Publishing can sometimes be personified as a terrifying monster from the view of a writer, especially when they are attempting to get published in a magazine. Last week we conducted an interview with a writer and alumni of Florida Atlantic University regarding her own struggles in publishing her pieces, what motivated her to become a writer, and what advice she recommends upcoming writers follow if they wish to climb the long and winding road leading up the mountain of success.
Who exactly is Brittany Ackerman?
Brittany Ackerman is a writer from Riverdale, New York. She earned her BA in English from Indiana University and graduated from Florida Atlantic University’s MFA program in Creative Writing. She teaches Archetypal Psychology and Creative Writing at AMDA College and Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Hollywood, CA. She was the 2017 Nonfiction Award Winner for Red Hen Press, as well as the AWP Intro Journals Project Award Nominee in 2015. Her work has been featured in The Los Angeles Review, No Tokens, Hobart, Cosmonauts Ave, Fiction Southeast, and more. She currently lives in Los Angeles, California with her first collection of essays entitled The Perpetual Motion Machine out with Red Hen Press.
What sort of creative habits do you have? Are there any patterns or routines you have every day that get you in the flow of writing?
“Reading and watching movies are my top sources of inspiration for writing. With my creative writing students, I often tell them to go see a flick or to re-read a book they love to gain insight and build momentum for their own work. One of my favorite things to do at the end of every semester is offer up a reading list for each student, akin to their particular interests and writing styles. Personally, if I’m working on a short story, I’ll read some Lorrie Moore or even jump back to J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories to see how it’s done, and that time spent reading often stirs something in me and reveals the light under the door I need to open next.”
What works or writers inspired you to become a writer? Why do you think this person’s work was so inspiring to you to make you choose this career path?
“When I was in college, I took a course on memoir and one of the authors we read was Jo Ann Beard. I remember reading The Boys of My Youth and thinking, “I want to do this. I want to tell these kinds of stories in this way.” Her work contains a quiet anxiety and truly encapsulates what it is to be human. I’m mostly fascinated with her point of view; how she knows exactly where to start and stop, what to look at in the room, what to explain and what to leave bare. I adore her writing process, as she explained when I was lucky enough to take a workshop with her during my time at FAU. She said she needs to “sink down to the bottom of her mind’s ocean” and that’s where the writing can happen. There is where it flows from her and she can let it out without judgement, like watching clouds pass in the sky. She remains an inspiration to me as a hardworking woman in the literary world.”
Do you ever find yourself emulating the writers who inspire you most? How did you find your own voice in response to their writing?
“In graduate school, one of my nonfiction workshops with Kate Schmitt was focussed entirely on the art of imitation. We read a plethora of writers and then were tasked to “imitate” their voice, style, POV, borrow a word or phrase, emulate them in any way we saw fit. It was so fascinating to see how all my peers interpreted these assignments. As we workshopped pieces inspired by these other esteemed writers, it was clear that imitation lead us to our own voice, that no matter how close we tried to stay to an author, we ended up becoming the writers we were supposed to be anyway. I urge my students to do this same imitation tactic with their work, and it continues to be a source of encouragement.”
The first published work you have listed on your website is called “Sharing a Cigarette”, and it was published in Dirty Chai Magazine. After publishing this piece did you feel any type of regrets about this piece, or did you wish to further revise it after publishing?
“I could go through my book right now and find things I’d like to change. Someone once told me, “It’s all a draft until you die,” and that really stuck with me. Nothing will ever be “perfect,” so for me it’s more about the art of getting it out there. The catharsis doesn’t come from writing, but from readers connecting to the writing, and that can’t happen if it stays in your documents folder or lingers forever on your legal pad. I truly feel that whatever I write tomorrow is going to be better than any work from my past. I’m certainly proud of each publication I’ve earned, as it’s a true testament to my perseverance and work ethic, but if my writing doesn’t continue to improve, then I’m probably doing something wrong. My best days as a writer are yet to come.”
After publishing a piece, what kind of process gets you back into the creative flow and takes you out of that previous piece that was published?
“The joy that comes from publication does not last long. The other day, I was opening up a magazine that was sent to me with my work inside, and before I could open it to the proper page, the excitement was already gone. Not to be dark about it, but if you are writing to experience the joy of publishing, this may not be the right path for you. The true joy I receive is from knowing that my work as a whole, my body of work, is forever inching back towards some kind of higher meaning, something greater than myself. If I stop writing, that reaching higher stops. I continue because writing is my gift and it is what I have to offer this world. Getting published in magazines, books, anthologies, websites, someone’s local paper; it’s all good stuff. But it can’t be the only thing that keeps you going. You have to be your biggest fan, your biggest advocate, your biggest reason to keep going.”
What kind of issues have you run into during your career in terms of publishing? Is there anything you would recommend writers who wish to be published do in order to overcome these obstacles?
“After graduating from FAU, I submitted my thesis project everywhere. It’s all I talked about and thought about for a whole year afterward. I had a thought that maybe that wouldn’t be the ticket, that maybe I had something else in me, more work to come. I wrote a short story that later turned into a novel and threw myself into that project. All the while, I still submitted The Perpetual Motion Machine out to lots of places, one being Red Hen Press and their annual nonfiction contest for emerging authors. One day I was a production assistant on a photoshoot for a shoe company and got a call from the managing editor, Kate Gale, who asked if my manuscript was still available for publication. I was holding two coffees when she called and balanced the phone against my shoulder. I almost didn’t believe it at first. My negative mind started racing to thoughts that this might be a scam, that something was bound to go wrong, but then a few weeks later I stood in her office and shook her hand. She told me that the work was just about to begin. I left the office that day happy, but also a little scared. Very scared, really. Getting published is really just the beginning of the hard work. Writing might be the outpour of the soul, but publishing is the good, hard work of the body. My best advice is to not be afraid of hard work. Having responsibility and purpose are the great gifts.”
What does writing mean to you? Why do you write?
“I have tried very hard not to write. When I was twenty-two, I moved to Los Angeles and got a job at a public relations firm. Later, I transferred to an advertising agency, think Mad Men, but LA, and wrote copy for television networks like Bravo and Lifetime and the History Channel. I was very grateful for the job, the money, the opportunity, but I was so miserable there. I can’t put a name to that feeling, but it felt wrong to get up, drive to that office, and do that work every day of my life. When I left California, I moved back home to Florida with hopes of “finding myself,” but in turn what I found was that I needed to be writing. Writing found me. I was waitressing at an Italian restaurant in Boca Raton and one of my fellow servers had gotten accepted into FAU’s Creative Writing program. I was happy for him, but also jealous that I’d still be serving pizza and pasta while he was out bettering himself and doing what he loved to do. Seeing my despair, he encouraged me to apply too for the next session. I worked tirelessly on my application and vowed that even if I didn’t get into FAU, I’d apply elsewhere too. I needed to hone my craft, and I didn’t want to do it alone. I wanted community. Writing to me is connecting. It can feel a very solitary thing, but once I got accepted to the program and started connecting with my peers, sharing my work, reading other great writing, I truly fell in love with the art. I now continue to strive for that kind of connection every time I open a book and turn a page. I hope readers can gain that experience from my words too.”
Did you always want to be a writer? If not, then what made you change your mind and become one?
“When I was little, I kept a journal. It was a big, fuzzy purple notebook that I got for my sixth birthday. I had also just seen the movie Harriet the Spyand was obsessed with writing down my every thought and opinion about the world around me. When I was ten or so, I went to a sleepover, and before bed I pulled out my journal (a new one, no longer the fuzzy, purple one) and my friend asked what I was doing. When I told her I was writing about my day she laughed and didn’t understand. I thought everyone wrote about their day, their thoughts, actions, regrets, lies, secrets, etc. I kept my writing a secret until high school when I took a creative writing class. I never wanted to share my work, read aloud, any of that. It still felt very private to me, but at least I was able to do it. It wasn’t until college where I felt I could start afresh and be bold. I decided to be confident and brazen in my writing classes, to always want to share my work so that it could at the very least be heard. Even if I was scared or nervous, I read my work to anyone who would listen. My vulnerability and attitude towards being open with my work has made all the difference. I haven’t always known I wanted to be a writer. A writer is just what I was all along.”
What do you believe it takes to be a successful writer?
“As I get older, I think success is a state of mind. Some would consider me successful where I am now; first book published by a great indie press, teaching gig at an acclaimed art school in Hollywood, a nice spread of pieces in a variety of magazines, print and online- sounds good on paper. I’m still human and can’t help but compare myself to others who have books out with bigger presses, who have agents, who have more readings scheduled than me, who get more opportunities than me, etc. I measure success by how I can stop doing that and start counting my blessings, counting the things I’ve worked hard for, counting what really matters in this life. I have a wonderful, supportive family, I’m getting married this year to the most loving man on the planet, I have friends who are good people with their hearts in the right place, I have a roof over my head that I love coming home to (and laundry in my apartment too!), I have my health (aside from stress and anxiety that often make my stomach hurt), and I have my work, which no one can take from me. To be a successful writer, I think you first have to understand how to be a successful person. I’m still working on that, but I believe I have the right ingredients to make it happen. Keep the reasons you are writing in check and know what your goals are. Know yourself.”
Finally, Is there any message you would like to give to aspiring writers who are only in their first steps of submitting their work to journals or magazines?
“The submission process is an animal in itself. Julie Marie Wade gave a talk at FAU while I was in school and she told us that she saved all her rejection letters in a big box in her closet. She wasn’t afraid of being rejected. In fact, she took note of it. That would be my biggest and best piece of advice to aspiring writers about to enter into the submission game. Don’t be scared. Keep track of your submissions using a site like Submittable or Duotrope. If your piece is rejected, send it out to five, ten, twenty other places. Aim high, but know your market. Read the magazines you are submitting to. Follow your favorite author’s careers and submit to literary magazines they’ve been in. Apply to workshops they’ve gone to. Email them and say hello and how much you admire their work. Go to readings and support local bookstores and booksellers. Oh, and be a nice person, when you can. Be kind to others and to yourself. Getting published is just like leveling up in a video game, so if you want to level up, you have to be willing to play. Get a job so you can afford submission fees. Go to a workshop (I saved up and went to Chamonix for two weeks and I had a great time!) or a conference or AWP or go to the library and whatever you do, don’t give up on yourself. You are inching back to that higher meaning too, and the more hands we have on deck, the higher we’ll go.”
Brittany’s encouraging and admirable view of success is something that every writer should aspire to understand: the meaning of success is not something we can objectively define, but rather something we can define for ourselves. There is no black and white in success. Writing is a passion that we at Coastlines Literary magazine strive to advocate. Writing is a speech that comes directly from the writer’s heart. In the words of Jodi Picoult, “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” So start writing, submitting, and putting your heart into words that the world can see!