Recently, my friend Christi Clancy, an amazing writer and Assistant Visiting Professor of English at Beloit College, has accepted a two-book publishing deal with St Martin’s publishing house, a well-deserved accomplishment that’s cause for celebration. I have known Christi for almost fifteen years, our friendship nourished in large part by a passion for reading, writing, workshopping, and all things literary. Her work has found home in publications like Sun Magazine, the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times. She kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her writing practice and philosophy.
Q: From the beginning of our friendship as writers, you’ve seemed to have clear goals about where you want your work to appear. What drew you to particular publications?
A: I haven’t submitted as much work lately because I’ve been focused on novel writing, but early on I submitted first to publications I read and subscribed to myself. Some journals are fortunate to have consistent editorship, so you begin to get a sense of the type of story they are looking for. I’d been reading Glimmer Train for years, so when I sent my story to them I had a good feeling that they were looking for a story with an off-beat character and a bit of humor. That was a really lucky first publication, and I think it gave me the confidence to aim high.
There are other journals I really wanted to be in. When Michael Czyzniejewski was editor of Mid-American Review, I could tell he liked the kind of slightly quirky literary fiction I was aspiring to write, and I discovered some writers in that journal that I loved, like Jessica Anthony. I came close with a few submissions, but the important thing was that I had a sense of where my work would be a good match. The same thing with The Sun magazine. I’d subscribed for years and was pretty obsessed with the magazine, and especially impressed by their devoted readership. I had a bunch of rejections from them, but I kept trying. I went to one of their conferences, and one of the editors actually remembered some of my work, which meant that even though I was getting rejected they knew who I was. I wrote my essay “Lost Cause” with The Sun in mind. The version I sent them wasn’t actually accepted right away; they’d asked for edits, which I interpreted as a rejection. A few months later the manuscript editor actually emailed and asked if I’d received their feedback. I didn’t think that sort of thing happened in publishing! So I went back, revised the hell out of it, and was absolutely thrilled that the essay was published. It was a painful, deeply personal story to write, and it felt like it had landed in exactly the right place. The best part was engaging with readers who’d found much to relate to.
Q: I remember once workshopping a story of yours that was later radically revised with a point of view shift, the story about wounds and cutting sponges. How do you decide when work is ready to send out for publication? How long does a story take? How long for your upcoming novel?
A: I’ve become obsessed with revision, especially in my teaching. I asked my college freshmen about their experience with revision, and many had said they’d never been asked to revise an assignment all through high school. I couldn’t believe it. I’ve edited the life right of a story a few times, but that’s really the exception, not the rule. My work almost always gets better when I try it new ways. Over the years I’ve become a lot less precious about my own writing. I’m more inclined to radically cut and modify as necessary. I think the reason why is that editing is about trusting your future self to be smarter than your present self. You have to believe that every time you work on a document, you’re a better writer than you used to be. I don’t know if that’s really the case, but it helps to exercise some optimism with writing.
As for knowing when a story is ready, it’s almost never when you first think it is. A lot of writers, including me, mistake getting to the end of something with finishing it. There’s this high of figuring out how a story ends and feeling pretty good about how it hangs together as a whole. But once that high wears off, you often realize there’s more you can do to tighten, fix, expand, delete. Just as I said it takes optimism to revise, I guess it takes pessimism to get to the end. It’s never hurt me to put a story away when it’s “hot” and revisit it later. I know this sounds cheesy, but you just have a feeling when you know it’s ready to send, like you just couldn’t make it any better. You need to be careful about sending too early. You can blow some opportunities when it’s close. This is depressing, but most of the stories I’ve published are four, five, six years old. I can finish essays much more quickly. You asked about my novel, and I’d actually just received an email from my editor telling me it is finished! It took almost six years to write and needed some revision even after it was sold. Fortunately nothing structural, just careful thinking about how/why the characters see the world a certain way.
Q: How useful do you find conferences, writing retreats, book fairs, or other writers’ events? Are there other spaces that you’ve found productive as a writer?
A: I have mixed feelings about writing conferences. The best ones, in my opinion, make you feel like you are part of a community of writers. I’ve been to a few where you feel like you are sitting at the kid’s table, and the “real writers” are kept separate from conference attendees. You can start to feel like you’re just money. My favorite conference was LitCamp, run by Janice Cook Newman in California. The “camp” was just relocated to Esalen from Calistoga. You have to be admitted, so everyone is working at a high level, and it feels really intimate. I met editors and agents and super famous writers, but most importantly, I made lasting friendships. It’s important to remember that you don’t actually get much writing done at writing conferences. They are more like creative defibrillators if you need motivation, and I hate to say it, but connections do help in this industry, especially when, like me, you are from the Midwest. What I feel like I need now is just the time and space to get actual writing done (my second novel is due in less than a year! Yikes!). I’m starting to look into artist residencies. I spent a month at Ragdale and got a lot of work done there. As for AWP, I’m going to go this year, but it’s just so overstimulating for me. My best resource is my writing group. We’ve been together for years now, and each person gives honest and super constructive feedback.