Guest post by Robin Mimna
Most writers who have put their work out there have at least one regret that stands out among the buckets of rejection that rain down on them. That one agent or publisher you felt an instant connection with. The one you knew in your soul would not only get your ideas, but champion your work like no other could.
For me, that’s Graywolf Press. In retrospect, I aimed pretty high and it wasn’t publication, but a paid remote internship I was after. Advertised on Instagram, I was one of Graywolf’s 44,000+ followers who got the update the day this “small press” posted the position. I became infatuated with the idea of beginning my publishing career with such a lofty internship and poured over the requirements. Graywolf primarily works with established authors or academics like Claudia Rankine, author of Just Us: An American Conversation. And unlike the scores of younger, college age applicants all over the country, I was over forty with a fulltime job, limited flexibility and not much experience to bring to the table. Nevertheless, I threw myself into writing a killer cover letter outlining why all the knocks against me were irrelevant, and why I was (obviously) the best person for the job.
Founded in 1974 by Scott Walker, Graywolf Press started out as limited hand sewn chapbooks. In 1984 it was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and later moved to St. Paul, Minnesota.
Today Graywolf publishes about 30-40 books a year, mostly poetry, memoirs, essays, novels, short stories and translations. Occasionally, they will have an open period or contest, but otherwise does not accept unsolicited submissions. They vet most of their authors through magazines, writing conferences and agented submissions. In short, it’s an exclusive press.
In preparation for my grand application. I haunted Graywolf’s website and social media. While doing research, I purchased several of their books, including The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Weijun Wang. It’s an intimate view from the point of view of someone who struggles with the effects of mental and chronic illness.
I spent weeks working on my application, which included a cover letter and a thousand-word analysis of a book of my choosing. I settled on The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby. Not just because it’s one of my favorites, or because I’ve read it a million times, but it’s also right in line with what Graywolf publishes. Bauby’s short memoir is a day dream-nightmare into his transition from able-bodied, womanizing editor of Elle magazine in Paris, to bed-bound quadriplegic. After a massive stroke took out Bauby’s brain stem, he was diagnosed with “locked-in-syndrome.” This left him unable to move beyond a slight swivel of his head and a single blinking eye, yet his mind fully intact. Using a translation alphabet designed specifically for him, he was able to blink out his memoir using his left eyelid. He did this without losing a hint of his sharp sarcasm or high humor. Sadly, Bauby died two days after the book’s publication.
With the confidence of someone suffering from her own massive stroke, I whisked my application over to Graywolf, wishing only that I could stand over the shoulder of the lucky editor who got to read MY perfect and inspired analysis.
I wish I could write you a happier ending to this story, but this isn’t fiction. During the reading period I checked my e-mail in fifteen-minute intervals and picked up my phone every time it rang. (So many expired car warranties…) But no offer came, and no e-mail was sent. Obviously, I didn’t get the internship. I didn’t even get a rejection. I found out I didn’t get the job when they announced on their website a few weeks later they’d filled the position. I’m totally fine by the way. I hardly ever talk about it publicly anymore. (I’m not crying, you’re crying)
Graywolf posted two new paid internships this year. Although conducted remotely, all applicants must reside in California, Hawaii, Minnesota, or New York for the duration of the internship. Maybe they figured out offering a national paid internship in the middle of a global pandemic would yield more applications than they cared to review.
It’s clear breaking into publishing in the modern age is a complicated process, but not impossible. Take your shots when you have the chance and move on from the rejections. My writing might not be sophisticated enough to grab Graywolf’s attention, but you never know. Paying dues sometimes means finding opportunity in the failures. I ended up using my grand analysis for a literature class later that year and got a B+ on it. Perhaps it wasn’t the inspired piece of iconic work I imagined it was, but it got me through a tough spot while I was struggling with my Spanish II final so, I’ll call it a win. Adios!