An Ourglass Story

A literary magazine’s purpose is to present stories, poetry, and art in as pure a creative form as possible. The Ourglass, Community College of Denver’s decades-long-running lit mag, holds sacred the artistic vision of their contributors. When the editorial staff accepts a piece for publication, there are no further edits. If it is executed with precision and emotion, it stands out to the editors who can envision it blossoming on the page exactly as the writer intended.

As a fledgling writer and CCD student as well, I often wonder if I could be capable enough to build a career out of crafting words for the page. It’s an easy habit to look back at my writing and see how my sentences drag on and clunk into each other, how some transitions feel more senseless than seamless. Despite my self-criticism and doubt (and also being required to for a creative writing assignment), I ended up submitting several poems and promptly putting it out of mind.

Investigating what happens after you hit submit, I discovered that my poems likely ended up in the hands of Riley Nguyen, fellow CCD student and one of the editors on the editorial team. After talking with her, it was clear how much goes into this review process. She’s been busy preparing this year’s publication, receiving, reviewing, and making the judgment call on submissions to the magazine.

Riley’s background in charity fundraising is the perfect foundation for this type of editorial work. She knows how to sharpen a message, direct it at the correct audience, and earn the investment capital needed to sustain an organization. She sees her role in fundraising as that of liaison, where the visions of a non-profit organization or entrepreneur get translated and forwarded to the powerful minds and hands that can dole out investment dollars. The stakes are real, and she is dependable.

Her skills of communication and detailed wordcraft have transferred nicely into the literary sphere. The currency and stakes she now deals in are emotions. Making clear her priorities, Riley said, “You want to have a connection between the artist and the reader and my job is to mediate between the two because, yes, the artist can make a brilliant piece of work, but it's really difficult for a reader to understand if it's chaotically organized.” 

She leans forward in her chair focused on her open laptop, critically experiencing one story after another, balancing how long a piece is with the potential value it might bring to readers. Every accepted entry must be justified — after all the reality of the form of the magazine means printing space is limited. Out of an estimated 300 pieces, only 30, or perhaps as many as 40, will make it in. Their standards make it clear there is no room for incompleteness or slop. 

Riley, ever the empathetic editor, acknowledges the range and depth of the submissions. Noting one particularly emotional and delicate story that struggled to meet the magazine’s standards, Riley said, “I recognize that this is a very vulnerable story… and unfortunately, I have to be the arbitrator of these standards, but also that doesn't mean that I haven't been touched by these stories. I've had several stories that didn't make it in for one reason or another… that totally made me cry.” 

Graceful or stumbling, readable or not — these stories are real and full of meaning, and at these soulful moments, they reach out and touch an audience, one set of eyes and emotions at a time. Some stories just require more cultivation and work to accomplish this goal.

Once selections are made and the drafts and design are finalized, it will get digitally bundled together and sent to the printers to be printed out in its physical form and dispersed throughout Auraria Campus. The students and readers who eventually open a copy will have the same chance to experience the stories, just as Riley did, but more carefully curated.

To be honest, when I contacted Riley for an interview, I had completely forgotten that I had submitted to the magazine. I was reminded only a few days ago, while working on the piece you’re reading now, because I discovered an Ourglass rejection letter in my student email inbox. I could have felt disappointed, but, on reflection, I could more easily imagine Riley, with her laptop, leaning into my poems, understanding how they’re not the right fit, still appreciating that another whole human being took the time to write themselves onto the page for her careful consideration.