Self-doubt can be a writer’s best friend or mortal enemy. It all depends on how one directs the inner uncertainty that is the constant companion of every wordsmith who puts pen to paper for a living. Doubt can fuel the sharpening of a sentence to achieve a feeling of satisfaction. In another incarnation, the same uncertainty casts a dark shadow and slows a writer’s progress in a way that feels like physical and psychic paralysis. But most of the time a writer moves back and forth between certainty and uncertainty, creating a rhythm on the page that will engage a reader while at the same time satisfying an inner need to tell a story.
“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” Samuel Beckett’s concluding words from The Unnamable are the artist’s mantra, as those brief sentences reflect the turbulence that sometimes accompanies the creative process. For this issue of VQR, which features the work of emerging writers, photographers, and visual artists, I’ve thought a great deal about the creative process as I’ve watched this issue evolve during the editorial process. What drives a writer to create a particular story or character? How does a blank canvas become a work of art? What drives a journalist to pursue a particular story? Without a doubt, creative spark and ambition serve as the companion to bravery and doubt and drives the work of every artist.
In this issue, we spotlight our contributors’ willingness to take creative risks in any number of ways. It is this desire to break through and see or say something new that connects the work of our emerging writers and artists to those we are publishing in this issue who are already established in their craft.
Rather than just hours perched in front of a typewriter or computer screen turning sentences around, jobs outside the literary world shaped the work of many writers. John Steinbeck served as a caretaker at a fish hatchery, and at one time fiction writer George Saunders worked in a slaughterhouse. Cultural critic and essayist Mark Edmundson’s “A Paint-Factory Education” looks at how the role that a job he once held—mixing paint in a factory—helped shape him as a writer and push ahead his career as a literary critic and teacher. Edmundson never got used to the physical demands of factory work, but finds that in retrospect the experience was as formative as what he learned from the pages of books he read in those stolen moments when he should have been working.
In his first contribution to VQR, journalist Dax-Devlon Ross has written a revealing piece of reporting on the role of race in jury selection in North Carolina. The American justice system depends on fairness and the full participation of citizens to work, yet, as Ross notes, “there is perhaps no arena of public life where racial bias has been as broadly overlooked or casually tolerated as jury exclusion.” In “Bias in the Box,” Ross takes a close look at the impact that the racial composition of a jury has on cases that involve the death penalty. This story is given further depth through the insights of those who have witnessed jury bias firsthand.
In addition to writers, this issue also features the work of five emerging photographers brought together by LOOK3 in Charlottesville. Every four years, LOOK3 holds LOOKbetween to identify and foster the work of promising early-career photographers. From that group, VQR selected work that we felt matched our editorial mission to foster storytelling through the photography as well as publishing work that pushes the boundaries of the medium. The photographers we are featuring are national and international in scope: Anna Beeke, Lauren Grabelle, Eric Kruszewski, Alex Potter, and Yuyang Liu.
We also have a diverse group of stories for our fiction suite in this issue. Each story marks a real breakthrough for the five early-career writers we are publishing. For all of these writers, this is the first time their work has appeared in VQR. And for several, this marks their first appearance in print. We’re pleased to publish the following breakthrough voices in fiction: Tope Folarin, Onyinye Ihezukwu, Greg Jackson, Brendan McKennedy, and Emily Ruskovich. As in the past few issues, we commissioned illustrations to set the tone for our fiction. In keeping with the spirit of publishing the work of emerging talent, the art that accompanies the fiction was created by recent graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design. I’m grateful to Christopher Buzelli—the illustrators’ instructor at the time and a fine illustrator in his own right—for guiding his students to create the art in this issue.
In addition to our emerging fiction writers, we are publishing the work of two emerging poets: F. Douglas Brown, who is the 2013 Cave Canem Poetry Prize winner and teaches high-school English in Los Angeles; and Jacques J. Rancourt, who is currently a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University. We’re pleased to publish their work alongside David Baker, Jehanne Dubrow, and Maggie Smith.
Sometimes bravery and ambition are not enough to propel a career, no matter how strong the talent. And the desire for success can also get wrapped together with the need for respect. In “Best, Tom,” writer Stephen Goodwin looks back on the life of his friend, Tom Molyneux, who, in spite of drive and talent, was never able to propel his writing career on an upward trajectory. From another vantage point, Roxane Gay looks at ambition through the lens of a person of color in her essay “The Price of Black Ambition.” Both of these pieces examine what it means to have a breakthrough as well as the consequences of never getting that big break.
In his essay “Smuggler: A Memoir of Gay Male Literature,” Pulitzer Prize-winner Philip Kennicott takes a look at the way cultural forces can influence literature. Kennicott examines a small but important bit of the literary canon that is likely to find itself marginalized as Americans become more fully accepting of gay and lesbian people. The work Kennicott reexamines—by authors such as André Gide, E. M. Forster, and James Baldwin—shaped his perspective as a gay man, yet captured anguish and social isolation in a way that will seem disturbing to readers today as society moves more resolutely toward tolerance. Yet, this same literature provides an important perspective on how the literary landscape and American society has changed over the past generation.
In Mapping, Haisam Hussein takes a visual look at the flight of refugees from Syria. From a different perspective, Joshua Hersh’s “The Lessons of Atmeh” recounts one Syrian-American man’s attempt to save a refugee camp in rebel-held territory in Syria near the border of Turkey. The camp that Hersh profiles is one that has fallen “between spheres of responsibilities”: the Syrian government as well as support by nongovernmental organizations or the United Nations. In a camp caught between these various realms, can any form of humanitarian effort make a difference, given the size of the refugee crisis in conflict zones? Moreover, what difference can one man’s efforts make in a war zone?
In another look at creative breakthroughs, Amateur Hour delves into the world of three-dimensional printing, and writer David Leavitt explores his connection with a box of childhood objects in his Talisman essay. Along with our book reviews and Fine Distinctions—which looks at the distinction between talent and genius—our fall issue presents many facets of what it means to be creative and to break through artistic boundaries.