by Katy Yocom, Associate Director, Spalding’s School of Creative and Professional Writing
On March 16, 2020, most of America shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. One month later, on April 16, Shondaland published an essay titled, “What It’s Like Working at a Grocery Store during COVID-19.” Its author was Spalding MFA alum K.B. Carle (F ’16).
K.B. lives and writes outside of Philadelphia. Her stories have appeared in CRAFT Literary, CHEAP POP, Jellyfish Review, and Milk Candy Review. They have been nominated for Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, and the Pushcart Prize. She can be found online at kbcarle.com.
I first met K.B. when she entered the MFA program as a fiction student in Fall 2014. As I watched her progress, I saw her work focus in on flash fiction. I also witnessed her developing a notable presence in the literary Twitter community. But before this essay was published, I didn’t know her as a creative nonfiction writer at all.
Over the course of several weeks in April and May, K.B. and I carried on an email correspondence about the genesis of this publication. We talked about how she transformed thoughts first expressed in a Facebook post into a polished essay for a high-profile venue. (Shondaland.com is part of a media empire operated by Television Academy Hall of Famer Shonda Rhimes, creator of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal.”) We discussed how she mastered the difference between submitting short fiction and essays for publication. And I learned about a surprising new ally she found along the way.
Our correspondence is recorded here. It has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
KATY: K.B., thank you for agreeing to talk with me about your essay “What It’s Like Working at a Grocery Store during COVID-19.” I’m very curious about the story behind this essay. Could you tell us a little something about how you came to write it?
K.B.: Of course! Thank you for the opportunity. The story behind this essay is that I didn’t think I was going to write it! With all the changes occurring in the grocery store and the nation due to the COVID-19, my only goal at the time was to go to work and go home.
A very early sample of what would transform into this essay appeared on Facebook as an outlet for how I felt. I initially shared this post because so many of my friends were expressing how they were feeling in a similar manner and I felt I needed to add my voice to the conversation. However, these were just my scrambled thoughts typed—by way of thumbs—on my phone before going to work. I had no plans and no idea that this early morning message would become anything more.
Then I started to notice all the calls for essays, first on Twitter then Facebook, asking for essays written by essential workers. I was still hesitant to add my voice to the collective, my preference being to linger in the realm of fiction, but when my friends and fellow writers saw my status updates about working during the pandemic, they encouraged me to transform my early morning thoughts into an essay. So I did.
KATY: It’s good to have writer friends to encourage you to create new work, to transform your experiences into written form. I think that’s part of why we need those writing friendships.
K.B.: I couldn’t agree more! Without my writer friends I wouldn’t have first readers who know my writing style so well. They can suggest edits without impacting or altering my voice. Plus, they know all my pitfalls when it comes to those sly words I can never spell correctly.
KATY: So you wrote the essay because you were seeing calls for submission. I have to admit here that I’m a little confused, because my impression is that the essay began as a Facebook post, and publications often don’t want work that has appeared on social media. Were you concerned about that?
K.B.: When I decided I wanted to write an essay about my experience, I made sure to separate myself from the post. As you’ve mentioned, [many] publications prefer that stories/essays do not appear on social media channels. To avoid this, I started from scratch. The echoes you remember from the Facebook post are depictions of my voice within the essay, my insistence that the situation is dangerous out there for all involved, and the reminders to please be kind to your cashiers as well as all other essential workers.
In separating myself from the Facebook post, I ensured that I was working from a blank slate instead of just copying and pasting words and using fillers to make the essay more literary. I was concerned that, in starting from scratch but staying true to myself and my voice, publishers wouldn’t be in favor of publishing my essay. That’s why, when looking for places to submit, I made sure I followed the guidelines. I made sure I understood the rules of publication. I read the contract, had another pair of eyes review the contract, read my essay multiple times to ensure this creation was a standalone piece because that’s what it is. This essay is a separate experience, a separate work, another way of me expressing myself.
KATY: To back up a minute, can you talk more about the submission process? Did you write the for-publication essay first, then choose places to submit, or did you choose your target publications first and then write? And can you talk about how you chose which publication(s) to target?
K.B.: I found myself immersed in a completely different submission process than what I was accustomed to! First, I had to pitch my essay, explaining its importance and the impact I hoped my essay would have on readers. When submitting fiction, I’ve never explained what my story is about, its purpose, or what I hope audiences would gain in reading my work.
So I asked for help.
While I Googled “how to pitch an essay,” I asked the literary Twitter community if they knew any places that would be interested in publishing an essay written by an essential worker regarding their experience working during the pandemic. The responses were more than I could have imagined. I created a list of all the places the Twitter literary community suggested, researched which ones were seeking essays regarding COVID-19 and, of course, checked the guidelines, ensuring that my completed essay fit the required length and structure. After all of that, I still had a pretty lengthy list of places I could submit.
Then, and this was the most shocking and wonderful moment of my submission journey, a literary agent reached out to me offering her help. She introduced herself, said that she loved my writing, and noticed that I was seeking a home for my essay. At this time I had already submitted to the call for COVID-19 essays I found on Facebook, which I told her about. She then directed my attention to several other publications—some already on my list, some new, some I’d received form rejections from in the past for my fiction.
Being new to pitching and submitting essays, I was eager for any and all advice. I compared her list of places to submit with my own, submitted to the seven that I thought my essay would be an excellent fit for with a plan to continue down my list with every rejection received until someone emailed me a yes.
However, Shondaland, to my delight, sent me a yes, which I happily accepted.
KATY: That’s an incredible story, K.B.! What a coup that an agent appeared out of thin air, offering helpful advice like some sort of literary fairy godmother. And how exciting that she follows your writing and admires it–maybe the two of you have a future together as agent and client!
I’ve noticed for years now that you’re very active on literary Twitter. It makes perfect sense that it should play a role in your success in finding a home for this piece.
K.B.: Twitter is definitely a wonderful resource when connecting with writers, agents, and those who love reading! I don’t know where my writing career would be without it. I do enjoy the idea of a literary fairy godmother and who knows, maybe more good things will happen between us in the future!
KATY: One final question. I’d love to hear about the response to the piece once it ran in Shondaland and whether there have been any surprises to come out of it. Although, I’ve gotta say, that agent story is surprise enough!
K.B.: Regarding the response to my essay, I couldn’t be happier. I’ve gotten messages from several people offering words of encouragement, thanks, and asking if there is anything I need during this time. I tell them to just be kind to all the essential workers out there and to thank their cashiers.
The most surprising event to come after the publication of my essay was how many people shared, liked, and commented on it. Some days I wake up and find that someone else has liked my essay. Knowing that someone out there has taken the time to read this piece, weeks after it was first published, means the world to me.
KATY: It’s been fascinating learning the backstory behind your essay, K.B. Thank you for sharing it. And congratulations!
Katy Yocom is author of Three Ways to Disappear, a Barnes & Noble Top Indie Favorite, winner of the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, First Horizon Award, Micro Press Award, and Author Award: Best Fiction, Books by the Banks. Find her online at katyyocom.com.