Submitting your writing for publication: Start Small or Go Home

[Editor's note: Numbers in parentheses--ex: (1)--are footnotes]


**disclaimer: This piece is written with the amateur submitter in mind. If you’ve been sending your work out for years and have seen acceptance letters (or emails, who am I kidding) along the way, I can’t guarantee that you’ll read anything here you didn’t already know. But if you’re new to the game, or have been submitting for a while but are seeing no success, there might be something here for you.**

It can’t be that hard, right? You just send out your blog or short story or packet of poems and watch as the letters of acceptance roll in. You start with The New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine because that’s where you’d ultimately like to see your words exist, on a page nestled between high-brow comics, challenging crosswords and scathing political exposes. And this effort is all well and good if you’re some savant like Joyce Carol Oates or Helen Oyeyemi who manage to catch an editor’s eye before they’re even brushing up against their thirtieth  birthday. But for the rest of us admittedly still talented (but possibly less genius) creatives, it may better serve our egos and experience if we start with a humbler route: the hard-working, underappreciated realm of small presses.

The fact that I’m writing this piece does not mean that my work has seen the pages of any instantly recognizable journals. My first published poem was a haiku about snow clouds, written when I was ten years old and accepted by a local magazine focusing on children’s writing. I made $5.00, approximately $1.66 per line, which is a decent rate, these days. Since then, some of my pieces have had a longer reach, but I may never make it to The Paris Review or Ploughshares. I may never receive a nomination for the Pushcart Prize (1). Honestly, if I could just make it into Rattle some day, I would be clam-happy (2). 

I have been actively at it (it being the act of submitting my work for publication) for nearly thirteen years, ever since my depressive teen self discovered both Sylvia Plath’s stunning poetic works and, more importantly, her dogged devotion to submitting her work for publication. The discipline with which she approached this task, day in and day out, and the age at which she began to do so (3), were incredibly motivating to me. Thankfully, my writing from those days did not see the light of day, but the habits I picked up during that time remain. As does the end goal: putting words to a page made of paper or pixels. But to reach said goal, where does one start?

This is what should happen first: read!

This is an important assignment that is often overlooked. When I was a slush pile reader at a small online literary journal, I cannot tell you how obvious it was to me when a hopeful contributor was unfamiliar with our work. Spiritual long form pieces or Shakespearian sonnets, while not automatically excluded, did not often find a home on the site. That simply wasn’t our aesthetic. One can never predict what an editor might choose, but the lack of familiarity with the journal felt dismissive of our hard work in its creation-- highlighting a dissonance between a writer who felt s/he was deserving of publication yet unwilling to read the work of their peers. It became apparent to me how many writers didn’t understand that this--knowing the audience-- was a part of their craft. A good writer is one who reads. A good submitter is one who reads other journals. It truly is that simple. So keep in mind: while your neo-New-School-hybrid-haiku (4) or blog post on why mayo is the next superfood may be good, it won’t find a home in a journal that seeks to embody the spirit and form of John Keats.

 But say you’ve read around, found some appealing journals that might house your work, and have a list of polished pieces at the ready. You may be thinking Great, but how do I keep this process clean and organized when I’m frantically submitting stuff at 2:00 in the morning?? Well, the nice thing is, rather than having a crazed maniac’s corkboard crammed full of editor’s letters, newspaper clippings and some yarn strings (for illustrative effect), technology can be your friend! What I mean to say is spreadsheets. Excel is the best (5). Yes, I realize I’ve probably already dated this piece by citing specific software but many writers are slow to trust technology. Excel is a far bit more advanced than the pen and paper flowcharts I kept in the earlier years.

Here is an example of a spreadsheet I’ve created for myself. Go ahead, steal it! It’s been pieced together from many other examples I’ve seen over the years. Have fun with it. Your spreadsheet needs are not the same as mine, so do with it what you will. There are a few key categories I would recommend keeping, though: where you submitted your work, when you did so, what you submitted, and what the journal’s response was. That’s the bare minimum you’ll need to stay on top of where your work is at any given moment, but there are many other important factors at play, and every place you submit to, a little different.

So you have a stockpile of edited work. You have a spreadsheet that you could filter five ways to Sunday. Now what?

Submission guidelines: all journals will post some version of their guidelines. READ THESE. ALWAYS. Abide by them, or else your work may not even be seen by a human being (6) before being rejected. If a journal wants one attachment with no identifying information, plop your work into a word doc and don’t put your name in the header. They want it in the body of an email? Do that, and specify whether you have special formatting issues that won’t translate in email when you write your cover letter (more on cover letters later). Many sites now use online forms via tools such as Submittable. The nice thing about these types of platforms is they keep many of your submissions in one place, much like your spreadsheet does, but until all journals use the same submission device (which will likely never happen), having your spreadsheet as back-up will be necessary. Not all Submittable submissions will look the same, so you still want to look to guidelines for all specifications before hitting “submit.”

As you read those submission guidelines, you may see some familiar keywords come up repeatedly. Let’s start with simultaneous submissions. The attitude towards simultaneous submissions  has changed with the advent and adoption of email as a form of communication. Simultaneous submissions (submitting one or more pieces of work to multiple journals or contests at the same time) used to be generally frowned upon due to the timing issues involved in alerting other journals by post when your piece had been accepted elsewhere. Nowadays, they are generally allowed with the expectation that you alert a journal immediately if one of your works has been accepted elsewhere. This is due to the fact that most journals want first serial rights when publishing a story or poem, meaning they want to be the very first journal to put your piece in print. Some may also ask for internet rights, which allows them to publish your work in an email, electronic newsletter, on a website, etc. Not all online journals will mention this, though, as the right to publish your work online is implied in the fact that you submitted to a web-only publication. You can find more handy information on publishing rights at Poets & Writers (7).

Speaking of first publication rights, many guidelines will also speak to previously published work. I am sorry to report that, generally, most journals aren’t interested in it. McSweeney’s doesn’t want to appear behind the times by publishing a story that AGNI had in their last issue. These journals have such a huge slush pile to choose from that they are rarely at a loss for quality work to publish, so to include something that has already reached a wider audience can feel redundant and unfair to the writing community that is chock-a-block with writers waiting for their spotlight moment. All is not lost, though. You can still throw those previously published works into a manuscript and see them grace a page again, provided you find a press to publish you.

Though quickly becoming antiquated, another common acronym you’ll see in the submission guidelines is SASE, or self-addressed stamped envelope. Basically, if you want to see a response, give the editors a way to get back to you with a “yay” or a “nay” that doesn’t cost them money out of their limited budget. Most often, they will return your work as well, which is a good cost-saving measure if you are rejected and plan to re-submit your work elsewhere. But just because you’ve provided an SASE doesn’t mean you’ll receive a detailed response in romantic, handwritten form; these editors are just as busy as those working in the online sphere, and they have the added duty of stuffing envelopes. On the plus side, if you’re a glutton for punishment, you’ll have a finely printed form rejection sent you in the mail, primed and ready to be tacked to your refrigerator (8).

Depending on the publication, other various specifications and recommendations will apply, and all will be slightly different depending on the publication so again, I can’t harp on this enough: read the submission guidelines thoroughly! You may receive instructions on formatting, type font, length, restrictions on genre or theme, potential reading fees, and whether to include a bio. The guidelines can also include more interesting tidbits such as when you might expect a response, what the reading period for the journal is and, most importantly, whether they pay in publication alone or include a monetary reward as well. Better yet, you might even see the name of an editor hidden somewhere in these lines, which you can use to personalize your submission’s corresponding cover letter.

Cover letters.

Yes, we all hate doing them. They feel formal, impersonal, and redundant, but no one in power seems willing to concede this so we keep having to include them. The only thing I can suggest: keep it brief! You may want to make yourself stand out by starting with a lengthy preamble on your writing accomplishments, or every single place your name has ever been seen in print (9). DON’T. The editors do not care and will breeze past this. If they want more information from you, they will request a bio (again, be brief: bios should typically be under 100 words.)

What a cover letter contains is simple. First, a header: name, address, phone number, email, date. Second, a greeting: if you can’t find an editor’s name, using dear fiction editor(s) or something similar will suffice. Then you can start your paragraph. Note, I did not make that word plural. You get only one. I typically open with one sentence thanking them for considering my work. Follow this with a sentence highlighting something I enjoy about the work they publish, or why my work would be a good fit. This provides proof that I’ve done my homework, and have read what they publish. Finally, list the piece or pieces that you have included in your submission. Sum it up with a “thank you for your time” and consider it good. See below for my example.

Okay, so you’ve sent your stuff out to multiple journals, recorded it in a spreadsheet or some other handy tracking mechanism, and now you’re playing the waiting game.

So what happens when the responses start rolling in? Well, a lot of rejections, most likely. This can suck, but it’s NOT all bad. There is an art to distinguishing a “good” rejection from a “bad” one. I know: in the moment, they all feel pretty terrible. But that does not mean there isn’t something to be gleaned from them.

A form rejection is going to be pretty obvious from the get-go. It will be brief, formal, and impersonal. Something along the lines of “Thank you for submitting to The Apiary. While we enjoyed reading your work, it is not a good fit at this time. We wish you the best in placing your work elsewhere.” (10) Because they clearly send this to at least 95% of those they reject, you just have to assume the best of intentions and move on.

But some rejections offer hope. An editor may come right out and say that, while they aren’t publishing you this time around, they would like to in the future and encourage you to submit for their next issue. Solicitation is always a good thing; if they ask for more stuff, they want to see it! Some “good” rejection letters are a little less clear, sounding a lot like a form rejection except that they may add a note such as “we especially enjoyed Ode on a Grecian Urn” or “while we are not taking any work at this time, we’d like you to know that your piece Howl made it all the way to the editor’s table.” These are good signs! If the editor (or the slush pile reader, as may be the case) is going off script with their rejection, it meant your work did something right. Submit again. It’s not a guarantee that you’ll get picked the second time around, but the odds may be in your favor.


We’re in the internet age, and I realize that not everyone in my audience will read this in its entirety, so here are some bulleted takeaway points for those who are skimming (11):



SUPER IMPORTANT TAKEAWAY #1: Read. First, foremost, always. You’ll save yourself a lot of time and effort, and maybe some rejections. You may also find some lovely new writers out there that you would never have stumbled upon otherwise. Also, the editors will thank you.

SUPER IMPORTANT TAKEAWAY #2: Keep track of this shit somehow. Be an adult about it.

SUPER IMPORTANT TAKEAWAY #3: Know the submission guidelines like the back of your hand? Good. Now following them.


That’s it.

Pretty simple, which is why I’m not charging money for this. I mean, the submission guidelines for this blog were pretty clear about what payment for this post is: hard-earned, well-appreciated publication.**

**disclaimer #2: this is not ass-kissing and did not lend itself, favorably or unfavorably, to the acceptance of this piece.


(1) See? There’s a prize for those humble enough to submit to these small presses.
(2) You hear that, Timothy Green?!
(3) Her first national publication was in the Christian Science Monitor at age 18, and was published in regional publications at an even earlier age.
(4) No offense to this subgenre, I’m sure it’s awesome.
(5) This is not a paid endorsement. I am not some corporate schill!
(6) Or a mainframe processor, which I can only assume will be the case in ten years when robots are doing all our menial tasks. Creepy, but at least we’ll have more time for writing?
(8) Presumably next to the oil change coupons and the outdated save-the-date magnet from your cousin’s wedding. Yeah, I’m on to you.
(9) Or maybe the story of when you discovered your first pubic hair. Or how fast you ran the mile in high school.
(10) This is not a direct quote, please don’t sue me.
(11) Though really, if you haven’t bothered to read this, where will you find the time to prep for submitting?


Quinn Rennerfeldt is many things: poet, amateur environmentalist, desk jockey, family woman.  You might find her sorting recycling, running the streets, or patronizing a local brewery in Denver, Colorado.  You will not find her at a shopping mall or in an airplane (willingly).  She has been previously published in Cider Press Review, Slipstream, and was recently awarded the Peseroff Prize by Breakwater Review for her poem "In which, an apocalypse."

Wear Red: Protect the Heart of a Woman


    In the media and in the stores there is excellent marketing for reasons to support breast health and wear pink. For all those who have fought, are fighting, surviving, thriving, and for those who fought bravely and lost, I support the power of pink and all that it symbolizes.  

Do you know what red symbolizes?  Red is the color of roses, love, passion, and anger.  It is an alert, like a big stop sign.  Red is not to be ignored.  Red also symbolizes women’s fight against Heart Disease.   One in three women will develop heart disease, and most realize neither the statistic nor the symptoms. Per the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), heart disease is the number 1 killer for women over the age of 25 in the United States, and has been for years.   Although the risk of heart disease is higher than breast cancer, we don’t see red in our media and stores. Wear red, learn how to take care of your heart, and share this information with all the special women in your life.    



    Women are special.  I have taken pride in my womanhood since I was a young woman, and continue to do so as a wife, mother, aunt, cousin, sister, friend, and healthcare provider.  I am reminded daily of the strength, intelligence, tenacity, compassion, and bravery that women I know demonstrate. Although I would not go so far to say that men and women come from different planets, there are differences in how our bodies exhibit disease which is important for everyone to be aware of.  

    Coronary heart disease (CHD) is a condition in which plaque builds up in the inside of your coronary arteries.  These arteries supply oxygen-rich blood that the body requires to function.  Over time, the plaque can harden and reduce blood flow through the blood vessels, limiting function.  The plaque may also rupture, occlude a vessel, and interrupt all blood flow to a section of the body, like part of the heart.  Without adequate blood supply, CHD can lead to complications such as a heart attack (myocardial infarction or MI), chest pain (angina), heart failure, and irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias).  When blood flow is occluded to part of the brain, this is called a stroke or a brain attack.     

Until the last decade, the majority of the research on heart disease primarily focused on middle-aged, Caucasian men.  As a middle aged, woman of color, I – and a wide demographic of people – was not represented in this research. More recent research has demonstrated that CHD often occurs in women approximately 10 years later than men, and women experience the symptoms that are less well known.  Research has also shown that, compared to men, women are not as aware of their heart disease risk, are less likely to call 911, and twice as likely to die the year after a heart attack.  

The table below shows the signs of heart attacks for women versus men. It’s important to note that women and men may both experience symptoms from either list, although current research shows that women, more often than men, experience vague, atypical symptoms.  It is challenging to identify CHD in women when the symptoms may be ignored or explained by another cause, and when women are less aware of the symptoms of heart disease.  The women I know are very good at taking care of their work, their families, and their friends.  We all struggle to some degree in taking care of ourselves, and wearing red reminds me of this—that we need to help each other take care of ourselves. 

(Above video: feat. Elizabeth Banks)

(Above video: feat. Lucy Lawless)



    Our hearts are special and need to be protected.  The first step is to find out what are your risk factors.  There are some factors that you have no control over like your family history, ethnicity, or age. The uncontrollable risk factors in combination with lifestyle choices influence overall heart disease risk.  Small changes in lifestyle made now may make a significant difference in your long-term health in the future.   The first step is to “know your numbers”, and do what you can today so that you can enjoy the activities and people in your life to the fullest. 

    The numbers you need to know are the ones that give a snapshot of your health today.  These numbers include your current weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar.  Below is a brief introduction to these risk factors.  For more details on each of these factors, go to this website: 

Before making any drastic changes to your activity or diet, meet with your health care provider to determine if there are any special considerations for you.    

  • Cholesterol
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Physical Activity
  • Weight

Cholesterol comes in two forms—good and bad.  Good cholesterol (high density lipoprotein or HDL) levels should be kept higher since studies show that having a level of 60 mg/dL or greater may protect against heart disease.  Bad Cholesterol (low density lipoprotein or LDL) is the type of cholesterol that you want to keep low.  Bad cholesterol can clog your arteries and lead to heart attacks and stroke.  Ideally LDL levels are less than 130 mg/dL or if other risk factors for heart disease are present, the goal is less than 100 mg/dL.

High blood pressure is a silent killer.  It often has no symptoms and when not managed can increased the risk for heart disease and stroke.  High blood pressure is not related to mood or personality. High blood pressure is a condition that makes the heart work harder and when left untreated causing scarring and damage to the arteries.  This damage leads to heart attacks, strokes, kidney disease, eye damage, heart failure, and clogging of the arteries (atherosclerosis).  Depending on your risk factors and age, normal blood pressure is considered 120/80 or less.  Lifestyle changes that help manage and prevent high blood pressure include a low salt, low saturated fat, and low cholesterol diet.  Other helpful changes include moderation of alcohol and caffeine intake, and if overweight, moderate weight loss.  Some studies have shown improvement in blood pressure with a 5% decrease in weight.  

Diabetes is another silent killer and comes in primarily two forms.  Type 1 diabetes, which may occur at any age although is most associated with children, is when the pancreas stops making insulin.  Insulin is a hormone important for taking the glucose from blood into the cells of the body.  Type 2 diabetes occurs when there is a decrease in insulin production by the pancreas or when the body develops resistance to the insulin that is produced.  When diabetes is left untreated, several complications may develop such as heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease.  Type 1 diabetes is treated by giving insulin injections.  Depending on the severity of type 2 diabetes, treatment may include lifestyle changes, pills that encourage insulin production or storage of glucose, or insulin injections.

    Smoking Cessation, Weight, and Physical Activity are lifestyle changes.  Smoking doubles the risk of heart disease, and women who smoke are 25% more likely to develop heart disease compared to men who smoke.  Carrying extra body weight puts a strain on your heart, raises blood pressure, may increase bad cholesterol levels and decrease good cholesterol.  Minimal physical activity increases risk of heart disease.  Physical activity does not have to be a long run or working out in a gym.  Walking is an excellent, cheap and effective activity to start enhancing your health.    

You can use the online Risk Calculator to help determine where to focus your efforts and as a starting point for conversations with your health care professional.



    Wear red and show your passion for life and your support of women.  Learn how to recognize signs of heart attack in women, share the Elizabeth Banks video, and laugh with those you care about. You never know whose life it may save.  Know your numbers, review what risk factors you have for heart disease, talk to your health care provider, and choose to take care of yourself.  Women are special and our hearts are worth it. 



--American Heart Association on Managing Heart Disease Risk at Any Age

--National Institute for Health (NIH) on Heart Disease in Women

--Women's Cardiovascular Center



·       Although heart disease is sometimes thought of as a "man's disease," around the same number of women and men die each year of heart disease in the United States. Despite increases in awareness over the past decade, only 54% of women recognize that heart disease is their number 1 killer.

·         Heart disease is the leading cause of death for African American and white women in the United States. Among Hispanic women, heart disease and cancer cause roughly the same number of deaths each year. For American Indian or Alaska Native and Asian or Pacific Islander women, heart disease is second only to cancer.

·         About 5.8% of all white women, 7.6% of black women, and 5.6% of Mexican American women have coronary heart disease.

·         Almost two-thirds (64%) of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms. Even if you have no symptoms, you may still be at risk for heart disease.


Nancy C. Smith is an Adult Nurse Practitioner – Board Certified.  As a woman with a strong family history of heart disease and related diseases, her passion for heart health started over 20 years ago.  She was writing a paper on women and heart disease and found only two resources available in her large, urban library system.  Although more resources and research are available today, the disparity between outcomes for women and men with heart attacks continues to be wide.  

Baby Shoes, Never Worn: Infantile Literary Revelations


Every writer knows this story. It’s the flashiest and most fictioniest sentence there is. It’s the purest example of a good plot: there’s mystery, there’s intrigue, there’s sorrow—and there isn’t even a verb!

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway wrote it in a writerly competition with his writerly companions. He challenged his friends to write a novel in six words and voila! There it was, a masterpiece, like a solitary glacier floating in the icy waters of some cold ocean because one of the rules in writing is that you must compare Hemingway’s writing to glaciers. disagrees

Others, however, have run with it, crediting Hemingway for creating a new short form media perfectly balanced with poetry and drama. 

In my first fiction class, the instructor passed around a piece of paper containing this story. He slowly read it aloud and in that pause that followed, we—a motley crew of retired engineers, copyrighters, a Trader Joe’s cashier and a really weird old man who I later learned invented the Southern California mini mall (thanks, Google)—were taken aback by its simplicity and the realm of infinite possibilities.

Taking turns, we went around the room and described what we thought this story was about. Some spoke about the obvious: heartbroken parents over a dead child. Others elaborated on the tragedy: was there a fire? Perhaps the baby was never born? A divorce?

We mapped the imagined plot on the chalkboard, pointing out the setting (“For sale”), the exposition as tiny as its subject (“baby shoes”) to the rising action to the climatic reveal (“never worn”) and the denouement in the silence left behind, questions raised and unanswered. Whatever the case and whoever the true author was, we all agreed that it was so, so, sad. 

The instructor used these six words to illustrate the careful placement of words that invoke a strong narrative, how the abrupt ending coincides with the sudden lurch in our hearts as we realize the true state of being. Or something like that. I don’t quite remember, because I may have been too busy trying to figure out why that old man was so weird. He never wore socks! 

Regardless, the story stuck with me, and I know I’m not alone. At times, they were inspirational, because if Hemingway (or someone) could do it, then so could I. Most of the time, they were the complete opposite, because let’s be real. If Hemingway (or someone, as would argue) could do it, then I most probably couldn’t. 

But then I had a baby.

(Another six words that can say so much.)

A lot of things change after you have a baby. Your body looks mushy. Your hair falls out. Your friends disappear. New friends appear. Your underwear doesn’t quite fit the way it used to. You’re never alone. You do everything wrong. You doubt yourself. You’re suddenly drawn to every horrible news headline about abused children, thousands of species going extinct, and how we’re basically ruining everything for the next generation. 

And this six word novel? This poignant string of letters that twists an invisible knife in your heart?  

Hemingway (or whoever), I’m calling you out on your shit because it’s true. Your miniature story is COMPLETELY MEANINGLESS—or literature’s biggest prank. 

For sale: baby shoes, never worn. 

The realization dawned on me as I was packing up the latest batch of clothes that our toddler had outgrown. She was only 15 months but was already fitting into an 18-month size (this is the part where your eyes glaze over), so gone were the cute little 9-12 month onesies, the miniature 12-month denim jeans with pockets (why pockets? What kind of baby needs pockets?) and the little socks. Alas, gone were the adorable Converse sneakers that she never got to wear. By then, I was fully aware of the ephemeral state of baby clothes: no matter how much money you spend on them, chances are they’ll be useless within a few weeks. They’ll pile up in the closet like lumpy, wrinkly reminders that every moment is fleeting, time is passing by too fast and again, we’re basically ruining everything for the next generation, so what’s the point of baby pockets?

Your options then are either to store them for later (because who knows if and when the next baby will arrive), donate them, or, if you’re lucky, sell them at an immediate loss (because this current baby has already drained your emotional bank account into the red). 

So there, sitting in a tiny little shoebox on the dresser, was the world’s most famous six-word novel. 

Except that there was no tragedy. There were no parents heartbroken over the loss of a baby. There was no divorce.

This is the real story: a baby grew up a size and never had a chance to wear his or her new shoes. The parents are logical, sane and emotionally stable, and also believe that keeping a pair of brand new shoes that no one in the household can wear is a complete waste of space because at this rate, these parents would rather throw themselves off a cliff before entertaining the thought of adding another child to their already wrecked lives. But certainly there’s a set of new parents out there, desperately searching for a pair of adorable Converse sneakers (infant size 6-9 months), never worn. They would like to find these parents, and in order to do so, they post an ad on Craigslist.

For sale: Converse baby shoes, never worn. $10 OBO.

Nice try, Hemingway (or whoever you are). You tried to mess with people’s minds but I figured you out, glacier or not. The only question your so-called novel raises is, “How much for those shoes?” Yeah, I said it.  

You want some poetry and drama in six words? Try this. 

Watch out. I’m on to you.*


*Yes, I’m well aware that Hemingway (or whoever the original author was) is dead. Please leave me alone.


Moye Ishimoto lives in Los Angeles where she works in television and is trying to figure out this whole parenting thing. The baby shoes, never worn, are still available if anyone wants them. Interested parties should tweet at her

Pushing Buttons


This summer has tested the general sense of American justice, in ways that have addressed what it means, on a national level, to be an American. The historic decisions of the Supreme Court that will have lasting repercussions for the shape of our collective future, the high-profile deaths of people of color that may very well trigger a new consciousness of the deep-seated racism undergirding our country’s structure—these are national events that touch people all over the country. If you haven’t noticed broad brush strokes of the evidence of systemic oppression, you haven’t been paying attention. 

I cried over what I hope will be seismic shifts in the American landscape. I cried over the Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage for all and over the shootings at the AME church in Charleston. I cried, and then I went back to work with Puente, in a very local community, on the rural South Coast of Northern California where I’m the volunteer coordinator and liaison to area faith communities. 

On the day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality, I met 24 Latino teenagers at Puente’s office in the tiny ranching and farming community of Pescadero. Together we boarded a bus to ride more than an hour into San Francisco, which would be crowded, we knew, with celebrations of the Supreme Court decision that happened to coincide with the usually robust Pride weekend. But our destination was not the legendary Pride parade. After ninety minutes on a city bus we found ourselves at the historic Flood Building in downtown San Francisco, just in time to meet with a woman of color who ran a financial planning firm in a century-old landmark building that now boasts retail headquarters, consulates, non-profit organizations, and other tenants from all over the Earth.

On the bus, my co-facilitator and I tried to explained appropriate city behavior to the Pescadero teens: watch your stuff, don’t stand in the middle of the sidewalk, don’t be afraid of people who live on the streets. We emphasized the importance of that particular day and the jubilation that might surprise them. Don’t stare too much at the naked men who will be in the streets, we said. Avoid words that are hateful. Ask questions. Celebrate.

I imagined that the ninety-minute ride carried us from one side of the planet to another. We arrived early and had to wait in a hallway made out of marble that magnified even the softest whisper. A well-dressed white woman came out of her office to tell us to be quiet. The group had clearly pushed her buttons. I wondered when the last time was this woman had seen a group of latino teenagers in one place without thinking they were a gang—and I wondered if she could dream that these youth are very rarely out of their little town just a few miles from the ocean.  I felt her reprimands under my arm hairs and at the base of my neck. My white skin wouldn’t protect the Pescadero youth from this woman’s harsh words. 

My co-facilitator and I gathered the two-dozen youth together and told them they must be silent, more rigid than necessary because--like any group of teenagers--they were antsy, and “silent” would inevitably be translated to “quiet.” 

After our group met with the financial planner, who shared her story with the Pescadero teenagers, one fifteen-year-old boy taught the rest of the group what stock is, and one sixteen-year-old girls asked detailed questions about the benefits of investing in a Roth IRA or a regular IRA.

Later, as we left the offices and headed to the elevators, one of the boys asked if he could take the stairs. Irritated at the prospect of splitting up our group, I said no. His pace slowed as we got to the elevators. 

As soon as we boarded our elevator, a different teenaged boy pressed several floor buttons: 10, 8, 6, 5, 2, 1. 

 “We have to stop at all those floors now,” I said.

He looked at me as we started our descent, but he said nothing.

“When was the last time you were on an elevator?” I asked. Still, he said nothing .

An unsuspecting passenger got on at the tenth floor. The doors slid open again at floor eight, then six.

The people from other floors shifted and grumbled, their trips down to the parking lot and street and Pride parade longer than they’d anticipated.

It dawned on me, finally, that the teenager who’d pushed all the buttons did not know what I was talking about—that he might not know what pressing all the buttons might mean. 

There are no elevators on the South Coast.

As the doors slid open at the fifth floor I nonchalantly said to the boys in my elevator that this was the longest elevator ride I’d taken in a while.

When we disembarked on the first floor, the boy who’d asked to walk down twelve flights of stairs said he felt closed in when riding an elevator. He said he hadn’t been on an elevator in two years. I can’t remember the last time I was in an elevator because it’s so ordinary.

Later that afternoon, as we explored Fisherman’s Wharf, all of our students were polite and engaged, taking the “big city” and all its complications in stride, getting ice cream at the wharf and patiently waiting for the crosswalk signs to change instead of scurrying across the street without a glance at the cars. 

As we caught the bus home, I realized that I’d made so many assumptions about what our youth knew and what they didn’t know about San Francisco and its inhabitants, what they knew about the way the world works. My assumptions about these incredible youth pegged them as small-town kids and were just as limiting as the woman who had shushed them in the marble halls of the Flood Building.

Over the last few of weeks, life has changed on a global scale. My world has changed, too, in a little way that widens the whole world.


Puente is the only resource center for the rural South Coast of Northern California, a 160 square mile area that about 5,000 people call home. Puente empowers children, individuals, and families, primarily farmworkers and their families, to build healthy, sustainable, inclusive lives. You can follow them on Twitter @PuentePescadero


Abby Mohaupt is a runner, artist, and Presbyterian pastor who works at Puente, the only resource center for the rural South Coast in Northern California. She loves handstands and crayons and coffee, and she regularly blogs at

How to Approach Twins in the Wild


Ten Questions Every Twin Must Answer

  1. Are you identical? Do you look alike?

  2. Which one of you is older?

  3. Is it hard to live so far away from your twin?

  4. What's your sister's name?

  5. Do you have the same personality?

  6. Did you dress alike growing up?

  7. Did you go to the same school and study the same thing?

  8. Can you read each other's minds?

  9. Do you feel pain when she feels pain?

  10. Do you every wake up and wonder which one you are?

Abby & Hillary then

Abby & Hillary then

Wait, You Have a Twin?

Recently I was at a conference for an organization my sister and I both support. I was strolling through the exhibit hall when a handsome stranger suddenly greeted me with a huge smile of recognition and a hug. Before I let go I said, “Do you know I’m Hillary and not Abby?”

He looked confused and a little crestfallen. “I’m Abby’s twin sister,” I explained. “People mix us up all the time.”

Now that my twin sister and I are adults and live on opposite coasts of the United States, there are few opportunities for this kind of confusion, but in high school we encountered it on a daily basis. People would stop us in the hallways and start talking, without waiting to confirm they were talking to the right twin. Later, my sister and I would confer; we called this “taking messages.”

Over the last couple of years, since my sister moved to California, and I moved to Philadelphia, I've been thinking about twinship with renewed intensity. Because we are not often together, people don’t know immediately that we are twins, and these days, when I talk about my sisters I don’t always distinguish my twin from my non-twin, precisely because I know what’s coming (see above). I don’t want to have an otherwise fluid conversation interrupted by a flurry of questions.

Abby & Hillary now

Abby & Hillary now

The Most Mysterious Humans Beings on Earth?

Fraternal twins are the most common kind of multiple birth among humans beings, occurring in one of every eighty pregnancies. Fraternal (non-identical) twins can be kind of a disappointment to people – less sexy, maybe.

The fascination with twins is centuries old, fueled, in part, by circuses that touted them as freaks, but the treatment continues to occur. Gemellology – the scientific study of twins – has been important to understanding human genetics as a whole, but it lends some weight to the image of twins as anomalies to be studied and, in the darkest contexts, subjected to experiments.

One recent example of the depiction of twins in American culture is Audrey Niffenegger’s novel, Her Fearful Symmetry. The book appears to have been written by someone who’s never interacted with twins other than as strangers on the sidewalk. With two sets of identical twins, Her Fearful Symmetry depends heavily on a certain number of assumptions – that (spoiler alert!) the spouses and children of twins do not recognize their own kin.

On the other hand, one recent meditation on twins is particularly nuanced: Stephanie Porcell’s essay “Tracking the San Francisco Twin" in Narratively really speaks to the pressure of growing up a twin and finding yourself in the tension between a desire for individuality and the very real and very deep connection that can be present between twins.

Twins are featured in a lot of movies (think “The Parent Trap”). This list on IMDB eventually devolves into movies starring Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen who are, despite obvious outward appearances, fraternal twins.

Ten Questions Every Twin Must Answer

Sometimes these are not posed as questions; sometimes they are stated as fact. As in, “You two are identical because your parents dressed you alike as toddlers.”

  1. Are you identical? Our parents didn't know they were having twins before we were born, and they never had us tested to determine whether we're genetically identical or fraternal. Our answer changes, depending on the day and whether we want to talk about it. (I imagine this is not very much unlike the “where are you from?” question many Asian Americans report having to answer, ad nauseum.) No one likes the "we don't know" answer. Even when they stop us in the middle of the marathon we’re running together, side by side, in order to ask this question. Most people like to hear “yes”; some people don’t think fraternal twins are “real” twins. My mother recently asked if, given the opportunity, I had any interest in knowing whether my sister and I are identical or fraternal. It was a good question. I said no, except if there were some life-saving reason to know that we were identical and I could therefore give my sister a kidney or something Do you look alike? Yes. Kind of. Sometimes. She dyes her hair. We're not the same weight anymore. I'm half an inch taller. People like to hear "yes."

  2. Which one of you is older? We were born by c-section, within the same minute as recorded on our birth certificate, which means neither one of us is older. We were born on the same day. We are the same age.

  3. Is it hard to live so far away from your twin? No. Not any harder than living far away from my other sister and my parents.

  4. What's your sister's name? This is to see if we have matching names, like Hillary and Holly. My sister is named Abigail Wynne and my full name is Hillary Gail. I like that we do share some part of our names--we both have Gail in our names in memory of our grandfather Gale--but that it isn't obvious. Like so much about us, we don’t match, but we coordinate.

  5. Do you have the same personality? No. My sister is loud and gregarious. I'm not. We re two different people so – shocker – we have two different personalities. Even though we have the same parents and grew up in the same environment. Two brains, two personalities.

  6. Did you dress alike growing up? Kind of. My parents often had us in coordinating outfits -- the same style of shirt in two different colors, because it was easier to shop that way. But we started dressing ourselves when we were in pre-school. In college, we sometimes called each other to wear the same thing--or same kind of thing--on a day when one of us needed to have some long-distance support. But we were the only ones who knew we were doing it. And we never did it because we were twins.

  7. Did you go to the same school and study the same thing? No. We both applied to my parents' alma mater and when my sister decided to go there, I decided to go somewhere else, and I was very happy about that decision.

  8. Can you read each other's minds? Yes. Right now she is thinking that you are asking rude, probing questions. No, although in sixth grade we finally realized that we could probably jinx the system and have some canned answer for "What number is your sister thinking of right now?"

  9. Do you feel pain when she feels pain? When we still lived together in Illinois, the answer was no. But when I studied abroad in France during high school I inexplicably got sick on the Metro at what turned out to be the same moment my sister was having an intense, abusive fight with her boyfriend in Illinois. Then recently my sister broke her right hand and in the same period my right wrist flared with some nerve pain (that went away when my sister got her cast off).

  10. Do you every wake up and wonder which one you are? Only one person has ever asked us this.

Why Twins Matter

My younger sister, who has spent her whole life reminding my twin sister and me that we are not special and we are no different from other people, an attitude that I appreciate more and more in my adulthood, because it has nicely balanced out the ways in which other people examined us like specimens in science class.

To be clear, of course: the perils of twinship – the impolite staring, the thoughtless questions, the invasion of our privacy, the history of freakdom – are nothing compared to the systemic oppression experienced by large groups of people in the United States and around the world.

I like to think, however, that the experience and the stress of being subjected to other people’s probing ignorance have engendered a unique kind of empathy in me, and in most twins who want to be seen and treated as two individual human beings rather than merely half of whole. I want to hope that the upshot of enduring a lifetime of inconsiderate, innumerable questions is a heart that considers the feelings, perspective and gifts of each unique person.


Hillary Moses Mohaupt is a listmaker: she writes, runs, talks like a Midwesterner, and bakes too many pies. Follow her at and on Twitter at @greymusegal