What We’re Looking For: Nonfiction, Lumina XIV

At the very end of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s fantastic essay, “Mister Lytle,” from Pulphead, he talks about seeing a vision of his late mentor in Paris. He writes, “I couldn’t look directly at him; I had to let him hang back in my peripheral vision, else he’d slip away; it was a bargain we made in silence.”

I am in love with the beauty of our periphery. As a writer, as an editor, as a human. I love what comes to all of us when we let our lives approach us from different angles. So when I am asked what are you looking for in a submission, it is this: the surprising, the delightful, the empathetic, the tender. Nonfiction is wonderfully suited to this task because it is a genre that tests the ever-widening limits of our vision and the bounds of our empathy, even when we are hurting, even when we are in rage. I am looking for essays that play with form, play with language, play with self-perception, play with all these things that make us human. I want to weep. I want to laugh. I might even want to moan. Most of all, I want, as I hope we all do, to feel. Anger, sadness, joy. Just anything. I want to share something human in that single moment of reading your submission, dear writer, and I want our readers to share in that, too. Wouldn’t that be lovely?

Last year I was blessed to assist our impassioned editor Geoff Bendeck, and we as a team were blessed with an innumerable overflow of submissions for our nonfiction contest, a few of which resonate with me still today. This year is not a contest year for our genre, but that doesn’t mean we are not dying for the highest caliber of writing from original voices, original eyes, original senses.

A final note: in his essay “On Stillness,” Charles Baxter ponders whether we, as a society, “have truly lost the ability to be interested in stillness.” It is true that our culture has increased the speed of things to an infinite degree, language included. And if you, potential submitter, want to engage in that speed but still wow all of us here with your perception, your tenderness, your authentic feeling, then, by all means, do that. But I also deeply appreciate the writer who can prove to me that stillness still exists. It is, after all, in those still moments when we are brought to an understanding of the beauty of the things surrounding. So don’t always worry about terms such as “narrative momentum” or “narrative drive,” because I am craving feeling, craving the rawness in all of us. So let it come in to you in those still moments when the limits of your periphery are widened to their fullest degree, and write it down, and then send it our way.

Devin Kelly