Editor silence

Ever since attending The Op-ed Project Seminar in Atlanta a couple of years ago, I receive regular updates from the organizers letting me know what’s new in the program and in the world of opinion writing in general. Yesterday, the following appeared in my inbox:

A quick note on editor silence this week

Dear Fellows,

A quick note to you amazing people who have had pieces accepted for publication this week, and to the rest of you amazing people who haven’t, and who can take this week as an object lesson:

Imagine you are an editor at a publication.  Could be the Washington Post, or USA Today, or Truthout—a publication that looks at major US news and its political impact.  Imagine you logged off email and packed up your tote bag to head home for dinner the night before last.  And imagine that in the midst of dinner, you got an alert that Donald Trump had fired James Comey.  You spent the night emailing, following twitter, trying to manage what you could from home.  Then you got into work, headed into an editorial meeting, and tried to train your focus on what the world is telling you might be one of the most significant stories in modern American history.

You might not reply immediately to other emails in your inbox. You might rethink the opinion page for the next couple of days. You might seem to disappear for a bit.

Fellows, as you develop your practice of having a public voice, especially in the world of news and publishing, it helps to develop ways to see from an editor’s perspective. Not only because it allows you to empathize rather than seethe when you don’t hear back, especially when the publication is pending on a piece. But because it allows you to protect yourself from the self-doubt and panic that can often encroach in the silence. I’ve been there, so many times.  So often, the news cycle can explain it.  Look to that, and not the worth of your ideas and voice, when it seems like you’ve gotten through the door just to hit a wall of silence.

In solidarity,

Lauren Sandler

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This post is excerpted from a letter sent by OpEd Project leader Lauren Sandler to the fellows she mentors at Columbia University, as part of our Public Voices Fellowship initiative to broaden the range of voices we hear in the world.

*****

It’s nice to know that sometimes when you don’t hear from an editor, it’s not a statement about you as a writer. I think that a lot of us have been scratching our heads the past few months, finding it difficult to say anything at all in response to the madness.

“Am I gonna believe all them bad things?”

Last night, I re-watched The Help, one of my favorite movies about the treatment of Black maids in Jackson, Mississippi during the early 1960s–and the fiery truth-telling words some of those maids with the help of a brave journalist hurled back into the white community.

My movie selection was the right one for the moment. Call it Kairos. For two reasons.

First, I’m at a point in Unlikely Sisters, my memoir about my friendship with fellow breast cancer survivor Edwina Sanders, where I’m trying–somewhat artificially–to capture the baggage of growing up African American in Birmingham, Alabama. Edwina has a talent for describing her life in vivid language, but the fact is that I’m an educated white girl with little firsthand experience with prejudice–at least, of the racial kind. While Edwina’s life was just beginning in the early 60s, the same time period reflected in The Help, her momma and daddy (and their mommas and daddies) endured the kind of ridicule and humiliation that the characters in the film brought to life. And in 2016, I see the remnants of that history, when Edwina accompanies me to a place that caters to a middle class, predominantly white clientele. Edwina told me once that a store I’d taken her into would normally stop her at the door to check her bags or keep a watchful eye on her as she walked around inside.

But the scene from the film that really captivated me was an exchange between the main character, Skeeter, a white woman who ultimately captures the stories of the help in writing, and the maid who raised her, Constantine. We see Skeeter as a teenager sitting outside of her house crying, telling Constantine that she hadn’t been invited to the high school dance, that the boys in her school think she’s ugly. It’s an insult that stings given Skeeter’s mom’s legacy as a beauty queen and all-around popular girl in her hometown.

Listening intently, Constantine reminds Skeeter to ask a key question Constantine has taught her to rely on when hurtful words are sent her way: “Am I gonna believe all them bad things them fools say about me today?” The answer, of course, is no.

Lately, I’ve needed a bit of Constantine’s wisdom. I’m one of five rhetoric scholars in a department of literature folks and I’m frequently reminded of the need to justify the work that I do. I’m all about doing the rhetorical footwork to find an audience for my words and to craft those words (and occasionally, images) in a way that resonates with my readers.

Sometimes, though, I’m confronted by those who don’t understand the power of effectively placed public prose, or the painstaking research that goes into such pieces. Too often, I think, many of my colleagues look at my journalistic work and see fluff–not the hours of interviews; reading of scientific research reports, health data and policy statements; stacks of correspondence with key sources; and most importantly, the continuous refining of language (i.e., multiple drafts) to present my work in the most digestible and credible way.

So, am I gonna believe all them bad (assumptions) them fools throw my way?

I think not.

The puzzling progress of cancer

My post for the American Association for Cancer Research’s Catalyst blog just went live:

Puzzling Progress: What Strides Look Like in Cancer Research

It can be difficult to sit by patiently waiting for groundbreaking cancer discoveries while loved ones suffer from a form of the disease. My post addresses the complexity of cancer and the slow, but steady, pace at which cancer researchers are making strides.

One thing that has evolved in recent years is something called “convergent science.” As the complexity of cancer has revealed itself, scientists from many fields have collaborated to piece together the various components of the disease.

I’m working on an article right now for a new journal called Convergent Science, Physical Oncology, addressing the promises of tackling a puzzle from diverse disciplinary perspectives. For cancer survivors, it’s a direction that offers much hope.

Addiction, up close

My friend and colleague, Kerry Madden, just published a piece on addiction (and the upcoming vote over legalizing marijuana in California) in the LA Times: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-madden-addiction-marijuana-legalization-20160603-snap-story.html

Kerry’s essay is powerful, regardless of the snarky comments from readers–many of whom are pro-legalization. I’d love to introduce them to my brother who, no doubt about it, used pot as a gateway drug to a host of substances and continues to deal with addiction at 56 years old.

Brains

Today, I underwent a brain MRI.

During the past several weeks, I’ve been experiencing a pulsating sound in my left ear. At first, the sound reminded me of ocean waves, a kind of swooshing. But the noise gradually turned to pounding in beat to my heart. I’ve been losing sleep and have become gradually more concerned that what I’m experiencing might amount to more than tinnitus.

Both my oncologist and ENT recommended that I have a brain scan to rule out one of three more dangerous underlying causes: cancer metastasis to the brain, a brain tumor, or a restricted blood vessel. While I feel pretty normal aside from the pounding, I learned a long time ago–when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 29–not to dismiss the possibility of an unexpected, and statistically unlikely, health crisis.

A less frightening possibility, my doctors tell me, is that I am having a physical reaction to extreme stress. The past few months have been difficult, between issues with my brother and my parents’ medical challenges. Plus, my oldest is leaving for college next year, and though she’ll be attending the same university where my husband and I teach, her high school graduation marks a major milestone that’s filled with equal amounts of joy and sadness.

As I lay motionless in the MRI machine for 40 minutes today, being careful not to shift my head, my mind drifted in two directions.

I murmured several Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s, and just talked to God about bringing me to this point. At 29, following my cancer diagnosis, I wasn’t sure I would live a full life. I was petrified and felt completely isolated from those my age who were living healthy, normal lives. A lot has changed since then, and I’ve come to understand cancer as just one aspect of who I am and what I was meant to do with my time on earth: to write about the experience of facing a serious illness and to do all I can to help others facing the disease.

I also thought about Woody Allen’s movie Hannah and Her Sisters. In the film, Woody plays a character who experiences a sudden hearing loss in one ear. His doctors send him for one test after another, and Woody leaps to the conclusion that he must have a brain tumor. He panics.

Even when the doctor reports that he’s absolutely fine, that nothing serious has caused the hearing loss, Woody’s character suffers an identity crisis. Who is he, and what will happen to him when, one day, his life does end? I’ll leave the outcome of his search for meaning to readers who want to watch the film. As the noise surrounded me inside the MRI tube, though, I thought back to the questions posed in the movie–and the humor that came out of the experience. Hey, 40 minutes is a long time to hang out in a noisy receptacle!

Every unknown is a little bit scary. There’s something different about the possibility of the unknown affecting your brain, though. Maybe it’s just that I think and write for a living–I’m an academic through and through–but I feel as though I might lose my soul if something were to happen to my brain.

Dreaming Disarray

A bus packed with people and nowhere to sit.

A house filled with toppled furniture, fragments of food and spilled glasses of wine covering the floor, overturned plants.

A closet with plenty of clothes, but not a matching combination in sight.

These were my dreams last night from midnight to 6:00 a.m.

Some aspects of my life have been in disarray, so why not my dreams?

The last couple of weeks, I’ve been worried about my parents, really about my brother showing up at my parents’ house and bringing them harm. I don’t know where he’s lurking–in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Alabama?

I’m experiencing writer’s block, starting plenty of projects but feeling an emptiness inside that prevents me from completing my thoughts.

Today, I sent Edwina a text, asking how she’s been. Turns out, she’s feeling a bit unsettled as well. Her car isn’t working, so she can’t get where she needs to go. She fell and hurt her leg, so walking is even more painful than usual. She misses me and wishes we could find the time to meet up and catch up on one another’s lives.

As soon as the disarray ends, I tell her, we’ll make plans. I hope it’s soon.

A celebration of writing

October 20 is National Day on Writing, a day committed to celebrating the power of writing in all its forms–both teaching and doing.

Members of the professional writing faculty, including Purdue alums Jaci Wells, Jeff Bacha, Bruce and me, along with our alum from Arizona, Chris Minnix, decided to set up a booth on the green and invite students to learn more about the day and our programs. We were a big hit!

Professional Writing Faculty: Bruce, Jaci, and Chris (standing); Jeff and me (sitting)

Professional Writing Faculty: Bruce, Jaci, and Chris (standing); Jeff and me (sitting)

To entice students to learn more about us, we set up a drawing for a $50 gift card from the campus bookstore. Students just had to write down their contact info and the best writing advice they’d ever been given. We ended up with more than 100 entries with some inspiring pieces of wisdom.

I made cookies and some of my mom’s special recipe party mix to pass out, too. The students loved it. Thanks, mom!

It was a great event, one we plan to build on next year. We’re hoping that more aspiring writers come our way after learning more about what we do and the many possibilities for those with writing chops.