AU Bootcamp: Allison Wright of VQR
By Austine Chilton Model
Today American University’s MFA program welcomes Allison Wright for the Spring Bootcamp. This session will focus on state of the literary journal, as well as strategies for submissions and pitfalls to avoid during the submission process. Allison Wright is the executive editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review and a professor of journalism at the University of Virginia. She is the former president of WriterHouse and former editor of Tiny Hardcore Press. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, Virginia Quarterly Review, Popular Mechanics, The Texas Observer, Literary Hub, and Rumpus. She holds a Ph.D. from University of Texas, Austin, where she wrote her dissertation on the cultural history of cheerleading.
I was able to briefly catch up with her before the event tonight to ask a few questions!
What advice do you have for new writers, or writers who are just in the beginning phases of getting work published, for making their pieces or pitches stand out?
My advice for any writer who wants their work to stand out is to write or pitch the piece that only you can write. What makes you the best writer for that story? What knowledge or access do you have that no one else does? The best pitches, like the best pieces, are thoroughly researched; you will often spend days or even weeks researching and reporting a pitch before you send it to anyone. Putting in the work on the front end helps convince an editor not only that you know what you’re doing but that you have the chops to pull it off.
When you are writing a new piece, what techniques do you use when integrating personal narrative, theoretical components, and creative craftwork?
I find intros to be the most difficult to write, but they almost always come easier if I allow myself to lean into the personal, whether that means writing about myself or my subject. At VQR, we believe that good stories are best told through the lens of good characters. So this trick often works hand in hand with that philosophy. Eating your vegetables becomes a lot more palatable when you douse them in cheese, right? (For those of us who aren’t lactose intolerant, I suppose.) Otherwise, I find that everyone needs an editor—even, or maybe especially, editors.
What advantages does the literary journal have as a medium over other media?
As a quarterly magazine, we have the advantage of the long game. We aren’t where you look for breaking news. You don’t come to us for hot takes. But we digest those current events and offer a larger perspective. It’s the difference between the weather and the climate. And we get to tell those stories artfully, through poetry and prose, using photojournalism, creative nonfiction, domestic and international reporting, with illustration and fiction and critical analysis. This is the benefit to a literary magazine.
What draws you to writing about sports, and what unique insights do sports illuminate about our culture and society?
Sports have always been a part of my life. They’re a fundamental way in which I see the world. Sports and games, I should say. I grew up playing sports, watching my parents play sports, attending games as a spectator and a fan. I continue to watch a variety of sports. I think part of what draws me to editing is the way in which it’s like a puzzle, and I’ve always liked puzzles. I loved Tetris as a child. I still love it. But sports shape our culture and society. We can talk about almost anything by talking about sports. Race, gender, access, representation, money, health, safety, class. It’s all there.
You present on alternative academic careers – what does an alternative academic career look like and what advice do you have for those seeking something along those lines professionally?
An alt-ac career can look like anything other than a traditional university teaching career at this point. There was a lot less talk about alt-ac careers when I was finishing grad school. Sometimes I think I lucked into mine, but then I remind myself that I prepared for it—even if I didn’t know it at the time—by freelancing as a copy editor and an academic book editor and teaching writing. My degree (in American Studies) and my specializations (American popular culture and literature, feminist theory and studies, girls’ culture, sports, youth cultures, the American autobiography, poetry) also help form a foundation for my career as a magazine editor, and they allow me the flexibility to write and teach occasionally. A lot of what we do in the humanities is transferable. The most important things to learn about yourself are: 1. How do I like to spend my time? and 2. What don’t I like to do? You can suss out a lot of these things in grad school if you’re paying attention.
Austine Elizabeth Chilton Model is a staff editor at Café MFA and a first-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.