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
In my Akron, Ohio, home office, I have a square certificate hung in a clear plastic frame:
Certificate of Award
This Certifies that
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?
I’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.
In 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.
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.
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.
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.
Image of the author via Margaret Rolnick