Primarily my summer writing projects have been editing and submitting stories from earlier this year and last year. Most of the markets for literary fiction are closed during the summer, so my options for submission are limited until September. Which is good if I’m trying to avoid rejection letters, like yesterday’s Paris Review form letter. I send out to these long shots, knowing it’s unlikely I’ll get picked out of the slush pile, but it still hurts a little when the rejection comes through. I’m also making the decision to only submit to venues that pay. For some reason, literary fiction writers are expected to publish for free, for exposure, for the publishing credit, rather than get paid early in their career. Having spent enough time in the graphic design/art world, where this is also a prevalent expectation, I can assure you it’s also some bullshit.
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The Last Box of Candy Canes
For Throwback Thursday, I’m posting an in-class assignment from my sophomore year of high school creative writing class. It’s about the last box of candy canes left on the shelf after Christmas, narrated by a broken candy cane.
Sitting here, strapped into a cardboard cell, I suffer. I sit alone, waiting for my destiny. My pride and self are broken, similarly with my cellmates. My captors hold me for ransom just to make a buck, constantly marking me down, as if my life is worthless the more I suffer.
I lie here, unable to communicate, longing for an escape back to freedom. Many other cells of my companions have been rescued in what appeared to be a raid. I sit and wonder why my friends haven’t come back for me. I wonder of their fate, and pray that mine is a long-lived one.
Weeks, I sit and wait. Many times, people have the chance to rescue me, but they don’t. I wonder what harsh evilness is hidden in their heart that would make them turn away in disgust, and not help and injured being and his friends.
Finally my cell is moved one day. We are placed in a dark pit. Many hours pass. I wonder if I am being rescued or if this is an execution. The pit closes. The air runs low. I pray that this is not my destiny, to suffocate in a large bag. I wonder if this was the fate of the many other cells of my companions who were “rescued.”
But as I take my last final breath, I realize I will never know.
You’re about to be schooled. Fictionally.
This fall I’m going to be teaching an undergraduate class, an introduction to fiction writing. Which is a whole new level of badassery I can barely understand nor contain. There’s a tiny part of me that still squeaks, “Who the hell are you to teach anyone anything about writing!” I don’t listen to that voice much. Mostly because it’s like the one guy who says something sarcastic when the room is the loudest because he doesn’t think anyone else can hear him. I should know. I’m that guy.
The rest of me is ridiculously excited and has been planning a syllabus in my head since I got the news. It is amazing how night-and-day my attitude to teaching fiction is compared to teaching composition. I realize I give zero shits about composition and rhetoric. Maybe I don’t appreciate it because it’s something I’ve always been pretty good at, whereas with fiction, it’s something I love that I’ve had to work spine-crushingly hard at to get where I am. Maybe it’s ego, maybe it’s love, maybe it’s Maybelline.
But yeah. I’m going to be teaching fiction writing. I’m going to be constructing my own canon. I get to decide what to teach, what stories get read, showcase what I think is important about literature and storytelling.
Shit, I just scared myself.
You should get a kick out of this tumblr about being in an MFA fiction workshop. It’s got funny doozies like:
YOU NAIL THE PERFECT OPENING SENTENCE AND THEN…
The Ultimate in Refinement
If I understand this correctly, for some writers, the revision process is like a dog eating its own poop. Because there’s still nutrients in it. So then they poop out an even more refined poop. And the dog will keep doing it until there’s nothing left to get out of the poop or until its master tells it to stop. That master is publication. That’s when you stop eating the poop.
This also sheds an interesting light on literary critics, who would then be likened to scientists who use the microscopes and mass spectrometers of literary theory to figure out what the poop is made of.
Another rejection with the lowest level of rejection letters. And my returned manuscript? Didn’t even look like it had been touched, just slipped from one envelope into another. Harrumph.
Have you played BANG!? It’s a great game. Get it, play it.
The point of this post isn’t to advertise BANG! In the game, there’s a Dynamite card. When you play it, it circles from player to player until it explodes and yes, there is the possibility that it will explode on you. There is a danger in playing the card. It’s gambling.
And as I sent out five submissions last week, I realized sending out a submission is like playing the Dynamite card. If it explodes on another player, you win. Your submission gets accepted. But there’s a chance it will explode on you, and that’s the rejection. Submissions are like little bombs you send yourself. We’re very very likely, especially early in our careers to blow ourselves up. We’re shitty bombmakers.
But if we’re lucky…
This is how it ends.
I’ve come to realize that I have a hard time writing stories past the epiphany. Once the epiphany is there, I don’t care anymore; I don’t want a couple paragraphs of denouement. That feels more forced and writerly than anything. I’ve been told my stories end abruptly. And often they do.
I tend to write stories that are puzzles, stories where there are things to be figured out, problems to solve, mysteries hidden, under the surface stuff. Punchline things. The thing you lost is always in the last place you looked, because you found it. Why would you keep looking afterward?
I was told that for a while, in the 80’s, writing the perfect last epiphanic line was the soup de jour. Too bad I wasn’t writing short stories when I was six.
That’s a compliment, right?
In my latest workshop, my story got probably the best compliment to date. One of my cohort said that if I were an established author and people read my work with more weight, then it would be great. And it is great, but that without the gravitas of being a published writer, people might mistake what I did as amateurish or inauthentic characterization.
Which is both awesome and depressing. I do write as if people are reading me with the proper weight and attention. What do I do? Change the way I write until I have gravitas and respect and then write what I want? Open all my stories with “Ok, kids, put away your phone and pay attention. I’m not fucking around here”? Wait for some middling slushpile reader who’s bored to death skimming shitty stories to accidentally pay attention to what I’m doing, to what’s going on in the story?
So on one hand, I’m apparently doing some really great work. On the other, I’m being told that no one’s going to notice because I’m too early in my career. Big present, small package. Lightweight getting dismissed at the heavyweight bout.
Did Hemingway have to write some straight-forward, non-iceberg stories to get some respect and recognition before he could pull off the feat of “Hills Like White Elephants”?
It’s frustrating, y’all. Is it a failure of my writing or my audience? Of course I tend to lean toward it being the writing. Carl Jung said something along the lines that the value of a message isn’t in the message itself but in the ability to communicate it clearly. It doesn’t matter how profound something is if you can’t communicate it to someone else. So in that, am I failing?
A story was rejected yesterday. I’ve had three or four rejections in the last few weeks. I haven’t been submitting long, and I know this is par for the course, but it doesn’t make it any easier.
A bunch of my cohort had dinner with the well-known writer who came for the writer’s series of readings. He gave us a lot of advice about starting out and advised that we shouldn’t even worry about submitting right now, that we’re not ready, that we should be first and foremost honing our craft. He even suggested that we take some time after we finish our MFA before we really get serious, to let those lessons settle in and find your center as a writer. I don’t think that advice is for me. And after one semester, there’s a tiny part of me that’s worrying that this MFA isn’t going to teach me much I don’t already know.
At the end of last spring, I was riding pretty high. I had been accepted into half of the MFA programs I applied to, my senior thesis, a short story collection, won two $1000 awards—the department’s fiction thesis prize and an excellence award. I finished off the semester with two of the strongest stories I’d ever written and things looked good.
But now, it’s almost the end of my first semester of grad school, I’ve had nothing but rejections (though one story was a semi-finalist in a contest) and the last story I wrote is probably the weakest story I’ve ever written, and I’m fearing that I won’t get much out of the MFA. I’m feeling pretty low at the moment and could really use a win. You listening, Universe?
On the other hand, I know that the quality of work tends to dip at the start of an MFA because of the soul-shifting that results from a new place, new people, new methods, new influences, and new pressures. I know that eight bazillion publishers rejected J.K. Rowling and Dr. Seuss and everyone who’s crazy famous now. I know all these things, but those things are no bandage on the little wound of they-don’t-like-me-I-suck festering on my heart.