There’s no reason to feel bad about it.
Also, understand that you can increase your odds by researching and getting to know the tastes (to an extent) of the editors and judges who will decide the fate of your submissions.
Also, if just once, if just for six months to a year, join the staff of a magazine or a press, or any organization that requires a competitive submission process. This will teach you the dos and don’ts of submitting, and give you a proper understanding of the editorial process.
Monica Prince is the 2017-2018 Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. She received her MFA in poetry at Georgia College & State University, and her BA in English Creative Writing at Knox College. She currently writes and reviews for the Santa Fe Writers Project, as well as reviews and edits for Aquarius Press. Her work can be found in MadCap Review, Fourth & Sycamore, The Shade Journal, Texas’s Best Emerging Poets, TRACK//FOUR, and others. Her choreopoem, How to Exterminate the Black Woman, received a staged reading as part of the International Women’s Voices Theatre Festival in January, and will premiere as a full-length show in April 2018 in Selinsgrove, PA, where she teaches, writes, and performs. Keep up with her work on her website or follow her on Twitter.