image by Ed Fairburn

[marginalia] The Importance of Coming Undone : : Joyce Chen

If there is one thing more difficult than getting an idea off the ground, it is, perhaps, keeping that idea afloat, and fresh, and shuffling in a generally forward-moving direction. Though to be fair, phrases like “more or less” and “better or worse” may not be quite the right ones to apply to the expansive gradient of creation mentioned here — but it is at very least a start.

Back in the spring of 2015, three New School classmates and I founded The Seventh Wave, a 501(c)(3) arts and literary nonprofit bent on creating online and offline spaces for conversation and opposition to flourish. We were all from different industries of expertise and experience spanning education, graphic design, journalism, and the service industry. How we structured the organization, we agreed, would need to allow for each of our personalities and backgrounds to not just exist, but to also breathe organically. We wanted our strengths to show through in each of our roles within the beast we were creating.

In the creation of our publication, then, everything from aesthetics to social media voice to communication with our contributors became an offshoot of who we were as individuals, and we hoped the transparency with which we operated would help keep our own work intentional and honest too. We insisted on handwritten thank-you notes and a writer/artist-centric presentation of the works we promoted. We allowed for the contents of each issue to dictate the format of our launch event. We engaged. By making these small gestures, we assumed that we were doing things differently enough from the rest of the literary world that we were making a bold, new statement.

And in many ways, we were. We were placing an oft-overlooked value on the contributors themselves, rather than simply regarding their work as “content.” We were building a reciprocal community of artists, writers, and thinkers. We weren’t afraid of change. But the initial roots and frameworks we had set down were still based on the models of success we each knew from our previous lives: metrics of likes and reads, attendance numbers at events, and meeting deadlines and obligations. Though our thoughts were radical and well-intentioned, our delivery was still limiting and limited. We erroneously thought that in running a literary organization, our cache of obligations and events stopped at familiar standards like a call for submissions, a reading period, and an eventual launch event that brought together new and old faces. But there was still something lacking, something that failed to fully speak to our hope to make waves within the literary realm—pun intended. It would take several issues to figure out what that was.

“We erroneously thought that in running a literary organization, our cache of obligations and events stopped at familiar standards like a call for submissions, a reading period, and an eventual launch event that brought together new and old faces.”

Our first issue, surrounding the idea of “Perception Gaps,” brought together minds as wide-ranging as a former Buddhist monk, an adventure photographer, and a pop culture-drenched social media activist, none of whom considered themselves “writers” in the traditional sense. The success of our first launch, from call for submissions to reading event, buoyed us and gave us a look at what a fresh approach to an old concept could look like. It felt like progress. And once our idea started to grow limbs, we knew it was time to stand back and let it crawl, albeit from a watchful distance. So with our eyes and ears attuned to the zeitgeist of the literary scene, we continued to expand our reach to readers and community members alike.

We launched a second issue in the spring of 2016, addressing the concept of “Labels,” and then a third that summer, surrounding the question, “Who gets to belong?” We hosted a launch event at the historic Nuyorican Poets Cafe and marveled at the layered conversations created by a live audience. In July 2016, we kicked off our first residency up in Rhinebeck, New York, opting for an environment and a pace that we felt was conducive to creativity. The hum of The Seventh Wave and its evolution felt organic and happy and content, set upon a winding road toward some semblance of a steady state.

But sometimes, you need to be T-boned to shift off auto-pilot.

By the fall of 2016, the tone of the world at large felt a lot more somber. What had begun as a reluctant joke had turned into a menacing reality: Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency was a very real threat, and the urgency the now-three of us felt at the possibility of this tyrant in office was visceral. Any questions of why we were doing what we were doing — encouraging conversation and opposition — seemed to now have a clear-cut answer. Because of things like this. Because of times like these. But this, too, was a moment where our intentions were put to the test: If we truly believed in the power of creating spaces for disparate voices to flourish, then were we doing enough?

“What had begun as a reluctant joke had turned into a menacing reality: Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency was a very real threat, and the urgency the now-three of us felt at the possibility of this tyrant in office was visceral.”

The three of us had one brainstorming session after another as we tried to hone in on our fourth call for submissions. For previous issues, the process involved spirited conversations, a written version of the call from each of us, and then a lot of discussion and debate over how best to frame our topic. But ultimately, this time, the words themselves seemed to fall secondary to a more obvious truth, that the actual medium of our call could perhaps be the best way to convey our message. And so with a click of our laptop keys and a whisper of a prayer, we threw out our entire submission cycle in favor of urgency.

We called our fourth issue “You Are Politics,” and dropped the call for submissions one month prior to Election Day, on October 5, with the plan to review submissions as we received them, and to publish half our issue in a quick clip leading up to November 8, with the remainder of the pieces falling into place shortly afterward. It felt important to capture the uneasy air of the weeks leading up to the election in its purest form, just as we would later capture artists’ reactions to the results in emotion-laden outbursts and creations. With the onslaught of so many think pieces and protests and unnerving headlines, it felt inauthentic to keep on with our calm pace of publishing, especially if we were encouraging discourse. And as a result, the submissions that we received were raw too, often confessional in nature and many accompanied by a note of apology: “This is the first time I’m really putting my feelings in words…

But that in and of itself felt like a success. That we were giving individuals — writers, activists, teachers, and artists — a chance to express the messiness of their emotions in prose or poetry or art without the expectation that any of them, or us, had to know why we felt the way we did — that seemed like we were doing right by our community. We received our first-ever submission from a writer incarcerated in the Bay Area, a beautiful essay chronicling the events leading up to his crime and eventual imprisonment. It spoke to the complexities of being black in America at a time when #BlackLivesMatter was permeating the headlines, and it punctured perceptions in a way only he could. One of our contributors recounted the difficulty of being a high school teacher and teaching with openness and tolerance when the would-be leader of the free world was calling for a Muslim registry. And still another contributor wrote, for the first time, about her experience launching the first-ever digital media agency in Afghanistan back in 2013, and how it impacted her perception of America’s election in 2016.

The perspectives were many, and they reached us in a flurry of experiences and emotions, a lot of which were hard to swallow. We received numerous accounts of women who had been harassed, taunted, and made to feel lesser because of their gender; we read poems about police violence and the numbing repetition of news headlines; we tussled with questions of Whose outrage is most justified? and Where do we go from here? In all of these things, we looked to see how The Seventh Wave was reflecting and refracting the light.

A particular deluge hit after the night of November 8, with writers sharing their first-hand accounts of the historic evening, trying to put into words the confusion and questions that arose following the announcement of Trump’s presidency. It wasn’t that we had struck a nerve with our issue or our topic; “You Are Politics” was simply a convergence of the energy and the unspoken demands of the world at that moment in time. But unraveling our more tightly held model of the what of what we were doing helped us, I believe, to get closer to the why at the core of our organization and our efforts, and to match our community’s needs with our how.

On January 30, a little over a week after his inauguration, we launched the call for our fifth issue: “Artificial Realities.” It should come as no surprise that the possible topics were boundless; in the days between his swearing-in and our call, he had already lied about the attendance of his inauguration, incited the largest protest in U.S. history with nearly 3 million people taking to the streets, wiped the pages for the EPA and LGBTQ rights off the White House website, made moves to defund Planned Parenthood, issued an executive order banning Syrian refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations, and lambasted the media as the “opposition party” (this last achievement really belongs to Steve Bannon, but who’s keeping track?). Suffice it to say that things have been changing, and swiftly.

And so are we. Because this time, we are far from being on autopilot: Our eyes are open, our purpose clear. Because of things like this. Because of times like these. We are constantly asking if we’re doing enough.

I can recognize now, in retrospect, that the very truths we discovered in undoing our systems for our fourth issue were necessary foundations for a larger task at hand for writers, editors, and creators the world over, this fifth issue and beyond: We have to keep questioning ourselves and each other, to stop being afraid of being wrong, and to understand that we can turn our emotions into motions into actions into a movement. And this, I think, is what we call momentum.

The Seventh Wave is still accepting submission for Issue 5, “Artificial Realities. ” Visit their Submission Guidelines for more details.

Joyce Chen is a writer and editor based in New York City. She is one of the co-founders of the literary and arts non-profit organization, The Seventh Wave, and a staff editor at Us Weekly. Her words have appeared in the New York Daily News, People magazine, the Los Angeles Daily News, Los Angeles magazine, and Hyphen magazine, as well as in LitHub, Narratively, Flux Weekly, and Handwritten, among others. She holds a B.A. in journalism from the University of Southern California, and an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School.


This post is part of our ongoing web series MARGINALIA about all things writing, reading, & learning. To submit your own experience, please read our guidelines.

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