Tag Archives: writing

“Be an Autodidact” by Fatima Brown

I just finished a course in Latino/a Feminisms that included the topics of history, identity, and feminism. The class was writing intensive, allowing students the possibility to explore their personal views on particular matters. Something we all found curious was our unfamiliarity with Latin America Fatima Brownand its history. I believe most of us were unprepared to tackle the subject because we were either not taught that history during previous years of schooling, or we were not taught sufficiently, even correctly. Unfortunately, this was not the first time I have faced the challenge of being unschooled in something that is vital to know and understand. Shortly after the class ended, Professor Elizabeth Huergo invited me to compose a reflection on my experiences with college writing. I decided to reflect on how formal education does not equip students with the necessary tools and knowledge.

When I started at Mason, my first class was not with Professor Huergo. I took a basic, required English course. A few weeks into it, I noticed how many red marks continued to appear on the work that was returned to me. I was a junior in college, yet I did not know where to place a comma properly. But I was not the only one whose work was being torn into. The professor of that required course made a comment to the class about how grammar is not taught correctly from elementary through high school. My first instinct was to drop out of college and repeat school from the first grade. I wondered if any primary school would legitimately consider my request. I honestly felt like I needed to re-learn everything. I was embarrassed at my misunderstanding of language.

Then I thought more deeply about my professor’s comment and asked myself, how did I get away with making the same errors for so long? I was extremely concerned and realized that formal schooling teaches the same things, but not necessarily accurately or analytically. For example, the subject of history is diluted with dates and names of wars and their heroes. The reason why most students end up dragging their feet to history class is because it is not often enough a subject that encourages questioning and thinking about why history repeats itself. History is presented as inactive and passive. We learn to memorize events, the people involved, and the period. We take a test that measures our ability to remember those facts and then forget them as soon as we fill in the last multiple-choice question.

Fatima BrownUntil college, most of us do not get to sit down and break history apart. When we finally decide to question its assumptions and causes critically. Those are the discussions that ignite a network of light bulbs, making it easier for eyes and fingers to trace the lines between then “now” and “then.” That sort of critical thinking helps us develop a better understanding and respect for all people as we study different and various histories. This understanding and respect allows us to sharpen political and social consciousness, strengthening our grasp on the complexities of human nature. Most important, history becomes a channel of identity and compels an individual to discover his or her own. The greatest assets of education are its gifts of practicality and usefulness outside of the classroom. We can apply those critical and investigative skills to question and form ourselves.

After completing that required English course, I decided to accept criticism and force myself to try to do better. Instead of feeling discouraged, I started to teach myself the fundamentals because I believed sloppy grammar and punctuation should be forgiven but fixed. I was determined to learn where those darned comma belonged and why. So my English re-education began with the basic parts and structures of a sentence. Besides its relevance to clauses and conjunctions, a comma came to symbolize for me the importance of spending time learning about seemingly little things that have such an extraordinary power to change meaning.

Education should present information the way a skeleton watch displays tiny pins and wheels. Subjects need to be exposed from the inside-out. Pupils must see the bones and internal mechanisms of systems because those mechanisms affect our lives. Personally, I take responsibility for not doing certain things that could have benefited me. But generally speaking, education needs to be reformed in its entirety, beginning with what we learn about and how. Integrating lessons on real life issues and how to handle them in a healthy, productive way should also be a priority. And last but not least, educators need to be on every “Top Paid Jobs” list. Without them, I would not have been able to confront my own setbacks and create a new plas of action. Most of us have at least one influential teacher to thank.

I only want to address the value of self-teaching, not blame a system or person. Investing our minds solely in formal schooling is not enough. It must be supplemented with what is found after venturing out and taking advantage of resources beyond the borders of established institutions. Some examples would include reading a local newspaper, a random book from a “free books” cart at a library or book store; listening to an opposing argument; viewing a controversial work; rethinking previously learned material. All of these can offer new or unheard-of terms, opinions, and ideas. They deepen a learning experience by helping one accept individuality and difference. Providing ourselves with options is necessary in figuring out likes and dislikes, possibilities and impossibilities.

I used to be apathetic to the idea of being both an instructor and a student, but now encourage everyone to be an autodidact, to practice self-enlightenment. The decision I made to be my own teacher has given my career plans a jump-start. I am revving the engine. I have antsy feet. I’ve been taking risks by writing and sending articles to website, interning at a media placement business, and editing works for aspiring authors. The past few months alone have been a wild ride, but I’m far from reaching a final destination. The journey is what I anticipate.

Fatima Brown is an English major who is currently finishing her Bachelor of Arts degree at George Mason University. She aspires to be a published writer and an editor in the very near future.

Contact Information: fbrown6@gmu.edu



“On Your Mark, Get Set – Freelance!” by Sonja Patterson

Bust magazine coverWriting is similar to running a marathon. But as a freelancer, you may find yourself crouched at the starting-line, waiting for the pistol to fire—or more literally, a pitch to be accepted—so you can commence the race—I mean, the writing. 

From pitch to publication, a full year passed before my feature article, “No Man’s Band,” (about the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-girl, interracial band of the 1930s and 40s) appeared in print, and I held the glossy paper in my hands. I sent my initial pitch to Bust magazine by email on April 26, 2012. It appeared in print in the April/May 2013 issue. As a bi-monthly, each of the annual six issues has a theme, and such constraints can make it difficult to get an article placed. Acceptance may feel like a roll of the dice. Compare this to the New Yorker, which is published 47 times annually, with five of these issues covering two-week spans. 

There are many reasons for this long wait. Most often, it’s all about timing. Editorial calendars for Sonja Pattersonprint magazines are planned six months to a year in advance depending on the publication. If a similar topic (even remotely similar) was covered in the last couple of years, editors will shy away, not wanting to appear predictable to readers. They are always looking for something fresh, surprising, on-trend or compelling because of its timeless quality.

The solution is to pitch more often, thereby increasing your chances of having an article accepted. Set a goal for yourself to send a pitch once a week or five times a week, whatever works for you. Try to vary your topics from music to health, or vary the type of article, from a long feature to a short service article.

While I waited for my “No Man’s Band” pitch to be accepted, I followed up regularly with the editor, showing my enthusiasm and reinforcing why my idea was awesome—often adding new ideas and angles so it wasn’t simply a boring reminder. Your goal is to make editors think they’ve got to get your article published or that they’ve got to know more about the topic you pitched. Eventually I was reassured when an email arrived that said,
“We’re very interested in working with you on this story, but we don’t yet know what issue we’d like to include it in. Once we get that straightened out, we’ll be in touch, but it may not be for a few months. We appreciate your patience.” They eventually decided to publish the article in their annual music issue.

cover of Bust magazineThis wasn’t my first article for Bust, a feminist pop-culture magazine covering news, music, film, books, comedy/humor, and crafting. The first was a travel article on quirky, unusual things to do that go outside the typical tourist traps in Washington, D.C. While researching the Howard Theater for this article, I stumbled upon black-and-white footage of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm performing there in 1941. I was blown away by their music and stage presence and filled with questions. Who were these women and why had I never heard of them before?   Coincidentally, soon after I went to see The Girls in the Band, a documentary about the many all-girl swing bands during the 1930s and 1940s.

On August 8, 2012, I got the article offer, asking for a first draft by September 5th. They wanted 2,000 words in less than 30 days. My first draft was 2,432 words. Since I have a full-time job, I worked on this article in the evenings, weekends, and on my lunch break. I did research at the Library of Congress, Smithsonian Archives, and public library, taking notes from out-of-print books, vinyl record liner notes, and black-only newspaper articles. (Newspapers were segregated at this time in U.S. history). You must (or it helps to) love your topic when writing feature articles because you’re going to learn more than you ever thought possible.

Sonya Patterson

I got in touch with the director of The Girls in the Band, Judy Chaikin, and she gave me contact information for a couple of the Sweethearts. They were mere teenagers when they started the band in 1937 and were now close to 90 years old. Judy warned me that they would be hard to get a hold of since they avoided technology and telephones. I thought I would get lucky, so I kept trying various phone numbers, but my heart sank as the phone rang and rang. Sadly, most of the band members had passed away. Others were in nursing homes, dealing with poor health or dementia. One band member came through in the end; saxophonist Roz Cron, 87, was charming and cool, just as you would expect.

I was also able to speak with a child of one of the Sweethearts. Cathy Hughes, daughter of trombonist Helen Woods, was more than happy to take time out of her busy schedule (as an e-radio and television personality and a business executive for Radio One and TV One) to share her childhood memories of the Sweethearts. In total, I interviewed six sources, four of which provided information I was able to quote from in the final article.

I was well aware that magazine editors take a different approach than newspaper editors. Magazine editors expect you to write numerous drafts and want to have a hand in shaping the story. I once read an article years ago by a Reader’s Digest editor who said he expected writers to turn in a minimum of five drafts, but typically, it was closer to eight drafts. I went back and forth with the editors of Bust magazine six times. The editors were professional and supportive through it all. They were like the people who stand along the race route handing out paper cups filled with water. They even had an intern type up my notes, so by the time I came home from work in the evening, I was able to use those typed notes to finish the story right on time.

So, if fiction writing is a marathon, freelancing is a triathlon that requires meticulous note taking, solitary research, and then, as you are pushing through the fatigue, the ability to turn on the charm that will get you the best possible anecdotes from interview sources. Think of the word count tally as a mile-marker that tests your endurance and exercises your mind. Waiting for a source to get back to you is equivalent to a pot hole or a steep hill. Reading your byline in print is equivalent to tearing through the finish line and proving your status as a “freelancer.”

Author Bio:

Sonya Patterson

After living for years in N.Y.C., Sonja now lives outside of Washington, D.C. She graduated from Evergreen State College, where she studied English, Communications and Writing. As a freelancer, she loves to write about lifestyle/culture, travel, health and anything else that piques her interest. She also writes fiction and non-fiction and plays the ukulele.

Author Links:

“No Man’s Band: Tales of a 1940s All-Girl Swing Band”

BUST magazine, April/May 2013

A feature article about the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-female swing band, and the surge of similar bands during World War II that blew America’s minds while they blew their horns.


“Oh, Say Can You See Our Quirky Capital?”

BUST magazine, June 2012

A two-page feature on atypical places-to-go and things-to-see in Washington, D.C.




An Interview with Virginia Pye

Virginia Pye and I also share an important bond: we’re both lucky enough to have our work published by Unbridled Books. When we met at the Virginia Festival of the Book in March 2013, she kindly agreed to respond to a few questions about her forthcoming work, River of Dust, a beautifully lyrical novel inspired by her grandfather’s journals, written while he was a missionary in China in the early 20th century. This debut novel has already won an important accolade, having been selected as an Indie Next Pick for May 2013. Pye, aside from having taught writing at the University of Pennsylvania and New York University, served three terms as president of James River Writers, a literary non-profit in Richmond, Virginia. Her short stories have won awards and appeared in numerous literary magazines, including The North American Review, Tampa Review and The Baltimore Review. There is more information about Virginia Pye at Unbridled Books, as well as her author site.

Virginia Pye

Huergo: How would you describe your writing process?

Pye:  I have written for many years, stopping only when my children were young. River of Dust is my sixth novel, though the first to be published. I tend to ruminate on a story and characters for a while before I begin to write it. I jot down an outline. Nothing strict, but something to follow, heading towards key moments or turning points. I then dive in. I write every day and have for some time, unless I’m distracted by travel or family. When I was working on River of Dust, I was so possessed by telling the story that it woke me before five a.m.. I was at my desk with a cup of coffee before sun up and could write for two hours and then take my son to school. I’d return to it in the daylight and press on. I tend to write a full first draft of a book, then go back and rewrite extensively through many more drafts. The whole process can take years, but luckily, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.

Huergo: What would you identify as the most difficult aspect of that process?

Pye: The most difficult aspect is being able to see the work clearly for what it is, not for what I hope it will be. Like many writers, I have a love/hate relationship with what I write. I can be enamored of something one moment, and then feel chagrined by it the next. What’s hardest is to find that clear-eyed balance where you can see where you have succeeded, but also where you’ve fallen short. Hemingway said, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector.” For me, that’s taken years to develop, and I’m still working on it. And, by the way, there’s a danger in sharing work too early. A writer can become hopeful and excited by her intentions and share it. That’s never a good idea, because criticism can be confusing and can throw you off track. It’s better to really polish the work and give it its best shot, and then venture out with it.

Huergo: How do you balance your personal life and your writing?
            book cover for River of Dust

Pye: I’m extremely lucky because I have a supportive husband and family, and I live in a community where there’s a sense of space and time in which to write. My life is not overly pressured. I used to teach writing, but not these days. Also, for years, I helped run a literary non-profit. But for now, I can say I just write. I tend to be disciplined about my time and go to my desk daily, which I consider a great privilege.

Huergo: What’s your next project?  

Pye: I’ve written many drafts of a novel about a family in Cambridge, Massachusetts—which happens to be where I grew up—at the time of the student take over of Harvard in 1969. For some reason, I’ve been trying to write that event into a novel for decades. It fascinates me. This novel is about two sisters, one of whom ends up inside the administration building during the take over. The girls’ father is Dean of Students, and his job is to bring the kids out of the building safely. Once again, as in River of Dust, I’m interested in the conflicts within families of the dominant class. In this case, they are not missionaries, but “the establishment.” I’m interested in how the next generation goes to great lengths to define themselves in opposition to their inherited status. In other words, it’s a novel that comes out of the sixties. And, although I wasn’t of that age, I know how it tore apart families and has echoes to this day.