Explaining to Your Friends and Family What You Do

Aaron Gilbreath
February 15, 2017
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Tell your friends and family that you get to blog for the Kenyon Review and they’ll say, “That’s awesome, man! Congrats!!!” even if they don’t all necessarily know what the Kenyon Review is, or how large the magazine looms in the literary realm. It’s understandable. They work in finance and law and administration. They’re big readers who love to savor The Sunday Times. Jodi Picoult and Cormac McCarthy novels accompany them to the beach, and they buy The Economist at the airport. But these are siloed in different worlds from the literary journals—not that they should be. Many of your family and friends have heard the name Kenyon Review. It might have been from when you published something in it years back, something they remember seeing on Facebook but didn’t get a chance to read, because they can’t find KR in Buckeye, Arizona, but they know it’s a score. People are excited for you because you’re excited and they love you, and that’s really all they have to know.

I went to three weddings in a row this summer, one weekend after another, so I spent a lot of time talking with strangers. We talked about the wedding’s location. We talked about where they’d traveled from, talked about the bride and groom and our hobbies and the food. When we talked about what we did for a living, they told me about the pitfalls of personal finance, about the way buying wine for a large online vendor works, about the satisfaction of integrating physically disabled high schoolers into PE classes, and the challenges of moving with a spouse to a state that doesn’t have reciprocity. When we talked about writing, I inevitably named the recognizable outlets first: NYT, Harper’s, Saveur. Non-writers know those ones, but I relish the literary outlets just as much.

Usually when people find our you’re a writer, they ask “So do you write for certain publications?” I tell them I wish I had a regular job at one publication! In some ways that would make life easier. When they ask, “What do you write?” I tell them narrative nonfiction, so real stories told with characters, action, scenes, and dialogue. My favorite subjects are music, food, people, places, Japan, and the American West. Some of it is reported. Some of it is first-person stories about things I’ve experienced and am trying to make sense of. That paints a clear picture while sparing them unnecessary details. As a writer, you have to think of your audience, so I self-edit. A lot.

At this point a lot of people say they love to read but don’t have the time to do it as much as they used to. They express guilt for not reading more contemporary fiction, or they say they love that kind of real life nonfiction writing; it’s what they read. “Have you read Into the Wild?” they say, or, “Sort of like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood?” Then things get fun. We talk about books, movies, compelling stories, adventures they’ve taken, complex family dynamics and things they want to write about one day. All of us have stories in us and questions we want to explore. Writing is the medium for that, and magazines like this one and Cincinnati Review, Hotel Amerika, Iowa Review and The Normal School provide the page space. But when I mention the names of those literary magazines, which I love so much, and that publish some of the most personal, honest and formally inventive real life stories in America, I always include some sort of caveat about “the small press publications like so-and-so” and “independent magazines with smaller print runs and distribution.” That’s a bummer. People who like to read true, personal stories would love to read what’s in literary magazines, if only we could get the magazines into their hands.

Those who write know that literary magazines are epic places. We labor towards our favorite ones, which loom as distant powerful peaks on the literary map, in the hope that we’ll one day scale them. But our non-writer friends and relatives don’t have to know the relative cache of different literary magazines to know we’re doing well as writers, or that, more importantly, they liked reading the stuff we write. That’s what matters.

Your mom will always be proud of you no matter what. Now that you’re a Googleable public entity, she still tells people about that drawing you made on a dirty Jack in the Box napkin in first grade. “It was a masterpiece,” she says. “Now look at you. Writing for a magazine in Kenya!”

“Kenyon College, Mom, in Ohio.”

“Yes,” she says, “a university man. I always knew you’d make it.”

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