Today, September 6, 2012, we at Vela celebrate the first anniversary of the magazine. There is much to come, but before we get to all of that, we offer these six short retrospectives on how and why Vela came to be and what Vela has meant to us, as writers of travel-inpsired creative nonfiction, and as writers who happen to be women.
In her lovely book Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime (Harcourt, 2006), Patricia Hampl writes: “For all the fevered efforts of traveling artists and writers, the only people who could hope to gain extended access to the forbidden domain of the harem, that tabernacle of perfume and spice, were women.”
She writes then of one the first female travel writers, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, whose husband became the British Ambassador to Constantinople in 1717: “Lady Mary’s view of the harem was exactly opposite of those of the men who either never saw it (Ingres); who beheld it only briefly—perhaps as a tableau expressly arranged to meet a Western visitor’s expectations (Delacroix); or whose exotic couplings were purchased retail (Flaubert).”
Lady Mary had not been so shocked by a room full of reclining nudes as they had been of her and her corset. “They believed I was so locked up in that machine, that it was not in my power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my husband,” Lady Mary wrote home. By Hampl’s interpretation, “the cloister of the harem, as far as Lady Mary could tell, was a free space for women, a private environment ruled by women’s taste, devoted to women’s ways, where no husband or father could interfere.” Hampl takes this in a startling, and yet uncanny direction: “Harem life offered a woman not servitude and imprisonment, but opulence and astonishing personal freedom…The harem, the women’s private quarters, provided not a caged life, but a silken chamber, something akin to what Virginia Woolf two centuries later would memorably call ‘a room of one’s own.’”
Vela is the word for candle in Spanish, and it is also the word for sail. For me, the word contains both the close, private light, and vast possibility. In English, it is the name of the sails on the constellation Argo Navis. It is rooted in the Latin word for curtain or veil. Lady Mary, it turns out, loved to go out in public veiled. She felt free that way, to move about, to be an outward-looking body, rather than a body looked upon. Hampl writes, “This, paradoxically, was liberty.”
At Vela, we have a very public face: the essays and articles that we write and publish on our pages. This face is not at all meant only for the private realm of women, even as it pulls back the curtain on those “tabernacle[s] of perfume and spice” to which only us women have access. But what goes on in our own inner chamber—the letters we write one another about our works-in-progress, about the challenges of achieving balance between our artistic lives, our “real world” jobs or lack thereof, our travels, our writing successes and disappointments, and our romantic and family lives—is where the candle burns. Behind the veil, we are not “tied up…in little boxes the shape of [our] bodies,” as one Turkish woman described the mechanism behind Lady Mary’s ramrod posture. Rather, we are feeling out our own forms and shapes and voices.
Three centuries after Lady Mary wrote about the Ottoman Empire, and nearly one century after Virginia Woolf sounded her call for a room of one’s own, we are still trying to get out of the corset and into the creative wide open. Of course, like the imposed posture, we all wish we didn’t need the curtain or the veil, that there was wind enough to fill our sails. But in the meantime, Vela is our silken chamber, our free space, our own room.
I wrote my first piece for Vela on a flight from San Francisco to New York, the first in a series of flights that would eventually deliver me to my new home, Phnom Penh.
Looking back now, it’s extremely fitting that I began my Vela career, so to speak, that way—when I was heading out, leaving home for good, for the very first time without a return ticket or a job or a car or an apartment or a life waiting. I decided to pick up and move to Cambodia on the premise of writing a book based on the research and experiences I’d had while working on my 2011 Glimpse project. The plan was to live as cheaply as possible, support myself freelancing and maaaaybe teaching ESL if I had to; to delve into the culture and write a best-selling non-fiction narrative about intergenerational trauma. Vela would be a fun little back-burner side project while I focused on the real work at hand.
I made it about two months before I was out of money and scrambling to work in what is really quite a dismal job market. Turns out freelancing is still hard, even from Cambodia. Moreover, all I was really writing about was Oakland and my youth and getting sober, things I’d never written about when they were right there in front of me. But beyond that, when I began to scratch the surface of Cambodia I started to feel like I’d go crazy. Or at least very broke.
So I picked up and left, landing on my friend’s living room in Hanoi with $400 to my name. It was 115˙ every day, with humidity, and I was shell-shocked and numb, my life in three bags again, the dream that had fueled my life for the past year—that had inspired me to dismantle everything and move to the other side of the planet—in shambles around me.
But I don’t say all this just to whine from my pity pot. Throughout this tumultuous, frightening and financially devastating process, Vela was one of the bright spots. The support and love and community (ugh, I said it) that I got from my fellow writers at Vela was invaluable. I should say that these women aren’t my homies; I’ve only met two of them in person, and I don’t know any of them well outside of their work. But in the long tangled-thread emails; in the thoughtful feedback; in the promoting of each other’s work; in the simple space to say what we want to say and write what we want to write—Vela turned out to be the best thing in my writing life in the last year. Scratch that: one of the best things of my life life in the last year. It snuck up on me, the way most good things do, and moving into the next year, I am fired up to grow this thing into something even bigger and more awesome than it already is.
I’ve often been skeptical of publishing endeavors that are “for women,” “by women,” or otherwise woman-specific. Too many seem to come packaged in pink, weighed down with subtitles or cover illustrations about shoes and shopping. I’ll cop to a minor shoe habit, but pink? Pink is not my thing.
So when Sarah Menkedick approached me with the idea of creating a travel-centric magazine of creative nonfiction, written entirely by women, I was intrigued but hesitant. I feared being pigeonholed with pink.
One year later, Vela has turned out to be the opposite of a rigid, gendered niche. It’s been a place where I can experiment, where I can tell stories I care about without first having to convince an editor that I’m capable of doing the job at hand. It’s let me write without doing the math on a story’s ratio of financial value out to time put in. And it’s connected me to a supportive and challenging group of extremely talented women who push me, by their example, to do my best and then aim to better it.
When I was a teenager I attended an arts-focused high school where I majored in creative writing. For four years, I spent two hours of each day in a writing class, and I started every class with a short free writing session: For 20 minutes, I wrote, with no concern about the final product. There was no end game. I’ve been freelancing for seven years now, but I don’t think I’ve sat down for a free writing stint since I graduated – until Vela, my every writing effort had an end game.
It’s been wonderful to set aside the pitching and the angling and, yes, the fretting over those hugely demoralizing VIDA numbers, and just write. Thank you to Sarah, Lauren, Amanda, Molly and Simone, and here’s to year two!
This year at Vela, I’ve written some of the most honest writing of my life. That’s no coincidence. When Sarah first approached me about Vela on a humid summer evening in the West Village, she put it to me this way: Vela will be a venue where six women writers can work free of constraints, industry expectations, and competition. “A safe space,” she said, those three, simple words a kind of revelation.
But I remember thinking, “Do I really need a safe space?” I didn’t understand then just how much the writer in me craved a place where she could wander the edges of her comfort zone, explore the landmarks of her past, uncover the parts of herself she had long veiled with bravado. Working with these five women has allowed me to take on stories I would never have dreamed of pitching a magazine–stories too quiet and complex, stories too deeply personal.
At times, travel writing can feel like a contest that’s impossible to win, a competition based on how many countries you’ve traveled, mountains you’ve climbed, strange places you’ve slept. Travel stories, as they go in Outside or National Geographic, tend to be big stories. Even in Wild, a novice hiker looking for redemption is taking on a monster trail. But in our work for Vela, we’ve found another, broader way to define travel, a definition that includes all the varying states of our lives: married with children; buried in graduate school; wandering the Yukon or Southeast Asia; desk-bound in New York City; struggling to find a home halfway across the world. We are all, in our own way, questioning the limits of our writing and our travels, and investigating stories that would most likely otherwise never see the light of day.
In one sense, many of us are still strangers—Sarah and Lauren are the only women in the group whom I’ve met in person—but in another, we have become an intimate clan. Every week, through our essays and wandering email conversations, we piece together the stories of each other’s lives, a scattered group with one common passion. At first, I didn’t understand where I got the nerve to write those pieces that left me feeling exposed. But the obvious answer is that I got it from Vela, that safe space, the incredible fact that none of us are wrestling with our stories alone.
A farmer friend of mine used to love the saying, “Make, make do, or do without.” It was an Appalachian phrase, he said, or maybe it was Ozarkian—a saying that emerged from a hardscrabble landscape, a realm of rural poverty that always brought to my mind quilts and bonnets and hand-made brooms. This particular friend eked out epic winters in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula inside a wood-stove heated shed, and he shared his yard with two goats. He had an old, teal-green Ford Ranger, which he drove with the windows down year-round because he’d once spilled milk in the cab of the truck and it had fermented into a strange cheese within the fabric of his seats. He did a lot of making do. And he did without a lot: health insurance, for example, as well as email, running water, shoes appropriate for social gatherings. But he was a quintessential man of the land: This was the good life, he said. He couldn’t ever really see himself going back to a life more “civilized.” Outside his door was a beautiful bean patch; he harvested, dried, and ate pinto beans year round. There were daily eggs and fresh chevre and tomatoes galore during the right seasons, and he’d love to thrust a leaf of kale in anyone’s face and say, “Taste that!” Sometimes, at the end of the day, he’d fall asleep with his boots on. But if you’d put him in a suit and stuffed him in a cubicle, he would have withered and died within a matter of days. He’d carved a necessary, if unglamorous, niche for himself—and now he couldn’t ever make do without it.
I think of him years later from my apartment in humid, grimy Pittsburgh. Partly I’m thinking, why did I ever leave northern Michigan? But even though I miss that sweet kale and the sand hill cranes that flew over the farm, I’m really only thinking of it because for the past few days I’ve been trying to sum up a year of my experience writing for Vela, and that cutesy little phrase keeps drifting in and out of my mind. Make, made do, or do without.
Vela arises partly out of necessity. We started as six writers who had been making do with the writing market. This often meant spending weeks, or months, polishing a piece of writing and then sending it out into the world with a prayer that somebody might read it. Of course, we also knew that the other side is being hard-nosed—networking, looking for connections, seeking our way “in.” Vela arose partly in reaction to these two options; we were sick of making do. We were six nonfiction writers who wrote pieces that often had travel, or sense of place, at the core of our work. For me, this means understanding my craving for places (from the frigid coast of Lake Superior to a dingy apartment in Zaruma, Ecuador), and an attempt to understand my position in place—a sometimes-impossible quest that can only be solved by essaying my way through the confusion.
In his introduction to The Best American Essays of 2000, Alan Lightman writes: “I want to see a mind at work imagining, spinning, struggling to understand. If the essayist has all the answers, then [s]he isn’t struggling to grasp, and I won’t either.” Vela is a venue where I’m allowed to struggle and grasp to exorcise my own experiences and internal conflicts through personal essays. I don’t write a piece that has the answers—I’m not going to give you the “Ten Best Places to Drink Wine in New England!” Just like traveling often involves a quest for identity within the traveler, my writing often searches to better understand what it means to travel—in the US and in other countries, as a woman, in the twenty-first century. I don’t expect to come away with firm answers. This is travel writing, but it’s something else, too, and since the existing market didn’t quite have room for what we wanted to explore, we made our own venue. We were sick of making do.
Vela’s other mission, to showcase women writers, is sometimes treated as though it’s second-hand. “Written by women,” is our passively voiced motto. Whereas we still struggle to decide how much we should act as feminist activists (and the very indecision is a sign that there’s an issue) our mission has always been about good writing first. But one thing’s obvious: readers everywhere, since the beginning of written words, have been doing a hell of a lot of doing without. Without women authors. Just the other day Molly sent the Vela group a list of depressing statistics, and this one sums it up: of the twenty-four essays in The Best American Essays of 2012, six are women. (In Lightman’s 2000 edition, eight out of twenty-one were women). It feels as though contemporary publishing has gotten as far as including some women, but stopped there. And as a reader, I’m sick of doing without. Vela is an effort to bring more women writers to the (virtual) page. What sticks with me the most after this year of participating is that this is possible. That it is not as empyrean a mission as it might seem or is sometimes made out to be: looking back on this year I think, we did it. And we’re still doing it.
So no, there are no handmade brooms (and definitely no bonnets!) coming from our hardscrabble realm. Just six women struggling and grasping our way through a world where sometimes we feel uninvited. Like a traveler who craves to belong, even if just a little bit, to the foreign country through which she travels, we continue to carve out this niche for ourselves.
In his commencement speech to the class of 2011 at the University of California-Berkeley Journalism School, Robert Krulwich encouraged students not to wait for recognition from the bastions of journalism, the major institutions and corporations. Instead, he said:
I want you to just think about this: Think about NOT waiting your turn.
Instead, think about getting together with friends that you admire, or envy. Think about entrepeneuring. Think about NOT waiting for a company to call you up. Think about not giving your heart to a bunch of adults you don’t know. Think about horizontal loyalty. Think about turning to people you already know, who are your friends, or friends of their friends and making something that makes sense to you together, that is as beautiful or as true as you can make it…
…You will build a body of work, but you will also build a body of affection, with the people you’ve helped who’ve helped you back.
And maybe that’s your way into Troy.
There you are, on the beach, with the other newbies, looking up. Maybe somebody inside will throw you a key and let you in… But more likely, most of you will have to find your own Trojan Horse.
And maybe, for your generation, the Trojan Horse is what you’ve got, your talent, backed by a legion of friends. Not friends in high places. This is the era of Friends in Low Places. The ones you meet now, who will notice you, challenge you, work with you, and watch your back. Maybe they will be your strength.
Last summer, I came back to Pittsburgh from an editorial internship in New York feeling confused, as if the compass holding strong at North had begun to quiver, and spin. For the first year of my MFA I was steady-focused on “making it” – on getting published in important places, on getting noticed by important people, on success as defined by esteem from above. I was aiming straight up, up, up. But when I got close enough to glimpse inside the institutions and the success I idolized I was surprised by their narrowness.
This is not to say I came to respect them any less, or that my craving for success as a nonfiction writer – success defined by recognition, esteem, and publication in traditionally lauded forms and places – diminished; instead, my definition of what it means to write and be a writer broadened, and my awe of the greats was checked, adjusted. And then the VIDA count came out, and just as it seems that the second I learn about something like, say, guerilla marketing, I begin to see it all over the place – it becomes a motif where previously I hadn’t noticed a thing – the lack of women in publishing began to creep up everywhere. In magazine articles, in anthologies, in graduate courses, in my day-to-day life, in my reading. And this combination – an increased awareness of the lack of women in publishing and of the narrowness of traditional definitions of success, traditional institutions – led to Vela.
I feel a deep ambivalence about what the current explosion of digital forms means for writers, but I am also intensely grateful to be coming of age at a time when writers have other options: we don’t have to take the conventional path, or only the conventional path, and we don’t have to work only with what major institutions offer or accept. We can strike out, and we have.
As Tom Bissell put it recently in an interview with Harper’s, there are two types of writers: those who help other writers, and those who don’t.
Vela has become a space for the former, and looking back on our first year, it is this that stands out the most. I’ve been thrilled with the quality of the writing, but I trusted in Amanda, Molly, Simone, Lauren and Eva from the beginning. What has emerged as a brilliant surprise is how much we’ve come to collaborate. And not only in terms of reading and editing one another’s work, but in terms of supporting one another’s careers, helping one another through periods of doubt or frustration and celebrating each other’s breakthroughs. We’ve become a community, and perhaps this connection, this support and the fruits it bears, will be our way into Troy.
But what I’ve discovered this year is that there is more than Troy: the Peruvian Andes; the Utah desert; Oaxacan revolutions; awakenings in Fort Jackson, South Carolina; wind horses in rural Nepal; weddings in Cambodia; the support and shared purpose of five fellow women writers.