CNF Essay: “What Matters is What’s Left of Us”

“After my doctor diagnoses the large mass on one of my ovaries as a Dermoid, he shows me a picture that looks like a macadamia nut cookie rimmed with hair. On the internet, I find pictures of their humanity—a limb like a baby’s arm, curly hair, a row of teeth—grotesque by context: a row of teeth planted in a glob of featureless skin; a ball of hair covering what looks like a finger. I make jokes to my husband and friends that I have It from the Addams Family inside of me, Shrek, an absorbed twin…”

-From Yemassee‘s 20.1 Issue

The Importance of Cover Letters

This should be an Arnold Schwarzenegger moment. Everyone is dying and desperate, but then I arrive, and hope comes into their eyes. If I had arisen out of the chaos of my house and been able to at least clear my dining room table, maybe it would feel like that.  Instead, I moved four piles of clean clothes over, slapped my computer on top of a stack of papers, and reclined against some assemblage of my bathrobe, two shirts, and my husband’s pants from yesterday. (Way after I wrote this, I realized Arnold said, “I’ll be back,” not “I’m back.” I think I’ve only heard “I’m back” by some serial killer who’s about to hack someone to pieces.)

My life is chaos at the moment. Every room is filled with boxes in some stage of unpacking. A couple I just need to take out to the curb, but with the two day haul this past weekend and then not getting off work until 7 last night, my energy is in the skivvies.

Our new house is absolutely wonderful. My husband and I are both getting separate rooms: his for his sports collectibles, mine for writing. My husband is also kindly painting my writing room for me tomorrow while he’s off work. It currently is a rather obnoxious shade of pink-purple. While I wanted to pick “Dorian Gray” (it’s a real color, I promise!), I chose “Repose Gray” from Sherwin-Williams, which is a nice light gray. The house already has rooms painted green, blue, red, and khaki, so I wanted something a little different for my SPECIAL WRITING ROOM(!).


After being out of touch with the writing life for a little bit, I decided to get back in the swing of things by reading for Fjords. I was reminded again of the importance of cover letters, and the importance of succinct and concise ones at that.

I follow a rather simple template:

“Dear Editors/Readers: (if I can find the name of the genre editor, I’ll list their name as “Mr./Ms ______” followed by “and Readers”)

Here are some new poems for your consideration. I really enjoyed _________’s and ________’s poems in your last issue. Keep up the good work!

All the best,

Tara Mae

Bio: Tara Mae Mulroy is a former Managing Editor of The Pinch and a graduate of the MFA program in Poetry at the University of Memphis. Her work is forthcoming in Third Coast and others. Her blog can be found at

Included: Poem title 1; Poem title 2; Poem title 3Poem title 4; Poem title 5

These are simultaneous submissions.”

I actually started using this template after reading this post up on Gulf Coast‘s blog. What I like about it is that it’s short, shows I’ve read the journal before, and includes a short third-person bio, the names of the poems, and the fact that they are simultaneous submissions (if I’m submitting to a SS journal. If I’m submitting to a non-SS journal, it should not say this and that packet should also not be submitted anywhere else).

Things I’ve seen as an editor that you should never ever do:

-Cover letters with no bios. Even if you don’t have any publications or any experience in academia, state something as simple as, “John Doe currently pushes paper at a high-profile corporation. In his free time, he writes poetry. If accepted, this will be his first publication.” Some editors love publishing the work of new writers, so don’t be nervous about stating that.

-Cover letters with long explanations of how the author came up with the idea for/edited/bled over the poem(s)/story/essay. Writers love talking about their process, but unfortunately, an editor who has just read forty other submissions is probably not going to want to read yours. Don’t include it; save it for your writing group.

-Cover letters that include someone’s entire CV. Unless you’re applying for a job in academia, don’t include your CV. No literary journal editor or reader wants to wade through your 3-4 page CV. Just list your most relevant work/academic experiences and recent/forthcoming publications in a less-than-150-words bio. Endgame.

-Cover letters with half-page bios. Again, editors (or at least this one) value brevity. Shoot for 150 words or less.

-Cover letters that are addressed to the Managing Editor. Unless you personally know the Managing Editor for a specific journal, don’t address a submission to him/her. Address it to the genre editor.

-Cover letters that include profanity, such as saying, “John Doe is a M*****F****** poet from the Bronx.” I know sometimes that’s cool and all that, but you have no idea what sort of editors you are submitting your work too. They might be all prim and prude, and you never want to offend them from the get-go. I also discourage profanity when talking with an editor at ANY point in the writing process, and never, ever, EVER direct profanity at an editor. There is a special level of hell for people who do that; you don’t want to end up there.

Special cover letters:

When you receive an encouraging/personalized rejection letter from a specific or unidentified editor, SEND WORK BACK TO THEM ASAP, but also make sure to state that you received one in your cover letter. If they gave their name, address your submission to them. If no one was mentioned, address it to the genre editor and then state, “Thank you for the encouraging rejection letter I received for my last packet submitted on _______. Here are some new poems for your consideration…”

If you were solicited to submit work by a specific editor, say something like, “I was solicited to submit work by_________. Here are some poems…”

If you met/know someone who works on the journal, address your cover letter to the genre editor, but mention, “I had the pleasure of meeting so-and-so at_____. Here are some new poems…” As an editor, I like to know when someone I’ve met or know has submitted something to the journal, and I usually take the time to read it. I don’t know how other editors feel about this, but I think it’s cool to think, “Wow, I met this person and talked to them about the journal and here they are submitting!” On the other hand, me taking the time to read it won’t mean its chance of getting published is any higher than any other piece, but it could help start/build a relationship.

All of this is to say is that the business of writing is a professional one. In your cover letter and in your writerly interactions (e-mail, etc.), be kind, polite, and proper. Save your ferocity for your writing.

New endeavors

After a year-long hiatus from working for a literary journal, I’m pleased to announce that I will now be reading for Fjords Review, an absolutely lovely journal. I’m so excited about this new endeavor, and I hope you will consider submitting your best poetry and fiction!


In other news, I went running this morning (a slow, slow progress, since I’m re-training after re-injuring an old injury) and started thinking about a creative nonfiction essay I wrote the day of my surgery. I’ve been thinking about it off and on since I wrote it, but haven’t been able to figure out how to approach it. I gave it to a friend to read over, but that was it. Finally, today, I came back from that run and edited it and even came up with an ending, when it had none before.

Sometimes, changing genres is exactly what I need to do. I read once that anytime you get to point in your writing where you’re stuck, try changing the form, or even the genre. I’ve had trouble with figuring out whether a poem needed to be in couplets or quatrains, so I changed it to prose. Seeing it as that block of text helped me figure out how to shape it. Topics I haven’t been able to broach in poetry (like my surgery, my trip to Greece, etc.), I’ve been able to express in fiction or creative nonfiction. There can be so much versatility in being a poet; there’s always a potential to switch, to envision space. I make up it’s a great deal harder for prose writers to make that switch, to shrink than to expand (any of you prose writers feel differently?).

Happy writing!

Why I Have To Be A Writer

When I was in the second or third grade, we had to write and illustrate a “book” that we then glued between two pieces of cardboard and covered with contact paper. Many of my classmates had already decided they were going to be doctors or firemen, but I hadn’t found anything to decide on yet. I remember being embarrassed that everyone could name off their future career sincerely, but I had no idea. Be a doctor? I hated blood. Be a firemen? Fire didn’t like me, which is why I was frequently nursing a scald from touching a hot pot (a lesson I still sometimes need to re-learn some 20+ years later). When I wrote that story, some mystery where a man wearing a black shirt with a snake on it was the one to steal something, I knew I wanted to be a writer. In the 4th grade, I got the highest score possible on a standardized writing test. One of only three students at my entire elementary school to score so well; I was on top of the world.

Come middle school, all of that changed. I took another standardized writing test in 7th grade, but didn’t get the highest score. In the 8th grade, I took a career aptitude test that didn’t tell me to be a writer; it told me I’d be well-suited to work in the post office. I was proficient at differentiating between words, which, I was told, would be great for a mail sorter: Mr. Jones vs. Mr. Janes.

In high school, I wrote plenty, but easily got defeated when I wasn’t the one winning contests or awards. By my first year in college, I was writing and continuing to take creative writing classes, but was inwardly adamant about trying to find another calling, trying to find something with “financial potential”. I sought out pre-law, art history; I took classes in Ancient Greek and the liberal arts.

I cherished my creative writing classes, but felt constantly like creative writing was the bad boy everyone cautioned me away from. He was always lurking around the quad, wearing leather and looking all hot and slick, but I wanted to be a good girl and date a good boy, so I focused on the classics, on religion, on humanities. I thought about majoring in Ancient Greek and then going to law school. I transferred colleges and finally made English: Writing my major, but I studied for the LSAT. I “compensated” for my major with volunteering for the rebuilding efforts on the gulf coast after Hurricane Katrina. I started tutoring young kids. People thought big things would happen for me, thought I’d join the Peace Corps or start a nonprofit.

When I graduated,  several college administrators asked what I’d do, and I said something self-assuredly like, “I’m going to go into a nonprofit.” “I’m going to take a year off and apply for law school.” I collected generic recommendations from several of my professors and twenty copies of my college transcripts. I never wasted my money on the LSAT, though I did study for it for over a year. I took a job as a grant writer at a small nonprofit  and stopped writing creatively altogether. I was miserable. My boss made me extremely uncomfortable, and the company was shady. I started applying for other jobs the second week I was there, but nothing came through. All of the grants I applied for, we didn’t get, and they laid me off.

It was after being laid off that I finally decided to apply to an MFA program. I hadn’t written anything in over a year, but I felt a strong push to do it. I contacted my undergraduate poetry professor to get a more tailored recommendation, and she said she would do it. She tempered her acceptance with a litany of warnings about how the poetry field is not like it used to be, there’s too many people right now pursuing MFAs, and academia is harder and harder to break into, etc. etc.. I got her recommendation and set money aside to apply to seven different programs. Around this time, I ran into the provost from my college. She asked, “What are you doing nowadays?” I told her I was applying to get an MFA in poetry. She looked at me through her thin-rimmed glasses and said, “Oh. I always thought you’d save the world.”

After realizing I was too terrified to move anywhere on my own, I decided to apply only to the one program in my area, and decided if it was meant to be, I’d get in. I did get in, but they didn’t give me any money. I didn’t want to go into debt pursuing this whole writing gig, so I again tried to fantasize about other lucrative educational opportunities. I called my father and told him, “I think I’ll get a Master’s in Teaching.” He told me, as he usually did, “That sounds good.” The deadline to apply had already passed, so I had to wait for the spring semester deadline. Mid-August, a week before U of M’s classes were set to start, I got an e-mail offering me an assistantship, which meant waived tuition on top of a stipend, for the MFA program. I accepted it, quickly registered for classes, and started the following week.

Fast-forward three years, I wrote a thesis, I defended it, I took my comps, I graduated. I applied for several fellowships and several teaching jobs; I got none of them. My undergraduate poetry professor was right: academia is hard to break into, especially with so many people graduating with an MFA right now.

I was talking with a poet yesterday who told me something to the extent of, “Since I’m never going to get rich or really famous doing poetry, I don’t have to be overly ambitious. I can submit when I want to submit.”

I don’t feel that way. I am dogged. My ambitions (writing, submitting, editing, keeping up this blog, getting my book published) aren’t going to pay off for me financially, but they will and do pay off for me spiritually. They also keep me engaged and involved in a community of writers. I write and submit continuously, and while I rarely practice it, I entirely believe in the wisdom of, “Writing 10 minutes every day for 6 days is better than writing for an hour one day out of the week.”

I’ve spent most of my life seeing writing as something I need to “get over”, the bad boy I need to stop fantasizing about when I’m on dates with clean-cut boys. Now, I know that writing is that bad boy that pulls me from the wreckage I can make of myself and helps me bloom into a more competent and confident human being. It makes me better at my job, at my relationships, at my ability to handle life. I must choose the bad boy, every time, or sink into a hole of despair that comes from denying that part of myself that makes me feel wholly alive, wholly happy. I may not be saving the world, but at least I can start with saving me.

Why you should submit to literary contests

After Calyx threw their two-cents in, I decided to throw in mine as well.

As a writer and teacher, my money is in short supply. I submit to literary journals for a love of contributor copies and a blind, finger-crossing hope that someone might pay me as well. I, of course, don’t live off my writing. I teach to pay my rent. I write to stay sane. I submit because what I ultimately want to do in life is write.

Contests, with their $15 and $20 reading fees, seem like an extravagance. I, for one, have submitted to seven contests in my life, five that had reading fees. I’ve won none of them and only been a semifinalist for one.

Why should you ever submit to literary contests?

  • You could win AND/OR get published. We all submit our work to journals with the wild hope that we’ll be accepted. We can submit to contests with the same abandon. We can have confidence enough in our writing to believe that it’s worth sending out. For The Pinch‘s literary contest, if you are a first place winner in your genre, your work will be published in an upcoming issue. If you are a second or third place winner, your work might be. Also, all work submitted (even if you don’t win) is considered for publication. So, you could win and, even if you don’t, you could get published. Stu Dearnley, the third place fiction winner of the 2011 Pinch contest, got his first ever publication from winning a contest. We have also published work from other contestants that did not win.
  • You could receive critical attention from a great poet/writer/essayist. In terms of The Pinch‘s literary contest, all of the entries are read by the staff and then we, as a staff, decide which ten or fifteen finalists to send onto the bigwig genre judge. If someone on our staff really likes your work, your work might get published or you might get solicited to send us more work. If you are one of the lucky finalists (as in, we, as a staff, decide to send your work onto the bigwig), your work will receive personal attention from that bigwig. If you are selected as a (first, second, or third place) winner, he or she will know your name and write something special about your work. An amazing poet writing something amazing about a poem of mine would be…amazing.
  • You could win $$$. Many contests boast a wonderful $1000 or $1500 prize. That could help with attending a residency, submitting journals that ask for a $3 reading fee with each submission, or sending that manuscript out.
  • Your reading fee helps support the journal that hosts the contest. This point is really important. Since I’ve managed a literary journal, I know firsthand how important these contests can be for ensuring a journal can produce future issues, purchase merchandise to sell, host release parties, host readings, etc. Every year, The Pinch contest is its lifeblood to ensuring we can keep producing a great product, as well as hosting great events for our dedicated admirers to attend.
  • You get something. You more often than not receive at least one issue of the journal, and many times, you receive two issues, a full year of a journal you already adore!

I realize many of us writers aren’t rolling in money (unless we a.) won the lottery or inherited a lot of money, b.) have a fancy job, or c.)   married up), but by submitting to contests, you are not only taking your writing seriously, but also supporting the journals that help keep what we love so much alive and well.

Being a woman editor

After my earlier post about being a woman poet, I thought about my role as a woman editor.

Vida tirelessly counts the rates of publication between men and women in some of the most prestigious literary venues. Their 2011 count, located here, shows a huge disparity. Regardless of the potential reasons (“women write less,” “women submit less,” “women don’t write as well as men,” “editors purposefully choose work from more men than women”), the numbers are startling.

For the Spring 2012 issue of The Pinch which I was Managing Editor for, we published poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction from fourteen women and fifteen men. We published twenty-three pieces from women and seventeen pieces from men (this includes if we accepted two or more poems, fiction stories, or creative nonfiction essays from one writer). Of the art and photography we accepted, all were from men.

Of the ten major editor positions for the staff at the time (fall 2011), six were held by women (editor-in-chief, managing editor, assistant managing editor, senior fiction editor, fiction editor, and creative nonfiction editor). The strongest positions in the journal (editor-in-chief, managing and assistant managing editor) were all held by women. While we never looked at or discussed a work on the basis of the gender of its author, we did publish work from nearly as many women as men, and that somehow must be connected to the fact that many of us were and are strong women writers ourselves.

Other journals circumvent the subjective world of publishing by having only women editors and accepting work from only women writers. Many are listed here, and Southern Women’s Review should be included on that list as well. I have mixed feelings about “women” journals mostly because they are undervalued and underappreciated. No women’s-only journal has the same prestige as The New Yorker.

What are your thoughts?