On Writing: Terry Heyman on her McSweeney's Obsession

Over the course of the past year, my friend Terry Heyman and I have grown obsessed with submitting stories to McSweeney's Internet Tendency. We occasionally shared story ideas and drafts before revising and submitting, and of course, piling up a series of rejections. Some of my rejected titles included "An Open Letter to Those Who Share Political Articles from Non-Credible News Sources" and "The Hardy Boys - The Mystery of the Golden Shower."

About a month ago, Terry "broke the code" and had a piece called "The Kushner Family Passover Haggadah" accepted. I'm not sure who was more excited - Terry or me! I wanted to ask her about the experience and the persistence in submitting stories.

Jim: Why an obsession with McSweeney's?

Terry: I’m a huge McSweeney’s fan and I love their point of view. It’s one of the sites I visit daily. I would write posts with them in mind, imagining that getting accepted would feel like being asked to eat lunch at the cool table in middle school. Now you know something about my standing in seventh grade.

Jim: What were some of your rejected McSweeney's submission titles?

Terry: “LIST: Things I Say to My Husband While He Watches the NBA Playoffs”

“An Open Letter to the Proud Mother of an Honor Student”

“The Case for Cheating on My Husband with Dr. Phil”

“Poll: Donald Trump Will Take Office as the Least Popular President Since Stacey Finkelstein was Elected Student Body President of Ogden Elementary School Almost Four Decades Ago.”

There have been quite a few.

Jim: You researched the editor, tell me what you learned?

Terry: One day I was surfing literary websites and I came across an interview with Chris Monks, the editor of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Unfortunately, he didn’t give away any secrets to getting published on the site. However, before reading the interview I had this notion that the editors were hipsters living in San Francisco or Brooklyn, but Chris seemed like an average middle-aged guy living a normal life. I also learned he had received a ton of rejections himself before finally getting on McSweeney’s. Learning those things made it easier to keep trying. The site didn’t feel as intimidating.

Jim: Persistence pays off. What kept you going?

Terry: When I first started sending out my work, I’d get mopey after each rejection. Rejections are unavoidable but it’s still hard. So I tried to focus less on the rejections and more on the accomplishment of simply creating another piece and sending it out. I still got rejected but I could see my progress—my writing was getting stronger. With each piece I was moving closer toward my goal.

Also, I have this compelling desire to contribute to “the conversation.” When I read about something unethical, harmful, or plain silly, it makes me rant, “This is crazy!” I go on about it to anyone who’ll listen. It could be about politics, celebrity, or relationships. The challenge lies in making my rants as entertaining as possible so someone will publish them.

Jim: Can you tell me a little about how you came to write the Kushner Haggadah and why that topic?

Terry: Like many people, I’ve been frustrated and frightened by this administration. But as a fellow Jew, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump fascinate me on a certain level. Jewish scholars have summed up the Torah’s lessons as, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” So it’s hard for me to reconcile how two orthodox observant Jews can support policies that discriminate against others’ religions, given the Jews’ own history of discrimination in the world. Of course, religious hypocrisy is nothing new but I wondered what must Passover be like at the Kushner household? How do they rationalize denying healthcare to millions and putting corporate interests above clean air and water, among other things? Ivanka and Jared aren’t just the family of the President, they’re key advisors. So I imagined a perverse Passover Haggadah they’d use to justify their beliefs.

Jim: Do you have any advice to someone trying to write humor pieces?

Terry: About two years ago, I made a goal to get published somewhere else besides my own blog. I’d attend writing workshops and critique groups and while helpful, my work wasn’t growing. Then last summer I attended the HippoCamp Nonfiction Writer’s Conference in Lancaster and met an extremely funny and talented writer named Allison K. Williams. Allison was also a writing coach and I asked her to take a look at some of my rejected humor pieces. Right away she told me my pieces were too wordy and too nice. I didn’t need to explain the jokes to the reader, and if I was going to mock someone, then really mock them—don’t hold back. It sounds simple but once she said it, it was like a light bulb went off. Almost immediately, I felt my work get sharper, although it still took a few more attempts before I got published. For me, hiring a professional for an objective critique was money well spent. Friends may not be comfortable telling you harsh truths about your writing nor recognize them. 

Jim: The post has been shared over 56,000 times. Were you surprised by the response?

Terry: Shocked! Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would be this popular. It’s been amazing to read the comments on social media from strangers who enjoyed it and read it at their Seders. The flip side is that I’ve been trolled. It was really unsettling to have a stranger tell me I’m a horrible mother and anti-Semitic for writing the piece. Unfortunately, I think it’s unavoidable these days when political writing gets this wide exposure. There will always be those who see a different point of view as threatening. But I’m not focusing on the hate mail. I’m focusing on the folks who have shared the Haggadah with friends and even sent it to my Rabbi without knowing she’s my Rabbi!

Jim: What are you working on now?

Terry: I’m working on another satirical piece, this time aimed at celebrity culture and women’s bodies. Stay tuned. . .

Terry Heyman can be found on Twitter at @TerryHeyman and she occasionally blogs at Greetings From Insanity. Terry and I are facilitating a Storytelling Workshop at HippoCamp 2017, which will be September 6-8 in Lancaster, PA. Allison K. Williams is also facilitating a HippoCamp Workshop.