Q+A with Sara Watkins from Spoonie Journal

Sara Watkins, EiC of Spoonie Journal, has created a publication for and by disabled, chronically ill, and neurodivergent artists and authors (and a small press but we'll have that interview coming later). Yet again, we've found an editor who does this out of a love for the process and for the voices they're able to bring into the community. Really, the whole heartless editor theory is losing real steam. Our favorite bit of advice for submitting to Spoonie Journal? "Don’t worry about whether I’ll like it; you shouldn’t cater your creativity or your experience to what I (or anyone else) likes." Awesome. Read the rest of the interview below for more excellent advice and inspiration.

If you could sum up your magazine's vibe in six words or less, what would they be?

Home for disabled and neurodivergent people

Editors notoriously don’t get paid much (if at all) and tend to take a lot of flack. So, why do it? Is there a moment you can remember in your time with your magazine where you thought: ‘this, this is why I do it’?

I eat flack for breakfast (because I’m a glutton for punishment and my full-time job is also editing). No, seriously— the reason I run Spoonie Press is because I love it. It was born out of a very deep and selfish desire to complain about injustices, ableism, and general disability gripes associated with a particularly bad hospital visit, but what happened instead is that this beautiful community has blossomed. I’ve received so many messages from people who tell me about what Spoonie is to them, and that’s made it all the more special to me. The messages I hear most often are: “I am so happy to find that a space like this exists,” “I’m so glad for the support of this community,” or “Finally, I’ve been waiting for a space to tell my story.” How cool is that? I’m constantly amazed by how highly people think of us. In something that I created out of frustration at my own circumstances, others have found positivity. I wish everything I did when I was pissed off was comforting to others. Usually, it’s the opposite!

Who are four or five writers you see as typifying the kind of work you look for in your magazine?

I can’t pick four or five— I wouldn’t stop until I hit four or five hundred. One of our primary motivators is not having a type. Spoonie Press is a place for people to share their experiences of disability, chronic illness, and neurodiversity their way. What we do look for is quality and honesty, and what we don’t look for is “inspo porn” or “trauma porn.” Anyone who is thinking about submitting can look through the pages of our digital magazine for a sense of the variety we publish.

Are there any common mistakes writers make when they submit to your magazine?

While I wouldn’t necessarily call them mistakes, we do occasionally receive things that don’t fit our guidelines. It happens most often with articles that are actually CNF, though I’m hoping my upcoming article with chillsubs (Tips From an Editor: How to Write an Article, woohoo!) will help with that— both inside and outside of my publication. On a more serious note, we sometimes receive submissions from individuals pretending to be spoonies for a shot at publication, and that’s just all around unfortunate. I don’t ask people to disclose their diagnosis when they submit, so you can imagine how flagrantly problematic the content is for me to notice.

The lit mag scene is massive. What did you want to bring to the community with your magazines that is different from what others are offering?

Oh gosh! No pressure with this question, right? Well, besides the ol’, “We’re a publication for and by disabled, chronically ill, and neurodivergent artists and authors,” we also have active Facebook and Discord communities, tons of free health and creative resources, a weekly newsletter with disability-friendly paid art and writing opportunities, occasional events, an hourly creative job list, and more in the pipeline. Those resources can all be accessed freely here: https://www.spooniepress.com/landing.

What is your ideal cover letter to see for a submission? Simple and sweet? Professional? A few kind words peppered in?

My ideal cover letter includes pet photos, terrible puns, and a bit of backstory on their spoonie-ism or submission, but I don’t really need a cover letter at all.

Is there a specific kind of project you haven’t seen in your current submissions that you’d love to see come in?

I’d love to see more articles about disability representation in entertainment or disabled perspectives on consuming entertainment (like, I’d love to read an article by a visually impaired person on the Marvel movie craze, or an article from a d/Deaf writer about the best musicians of our time), as well as representations of love (relationships, friendships, parenthood, family, ESAs/service animals). I’d also like to feature more work from caregivers, who experience unique challenges in their own right. I’m always interested in “out there” submissions, too. I love stuff that’s unique, weird, or atypical; hybrid work, audio, video, writing that thinks it’s art, art that knows it’s writing, that thing you doodled on a napkin then accidentally ate because your brain stopped working for a moment, and then when you spit it out, it kind of looked the way you felt, and you wished for a second that you could just share that experience with someone and say, “This is how it feels to be me right now!” so you took a photo of it, etc.

Are there magazines you see as literary siblings, mentors, aspirations, besties, etc.?

We’re a fairly niche group, and we’re still relatively young, but there are so many excellent litmags out there right now. I’m a big fan of any mag that champions marginalized creators or that goes out of its way to make space for the Other. I’m really inspired by Chronically Lit and Wordgathering. Some others that I love to read are Vast Chasm, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, and Parliament Lit.

What do you see as a deal-breaker in a submission, regardless of the quality of the writing? (For example, poor formatting, vulgarity, etc.)

We don’t care about formatting, we don’t care about nipples, but we do care about approach. It’s okay to use powerful language or imagery if it’s used with intent. Sometimes that means talking about how our illnesses impact NSFW parts of our bodies, or saying, “Today, my limitations fucking suck.” However, we do not have space or spoons for gore, erotica, etc. While we’re sensitive to the fact that our creatives span the physical and mental ability spectrum, we simply do not publish detailed depictions of self-harm, violent desires, or abuse. (So please don’t send that to us!)

Is there a part of the submissions process that writers tend to fret over that isn't all that important?

I think the question I get most about the submission process is: “Would you be interested in X?” Yes, you’re darn right I’m interested in X— I’m interested in everything— but, I need to see it to know if I want to run it. Don’t worry about whether I’ll like it; you shouldn’t cater your creativity or your experience to what I (or anyone else) likes. If it doesn’t find a home with me, then I’ll likely suggest another mag for which it would be a good fit.

If you could bring one writer back to life to write a story for your magazine, who would it be, and why?

Not sure if she was a spoonie, but if Ursula Le Guin sneezed in the air, I’d catch it, bottle it, and sniff it every night before bed. (Ok, no, I wouldn’t actually do that.) She could absolutely write a story for me any day of the week.

What is a recent piece published in your magazine that you think would make a great short film?

Can I say all of them? No, I have to pick one? Okay, in that case, here’s three:

  1. To Be the One to Say, “Yes!” by Stephanie Harper. There is so much love in this piece, it’s unbelievable. This story largely focuses on Stephanie’s son, Matthew, who is autistic. Carefully layered with Matthew’s coming-of-age are deeply moving depictions of parenthood, self-realization, and growth for Stephanie, too.
  2. Clipping In by Amy Cook. Amy is a total badass, and anyone who reads this story will absolutely feel the same. She’s an athlete with central muscular hypotonia who is perpetually surrounded by jerks, and her story is about preserving through the difficulties of that to continue doing the things she loves with the people who deserve her.
  3. It’s Not as Easy as It Looks by Mary Kay Holmes. I haven’t laughed through a piece so hard in a while. Mary Kay has hereditary angioedema, which is super serious, but her wit and humor really elevate this to film-worthy status. When dealing with a particularly bad health provider, her grace and aplomb (and sarcasm) are a delight.

Many writers struggle to decide what to say about themselves in a bio. What is an example, either made up or from a writer you've published, of the ideal literary bio?

I once received a bio that said something like, “Hi, I’m X. Sometimes I write things, sometimes I don’t.” And that was it. It broke every rule I’ve ever written about author bios (third person, social handles, etc.), and I ran it anyway. It was perfect.

There are the well-worn (for good reason) pieces of advice like "read submissions guidelines" and "read the journal you're submitting to," but do you have any other advice for prospective writers looking to get their work published?

It’s a number’s game. Your new submission tracker is a great way for writers to get comfy with this! It can be so, so disheartening to have your work rejected, but every rejection is a sign that you’re trying. Eventually, your work will find the right home. Do your best not to get too down when you receive those, “While we appreciate your submission…” notes, because on the other end is not some All Knowing Editor— it’s just a person with their own tastes and preferences. Very, very wrong preferences if they rejected you, surely. (Verbatim what I tell myself every time I receive a rejection.)

If you could add one question to this interview, what would it be, and how would you answer it?

Because I can't follow rules:

  1. Q: What is a 'spoonie'? The term ‘spoonie’ comes from Spoon Theory, which was originally used to explain lupus fatigue. It has become a moniker throughout the disabled, chronically ill, and neurodivergent communities. Therefore, a ‘spoonie’ is someone who is disabled, chronically ill, or neurodivergent.
  2. Q: What did the blanket say when it fell off the bed? A: Oh, sheet!

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"Spoonie Press champions work for and by chronically ill, neurodivergent, and disabled individuals (affectionately called #spoonies). Spoonie Journal is a bi-annual print/digital publication."
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