Essays

My Life in Stories

By posted at 6:01 am on August 30, 2011 22

1. A Love Story
“So,” the agent said, “I like your stories. Are you working on a novel?”

I was sitting in the venerable Dey House, the 1857 Victorian home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, meeting with another agent – the fifth or sixth I’d met since I’d arrived in Iowa City. She sat in a chair, facing me, across a large wooden desk, the question lingering in her eyes.

I’d known the question was coming. Every other agent I’d met had come around to the same thing, eventually.

The answer – the truth – was that I was not. Writing a novel. Perhaps eventually I would. But at the time, I was writing stories, exclusively. Even worse, the stories had nothing to do with each other. They had no re-occurring characters; they were not linked, even thematically. I had a vague notion that one day, the stories would miraculously interweave into a collection that felt somehow organic. But try telling that to an agent, whose job it will be to actually sell your book. The starry light goes out of their eyes. They hand over the obligatory business card, ask you to keep in touch.

No, I thought, eyeing her across the desk, I do not have a novel.

“Yes,” I said. “I do.”

She leaned forward, intertwining her fingers on the blotter.

“What’s it about?”

Here, I paused. There was still time to save myself. It’s about nothing. I don’t even have an idea. I haven’t written a single word. I don’t know what came over me.

But I had come across something interesting the week before, while researching a short story.

“It’s about life saving stations. Funded by Congress in the 1800s?” I sat back, hoping to discern some flicker of interest in her expression. “They were a precursor to the Coast Guard. Red houses that dotted the Atlantic Coast, manned by young men – kids, really. They’d stand watch in a storm, waiting for shipwrecks.”

Her eyebrow went up. “Tell me more.”

“Well, when they spotted one, they’d head out in a small dinghy – a rescue crew. My novel’s about a saving station crewman on Long Beach Island, New Jersey. A terrible shipwreck in a violent storm.”

I swallowed hard. Clearly, she could see right through me. My career as a writer was over before it’d even started.

“It’s a love story,” I added.

“I love it!” she said.

And that was that. I’d been writing short stories seriously for half a dozen years. Revising, polishing. Sending them out. Tallying rejections. Revising some more. I’d published one story by that point, with a second forthcoming. And she was all but ready to represent me on the basis of a few-sentence novel synopsis I’d concocted right there on the spot. Practically from thin air.

2. A Testing Ground

coverIn my Akron, Ohio, home office, I have a square certificate hung in a clear plastic frame:

Certificate of Award
This Certifies that
Josh Rolnick
Of
Lafayette Intermediate School
Has been awarded this certificate for
Creativity in Writing
Date November 10, 1980

I keep this on my wall to remind myself that I have identified as a writer, and loved creative writing, for a very long time.

I am not, however, one of those writers who has always wanted to be a writer. My mom will tell you: I wanted to be an entomologist. As a teenager, I joyfully fed crickets to Michelle, my pet tarantula. For years, my greatest wish – the one stroke of good fortune that seemed greedy even to hope for – was that my uncle, a professor at Rutgers, would somehow manage to score me a giant cockroach from one of the science labs on campus. While other budding writers were, I suppose, holing up in the local public library, I was dropping fat-bodied ants into spider webs and turning my fingers into landing pads for monarch butterflies.

My flirtation with insects ended finally after I enrolled at Rutgers College, signed up for “Bugs and Man,” and learned that practical entomology had more to do with pesticides and bug-resistant crops than the gory beauty of a wasp laying her eggs inside a paralyzed cicada.

I signed up to work for the Daily Targum newspaper, covering volleyball, writing sports columns, and eventually editorials. It was an outlet for my creativity, which led naturally to a career in journalism. I started off as news reporter at The News Tribune in Central Jersey, where I had the occasional opportunity to write off-beat features and even colorful reflections on major news events. Five years later, though, after taking a year to study and live in Israel, I found myself on the overnight shift at the Associated Press’s Trenton Bureau, rewriting radio copy for the morning drive. It was a great job for a budding reporter, with ample room for advancement. It wasn’t – in any sense that mattered to me – creative.

Sitting alone at 5 a.m. with a S’mores Pop-Tart and a bitter cup of coffee, waiting for the newspaper guy to arrive with the dailies, I’d contemplate a different future. Could I push the reset button? Could I go back to the kind of creative writing that had first animated me?

Of course not, I reasoned. Because creative writers wrote novels. And how in the world does one up and write a novel?

coverI’d read novels before. Each one seemed more daunting an undertaking than the next. How did David Bradley write 432 pages of The Chaneysville Incident? How did Stephen King write 1,090 pages of It? How did Victor Hugo write 1,260 pages of Les Miserables? In French?

Yes, these were inspirational to read. But to write? Novels were unwieldy, unmanageable, inexplicable doorstops.

And then one day, my sister gave me a gift: The Best American Short Stories, 1997.

Stories? I’d read very few.

“The Short Story is a difficult literary form, demanding more attention to control and balance than the novel,” writes E. Annie Proulx in the introduction. “It is the choice of most beginning writers, attracted to its brevity, its apparent friendliness (a deception) to slender themes, or even its perceived function as a testing ground before attempting the five-hundred-page novel.”

Here was a new option. A possibility. It was easy to ignore her notes of caution: “difficult,” “apparent,” “perceived.” This bright orange book seemed to offer nothing less than the suggestion of a path. A way forward.

I quit my job, enrolled in Johns Hopkins’ part-time writing program in Dupont Circle, moved to Washington, DC. I found a new job and, at night, I began writing stories.

3. A Scheme of Ascendable Rungs
One of the first things I read when I got to Hopkins in the Fall of 1998 was an essay by Richard Ford in Harper’s Magazine, “First Things First: One more writer’s beginnings” (August, 1988).

In it, Ford describes how he started out writing and dutifully sending short stories to literary journals. The conventional wisdom (in 1970, but it’s no less true today) was that you wrote stories, sent them out to lit magazines, and gradually, as your writing improved, you moved up to the ladder. You became known. Eventually, if you persevered, you might land in the Atlantic or New Yorker. Ford describes sending off his stories, fretting about the “level” of each journal. (“Maybe the Cimarron Review is just too good for me at this point.”) He kept a careful log, “where this story was sent and when.” He was rejected again and again, at one point by a journal called Fur-Bearing Trout (whose editor chattily told him the stories “need not be about fish”). Finally, Ford had a story accepted by a journal in New Zealand. He briefly considered moving there.

But he was discouraged by the steady stream of no’s – stories that “aren’t right for us” or that “showed promise” or that “would surely find a home elsewhere.”

“I began to resent what seemed to me the unprovable premise that there existed any useful structure or scheme of ascendable rungs whose rule was that my stories weren’t good enough at first but might be better later on,” he wrote, “and that I should have patience and go on surrendering myself to its clankings. What I felt was that I wanted my stories to be great stories, as good as could be written. And now. And if they weren’t (and they weren’t) that was my own business, my problem, not the concern of some system for orderly advancement in the literary arts.”

“What was out there,” Ford concluded, “is not a structure for writers to surrender to, but fidgety, dodgy chaos. And our privileged task is to force it, calm to our wills.”

His decision: quit writing stories; start a novel. “A novel would take… years; I could go more slowly; there was more to work on, get better at. No demoralizing rejections would crash into my mailbox every morning.”

It’s a powerful essay. Here was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose work I greatly admired writing openly and honestly about his humbling start. His conclusion made sense. Only, I knew myself. I couldn’t sequester myself away for the years it would take to write a novel. I agreed with Ford’s assessment: Writers wrote not to “aggrandize themselves” or “just to be published,” but rather “to be read” – to reach people. And I didn’t want to wait five years for readers.

What this meant was that I would have to try to get better – to improve as a writer – in the public eye. Writing stories. For better or for worse, I surrendered myself to the system’s clankings.

4. Crowdsourced Feedback
I too dutifully kept a notebook, recording where I sent my stories, when, and what, if anything, they sent back. This notebook – I still have it, and, despite all the advances in technology since 1998, maintain my records in it – turned out to be a literary lifeline.

My notebook tells me that in January, 1999, I sent my first story, “Flip-Flops,” out to 12 journals, including Atlantic Monthly, Paris Review, and the New Yorker. (I viewed the top literary rung the same way my mom viewed the Lottery: Hey, you never know.) In time, I received 11 post card rejections (“PC” in my log). Thrillingly, however, someone at Glimmer Train had checked the box: “Thank you for letting us read your work. We will not be publishing this story, but we enjoyed it and would like to see more.” The same person had also underlined the words “Thank you.” A new notation was born in my log: the “PC+”.

I went back to work. Just about a year later, I sent out another story. Again, I sent it to the New Yorker. This time, someone wrote on the post card rejection: “Strong writing. Thanks.” Then, in November, I received a two-sentence letter from C. Michael Curtis at Atlantic Monthly: “‘A New Year’s Resolution’ starts out promisingly, but we think it veers into improbability (emotional) and something like melodrama. You’re awfully good, however, and I hope you’ll try us again.”
It’s no exaggeration to say it: This letter kept me going for years.

That I never would break into Glimmer Train, the Atlantic, or the New Yorker is almost beside the point. These responses – and many others over the years (Laurence Goldstein at Michigan Quarterly Review, Ben Fountain at Southwest Review, and Bret Lott at Southern Review have been particularly kind) – whether actual letters of encouragement from editors or unsigned “send again” scribblings, were oxygen for me.

Moreover, they were a useful tool. I was able to mark my progress (or lack thereof) from one draft to the next based on the number and tenor of these notes. Keep going, they said. Or, if a story came back with only “PC’s”: Something’s not working.

It was crowdsourced feedback, if you will, from a knowledgeable crowd – editors, assistant editors, and even interns – who truly cared about stories, and, in many cases, were making them their life’s work.

5. ‘Beyond Entertainment’
Short stories, meanwhile, had become a passion.

coverIn The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination, Robert Coles quotes one of his students, who, after reading a John Cheever story, feels as if he’s “been given the chance of a lifetime: to change trains, change my destination…”

“Novels and stories are renderings of life; they can not only keep us company, but admonish us, point us in new directions, or give us the courage to stay a given course,” Coles writes. “They can offer us kinsmen, kinswomen, comrades, advisers – offer us other eyes through which we might see, other ears with which we might make soundings.”

The more stories I read, the more I began to sense their unique potential to work in this way. It has something to do with the very brevity of the form.

“In the short story there lingers a faint sense of example, a trimmed, useful tautness implying a function for the reader beyond entertainment,” Proulx writes in her 1997 introduction. “The reader comes to the short story subliminally expecting enlightenment; that is, we accept the idea that there is some nugget of embedded truth in a short story…”

So it was that – when I read the second-to-last line of Alice Munro’s story, “Dimension”: “You don’t have to get to London?” – my eyes brimmed with tears. Not just for Doree, who has finally found the strength to stop visiting her husband – murderer of their three children – in a London, Ontario, prison. But also for myself: I, too, could reject the insanity in my life; the people who were sapping my strength.

I began clipping stories – every story I read – and filing them in manila folders under the author’s name, so that, in a moment, I could retrieve them, reread them, share them.

Today, I have hundreds of stories in my cabinet, filed alphabetically from Adichie to Wolff. Thumbing through, I find James Turner, Jr. and Mather; the disintegrating Ms. Swenson and the eight-year-old boy who finds the wig in the Dumpster and puts it on his head.

My kinsmen, kinswomen, comrades, advisers.

6. The Publication that Wasn’t
My first acceptance came in the form of a letter from a Washington, DC-area lit mag in March, 2000. I read the first few words, “We are pleased to inform you…” and I thought: I did it. No one can ever take this away from me.

I promptly called Harvey Grossinger, one of my writing teachers at Hopkins.

“Where did you say it’s getting published?” he asked.

I told him.

“Which story?”

I told him.

He paused. Congratulated me. Then he said he was going to give me some advice – advice I didn’t have to take; advice he was probably going to regret giving me. He knew the story I’d submitted, and he felt that if I kept working, kept revising, I could aim higher. The story could do more for my writing career.

“You’re suggesting I pull my first acceptance?”

Yes, he said. Reluctantly and with some trepidation.

But I trusted Harvey. And so I made one of the toughest calls in my life. I told the editors I wasn’t finished with the story. Apologized profusely. Pulled the story. Started reworking it. The following month I sent a revised version, with a new title, out to thirteen more publications. Mostly PC’s in response. But encouragement came from Michigan Quarterly Review, Missouri Review, Glimmer Train, and, again, from C. Michael Curtis.

Keep going.

In March 2001, I sent out another version – to seventeen journals. Fourteen PC’s. But Indiana Review, Texas Review, and Boulevard liked where I was headed.

Keep going.

Almost a year later, in February, 2002, I sent it out again – to five places. I got PC’s from all but one. My log records that, in June, more than two years after I’d pulled the story, I got a call from Arts & Letters. Robert Olen Butler had selected “Big Lake” for their annual fiction prize, beating out 12 finalists.

Arts & Letters flew me to Milledgeville, Georgia, Flannery O’Connor’s hometown, and put me up in the Antebellum Inn, where I met and had breakfast with Butler (who would quickly become a valued mentor and advocate), as well as the poetry winner and judge. I read the prize-winning story (my first reading) at Lockerly Hall, an 1852 antebellum mansion on a hill with six soaring Greek Revival columns that seemed to welcome me into some kind of formidable, rarefied fraternity.

I was lucky. And I was hooked.

7. Talk on Paper, Page After Page
“Pulp and Paper,” my debut collection of short stories thirteen years in the making, is coming out this fall. I’m thrilled, mainly, that these eight stories – six of which were published in literary journals over the years – will at last find a wider readership. I’m also relieved: that I can finally stop working on them. At long last, I am moving on to a novel.

As I make this transition, I find myself thinking of another extremely powerful essay I read years ago at Hopkins – a three-page brief by Betty S. Flowers, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin, entitled “Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge: Roles and the Writing Process.”

In it, Flowers identifies four different personas who come into the writing process sequentially. Writing begins with the madman, who brings ideas and energy to the page, uninhibited. Next comes the architect, who looks unsentimentally at the madman’s “wild scribblings,” selects a fraction, and arranges those nuggets into paragraphs. Along comes the carpenter, who nails the ideas together at the sentence level. Finally, in comes the judge, who inspects the work, critically.

Writers get tripped up, Flowers suggests, when their judge gets in the way of their madman.

“So start by promising your judge that you’ll get around to asking his opinion, but not now,” Flowers writes. “And then let the madman energy flow. Find what interests you in the topic, the question or emotion that it raises in you, and respond as you might to a friend – or an enemy. Talk on paper, page after page, and don’t stop to judge…”

To this day, it remains one of the most liberating things I’ve read about writing. And it’s always been perfectly suited for stories. I have never written an outline. Never plotted my stories in advance. I don’t do research until my characters teach me what I need to discover. I start with the madman’s creative spark – an image, a voice, a bit of dialogue, an emotion – and I see, over twenty-five or thirty pages, where it takes me.

Stories, for me, have always started in this fidgety, dodgy chaos. My privileged task now is to see if, over the length of an entire novel, I can force that chaos, calm to my will.

Bonus Link: Ten Things I’ve Learned over 12 Years of Sending Out Stories

 

Image of the author via Margaret Rolnick





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22 Responses to “My Life in Stories”

  1. Becky
    at 9:20 am on August 30, 2011

    I love this story – as a filmmaker and fellow in the pursuit of the creative, I really connect to the idea of “keep going.” And I love allowing the madman to shine through and to always be able to return to the core of inspiration that got you interested in whatever project or story into which you are pouring your soul. I think that is key, because, as Josh so adeptly points out, all creative pursuits are marathons of will and passion. Thanks for sharing your journey!

  2. Jacob
    at 1:01 pm on August 30, 2011

    There’s a lot to admire here, particularly your perseverance, and I look forward to reading your collection. But I also think there’s some potentially harmful advice here. First, the idea of “crowdsourcing” feedback from readers at literary journals. You don’t have to spend time at journals — but if you have, you know this is true — to understand that the readers there are usually overburdened with dozens or hundreds of stories to read at a time. Stories get rejected for all kinds of reasons — the reader is having a bad day; it’s the 5th story about sailors he’s read that week; it’s too long compared to what they usually publish; it’s too short; it got lost in the slush pile and was only read right before closing, thereby depriving it of a fair hearing; etc, etc. Valued readers — whether friends, partners, or teachers — are really the best source of feedback for unfinished work.

    Second, while it’s great that your story eventually got accepted again and led to good things, I think you did yourself and that journal a disservice by pulling your story. Rewards in the short story world are few, which is why literary journals, and those who submit to them, should treat each other with respect and trust. Besides that, all publications are good publications. You could’ve published that story and used that credit on future cover letters, possibly improving your chances of having stories accepted at other (and better publications). And that contact at that small DC-area journal could also have been fruitful. Instead, you seemed to side with the ascending-the-ladder paradigm, at least insofar as you thought you could “do better.” I understand the temptation, but I disagree with it.

    Anyway, I like a lot of what you wrote here. Writing short stories, particularly in the wilderness of anonymity, is tough. So, congratulations on your book! And good luck with the novel.

  3. Anna
    at 1:45 pm on August 30, 2011

    Josh — wonderful piece and very inspiring. I love the “PC+” notation and identify with your journey as a writer, especially not being fully conscious of the fact that you meant to be one. Thanks for sharing your insightful and honest thoughts.

  4. Eileen
    at 2:04 pm on August 30, 2011

    As a reader who has drunk with wonder and tears so much of your work – I applaud your ability and courage, and I look forward to Pulp & Paper. As a friend who loves you, I am so thrilled for you and your family. Can not wait to see you again my friend!

  5. Nick Mamatas
    at 7:31 pm on August 30, 2011

    With regards to Comment #2—it always struck me as peculiar that some writers believe that a credit listed on a cover letter increases the chances of subsequent publication. Unless one is a “big name” on some level—big enough to be called out on the cover—it hardly matters what one’s CV says. The important text is on the page of the story, not the cover letter.

  6. JJL
    at 7:39 pm on August 30, 2011

    As a zoologist and not a writer, I’m probably the only one who has read this essay and was most upset that he gave up on entomology based on an crappy intro class.

    The only entomologists I know that deal with pests and poisons are in the Ag College. My undergraduate adviser studied flour beetles as a model of resource dynamics and population growth.

  7. Josh Rolnick
    at 11:49 pm on August 30, 2011

    Thanks, everyone, for reading, and for commenting.
    Jacob, your points about crowdsourced feedback are well taken. I’ve been on the other side, as an editor reading through the slush pile (I was an assistant fiction edtior at the Iowa Review), and it’s absolutely true that not every story gets a fair reading. With so many unsolicited manuscripts and so few readers, the math is not on our side. But I’ve found, over time — particularly if you send out widely enough — the trickle of information you get back (check marks, sribbled encouragement, the periodic letter, etc.) turns out to be a useful guide. I’m not suggesting that we defer to those voices as writers, just that we tune our ears to them.
    I totally agree with you that when it comes to the inner workings of a story, trusted readers, teachers, mentors, etc. are the best source of feedback.
    And per JLL’s comment — all I can say is I still love bugs. I pulled my kids out of an Italian restaurant in Easton PA last night to see what I assume was a cicada killer wasp. Hanging out on the sidewalk. Biggest flying insect I’ve seen in a long time. Scary in the best possible way, just to stand near it.

  8. Barbara
    at 11:54 pm on August 30, 2011

    Why a novel now? You wrote so convincingly at the beginning of the piece that you wanted to write STORIES, that a novel was not your cup of tea…so why are you giving up stories for a novel?

  9. Rachel Kleinman
    at 1:09 am on August 31, 2011

    What a total inspiration, beautifully written as always.

  10. Tomes and Talismans
    at 6:21 pm on August 31, 2011

    I saw a cicada killer wasp for the first time on Monday. Same “cool”/”gross” reaction I would’ve felt at 10.

  11. Authentic Curiosity » Writing, writing, writing…
    at 7:55 pm on August 31, 2011

    [...] My Life in Stories – A poignant essay about the motivating force rejection often has on the rejected. [...]

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    at 7:24 am on September 2, 2011

    [...] How a rewrite man became an award-winning fiction writer. How often do you churn out copy—press releases, blog posts, articles—and question your career path? You think: I’m a fiction author at heart, not a business writer. But the road to literally success (or literally anything) seems long and unpaved, too costly, even impossible. If this is you, then Josh Rolnick should be your inspiration. In a piece for The Millions, he explains how he went from an AP rewrite man to a short-story writer fielding countless rejection notices to an MFA student bluffing his way into a book deal. [...]

  14. Mitch
    at 11:32 am on September 2, 2011

    Hold the phone. Are you telling us that for your entire writing career, you’ve been making simultaneous submissions?

    I’ve only switched from my dozens of failed novels to trying to write short stories in the last few years, and pretty much every journal, magazine and website I submit to is firm about not accepting simultaneous submissions. And yet the turnaround time on a single story is so agonisingly long that I’m starting to find it very tempting. I have one story I finished in 2009, which was rejected by three or four magazines (average response time, three months) before eventually being accepted by one in October 2010. It’s slated for publication in the Autumn 2011 edition of that magazine. From finish to publication, that’s two years.

    So… are simultaneous submissions really a faux-pas? Or do journals prefer for you not to make them in the same way that a plumber would prefer for you not to get another quote?

  15. Josh Rolnick
    at 8:30 pm on September 3, 2011

    Absolutely, Mitch — I’ve always made simultaneous suubmissions. I’ve actually found that most journals accept them. They just want to be notified immediately if a story is placed someplace else.
    I tend not to send to places that look down on simultaneous submissions. Given the long response time that you mention, I think it’s unreasonable to expect writers to send out their stories to one journal at a time. That’d be, what — four reads a year? You’d never have a chance.

  16. Stephen S. Power
    at 11:40 am on September 7, 2011

    As an editor, I loved your story, especially your impromptu pitch to your agent. As an editor of nonfiction, I’m dismayed that I couldn’t publish such a novel. Because that is a fantastic idea with a striking image for the cover that screams “book club.”

    It’s inspired me to consider something. Maybe I shouldn’t be buying ideas or mss or author’s platforms. I should be buying cover images. If one isn’t immediately suggested by a topic, maybe the book will be too tough to sell in to stores and for the stores to sell to readers. Hmm.

  17. Stephen S. Power
    at 3:13 pm on September 26, 2011

    OK, forgive me for obsessing about this story idea, but have you ever heard of Herman Melville’s The Isle of the Cross? Smithsonian recently named it one of the “Top 10 Books Lost to History.” Here’s there summary:

    “On a trip to Nantucket in July 1852, Herman Melville was told the tragic story of Agatha Hatch— the daughter of a lighthouse keeper who saved a shipwrecked sailor named James Robertson, then married him, only later to be abandoned by him.

    “The tale would serve as inspiration for a manuscript titled The Isle of the Cross, which Melville presented to Harper & Brothers in 1853. But the publisher, for reasons unknown, turned it down. And no copy of the manuscript has ever been found. In an essay in a 1990 issue of the journal American Literature, Hershel Parker, a biographer of Melville’s, claims, ‘The most plausible suggestion is that the Harpers feared that their firm would be criminally liable if anyone recognized the originals of the characters in The Isle of the Cross.’”

    That’s your story! Just replace woman at lighthouse saving a man, with man at saving station saving a woman, and go.

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  19. Hershel Parker
    at 11:22 pm on October 9, 2011

    Stephen, ever since Merrell R. Davis and William H. Gilman published Melville’s LETTERS in 1960 we had known for sure that Melville finished a now-lost book in the spring of 1853. He still had it in November of that year. In 1987 I discovered the actual or closely approximate date of completion, 22 May 1853, and the title, THE ISLE OF THE CROSS. Three people who cared very much to hear this news were still alive, Hayford, Sealts, and (in his last illness) Leyda. Imagine how moved they were to hear the title, especially Hayford, who had worked on the Agatha material in 1946.

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