Friday, December 12, 2014


(He must have died while dictating it.)

A really, really nice rejection note I got today on a story I really, really cared about. For no particular reason, I will take the name of the journal out.:

Thank you so much for submitting "Savage, Maryland" to ______. Though the piece received many favorable comments, it was not selected for publication in the upcoming issue. However, we all admire your writing and sincerely hope you will submit to future volumes. On a personal note, I once lived in Howard County (western side—Highland/Fulton) and have been on the quarry trails, so your piece was especially evocative to me. You drew this setting beautifully.

God. Damn. It. It's a really nice note, and with that level of specificity, there's no chance this is a "fake personal rejection." They really liked it. They just had more good stuff than they could fit. Fuck me.

It occurs to me that one thing that compelled me to start writing again was that I had some things inside of me I really had to get out. But I don't want to just put them on a page for my own personal catharsis. I want to share them, because some of them I really love. I want to give them away. That's how I felt about "American as Berbere," the one that did get published. There are a few more I really love and just want to find an audience. This is my third "encouraging rejection" in three months. I should be encouraged, but right now I just feel empty. If I am making pro-cons lists of whether to keep up this effort of writing, this deflated feeling right now of almost having found a home for this story is in the con column. I am not an indefatigably chipper person. If you tell me no enough times, I will stop asking. I'm really low right now. Which is not how I should feel after someone just said such really nice things about a story I wrote. Shit. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

I probably don't write "literary fiction," part II

I never really loved writers who are virtuosos, whose art and language literally ARE the story.  I don't particularly love Joyce or Faulkner. Or Henry James. Or Nabokov. I feel like I love some writers that are great writers: Melville, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Marquez, Borges, and Vonnegut probably top my list. All of these had virtuoso moments, especially Shakespeare, I suppose. But only Marquez really wrote stories that you couldn't do a reasonable job of summarizing in words other than those used in the original. You'd get something far more banal, of course, if you summarized Ahab getting oaths out of the crew or Hamlet's soliloquy in other words than the original, but you'd at least have the right idea. You can't say that of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Ulysses. 

This is almost a litmus test for me of what I want to read. Saying I don't love art for art's sake isn't really true and isn't the whole idea. I love Monty Python for loving silliness for its own sake, why shouldn't I love something beautiful that is beautiful just to be beautiful? But I do prefer it when I have a feeling that somebody was compelled to write a story because of something she cared about, something she discovered she had to incarnate in characters to get out, rather than feeling someone just started with something that began on the page and grew from there.

I don't really love writing. I love things in the world, and writing is a tool I have tried to use to get others to love them, too. I realize that this doesn't make anything I write worth reading. Earnestness and sincerity, as Harold Bloom told us, are the sole constants among all bad poets. I could write a story that said "Humans are very precious and dear, even those who don't seem like it, like this person Bob who everyone hated but really had so much to give." It wouldn't be good. It hurt just to write.

I'm not sure I have the mindset and discipline to write something that is good enough. I think I'm a good reader, and that made me want to be a good writer, but maybe what I should really do is be inspired by what I read to do something.

By my count, I have eight more outstanding stories waiting for a yes or a no. One more yes, and I'll keep trying. 0 for 8 and I'm done. I'm just trying to work out here for myself why I really should just let it go if and when that last rejection comes. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Barring unforeseen events, I quit (again)

In spite of the boundless optimism of most people that their lives are great stories, there are few things in the world less interesting than biography. So I apologize for dumping a paragraph or two of it into this space.

At one point in my buoyant mid-twenties, I wrote a life "mission statement" a la Jerry Maguire, in which I declared something like "anyone can have kids, but writing great literature is truly rare and much more difficult, so I will not apologize if I fail to raise children on the way to writing great literature--or even just trying to." I spent the next several years of my life living like I meant that--not doing much that would have moved me in the direction of starting a family (heck, I even got divorced, so I was going backwards on that front for a while). The jobs I worked were all subsistence and I quit them all when they began to vex me. I went to graduate school and accrued a great deal of debt that I have still not paid much of 11 years later. The only thing I didn't do was write great literature.

I got tired of that at some point after taking another hand out from my parents or brother or sister or whoever. So I decided to put away childish things. I gave up writing as soon as I got my M.A., got a real job, started a family, and did not look back.

Writing again was sort of just a thing that happened. I have a friend with a giant Civil War beard. He says he decided one day not to shave for a while and just kept going for a year. That's kind of how this project came about for me. I started writing again one day, read some books on how to do it better, wrote some more, read some more, sent some stuff in, and here I am.

It was really fun getting one of my stories published. Since then, I've had two "encouraging rejections" along with plenty of the regular kind. Today, I just kind of felt the way I felt when I decided I had taken one too many hand-outs. I want to get back to real work. I utterly reject that statement I made in my twenties. If it meant the difference between my son or daughter's happiness, I'd give up writing a thousand Moby Dicks. My life is calling to me with responsibilities, and I am not bright enough to apply the mental energy to those as well as writing. I choose the life responsibilities.

Many writers say they write because they feel they have no choice. I am glad I do not feel this way. I write because I want to, and now I no longer want to.

In the off chance anyone stumbles on this blog one day via Google, here is my only writing wisdom for you: do not spend the money to go to grad school in writing. Not unless the school is giving it to you for free, along with a stipend. It does not guarantee, or even significantly improve, your odds at becoming a successful (money-wise) writer. You will accrue debt. You will have few options for careers but teaching at colleges, probably as an adjunct, which has a low wage and poor benefits. You may get small breaks with small presses from your contacts, but they will pay very little. You will have paid a handsome fee to join an overly glutted field.

Instead, do what few writing programs have you do: buy a book on how to write. Buy two. Buy ten. Read them. Do the activities and prompts, or at least a few of them. Write. If you can find a good reader to help you for free, that is best. If not, pay for it with a literary service. It's 150 bucks or so, which is 1% of where you'll be in the hole after grad school.

I'll see if any of the stories I've already submitted get a bite. But I'm not submitting anything new.

It occurs to me that the only story I broke through with was about the people I love, the people I have tried to help. That must mean something. I'm going to focus on those people.