Sycamore’s Nonfiction Submissions: What Captivates Us

by Shavonne Clarke, Nonfiction Editor

According to novelist, poet and essayist Clive James, “fiction is life with all the dull bits left out.”

It’s a mantra I live by.hand-rabbit1

Fiction is life. And of course—as the tri-genred James certainly knows—life is fiction, too. Each of us is the protagonist in our life, that person on whose behalf we compile a story that includes only the most exciting bits. It’s natural—why would we remember that infinite boredom, that withering idleness? Chances are, if they’re remembered at all, the dull bits are sacheted in with what rivets us about our own lives.

I was bored in third grade. To entertain a classmate, I folded my fingers in a funny shape my father had taught me, and then the teacher accused me of some strange sexualized act I wasn’t even aware of. Yes, I was bored, but I only remember it in the context of Ms. Williams’ rending, unjust insult. What I thought then was a dull bit would actually be the instigator for my salacious act.

When I read through Sycamore’s nonfiction submission pile, those pieces that grip me most seem almost self-aware in this way. Either they have excised those dull bits from their memories, or they have transformed them into something fascinating. They are full of tension. What will happen, I wonder, but of course, everything in an essay has already happened. This is where an essay becomes masterful: what has happened in the past becomes, for the reader, the present. As with a good short story or novel, these essays are capable of transporting me. There is a journey to be made, a path to be forged, and all of it matters because I imagine that the writer is still grappling with it now, today, this very moment. These memories are still breathing, creating a narrative that will bring us to a new place, to an insight into our condition.

For every ten or fifteen submissions I read, one will have this right from the get-go. These are the ones that have the best shot: they know exactly how to place that finger on the pulsepoint of memory, to make even the simplest thing electric. And by this, I mean that these “simple things” are all connected, alive, a patchwork created from a vast repository of memories.

Fiction is life. Send us those essays with the pulse of fiction, with the tension that carries us from page to page (and makes us forget about that hard chair, that unforgiving computer screen).

If you’re thinking about submitting, consider entering our Wabash Prize for Nonfiction, judged by the fantastic Mary Karr. It’s open until October 1!