I Smell Cigar Smoke

Hey kids,

This is the close-but-no-cigar, always-a-bridesmaid-never-a-bride post.

I’ve gotten really nice personal rejections from places like ZYZZYVA and I just received a tiered rejection from The New Yorker, which I was overjoyed about when one considers that they don’t even respond to something like 70-80% of their slushpile submissions. I’ve been a semi-finalist for three major contests. Slowly, my publication and accolade list is less and less resembling the wastelands outside Night Vale.

Of course, this is balanced against the dozens of nearly wordless form rejections. But nevermind those. They’re not the ones that throw me off my game.

Emily Hahn smoking a cigar in 1964.
Emily Hahn smoking a cigar in 1964.

It’s the almosts. It’s the 300+ day rejections that made it through three reads and onto the final editor’s desk. It’s those yellow envelopes and emails that come with a hint of cigar smoke and no cigar.

I know it shouldn’t matter, that those should be the ones that make me think, YES, I’ve got this, and push harder. But they’re not. They’re the ones that make me think that maybe I’m not actually good enough at all.

I think of it as smart kid syndrome. You can coast for a really long time with minimal work by just being smart. Writing is the first thing that I’ve really applied myself to long after it stopped being easy, long after I had to put in actual work to be good. And for that effort to feel wasted, to still not be good enough, that’s the hammer.

The best description of writer’s block I’ve ever heard came from Dan Harmon who said all it is is the gap between how good you are and how good you want to be and the only way to bridge that gap is to prove yourself right. You’re a shit writer and you’ll never be amazing. Prove it. Write shitty. Because writing shitty is the only way you get to where you want to be.

And I have to remind myself of that every time one of those close calls come rolling in. Because they’re the reminder of that gap, of how much more work I need to put in to build that bridge. Because no one’s wandering around handing out cigars. You have to make those fuckers by hand out in the hot sun.

So hey, let’s get rolling.

Year Two: COMPLETE

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My empty office, which will be torn down this summer.
Reading my short story,
Reading my short story, “Those Peculiar Galaxies” for UNH’s Graduate Research Conference

My second year of my MFA is over (in case you weren’t able to pick that up from context clues in the title of this post.) There’s one more semester left, another writing workshop, a form & technique class focusing on putting together a story collection through the lens of recent successful collections, like Kyle Minor’s Praying Drunk and Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn, among others, as well as teaching another section of freshman composition.

This summer will be spent, between feminist science fiction conventions (Wiscon!) and Quaker-Marxist weddings, putting together my thesis, that collection of short stories that’s supposed to prove I learned something here, or that, at the least, I was productive at putting words on a page. It’s actually pretty close to done already—125 pages of the required 150, so my main goal is to get everything in order and write another two stories.

One, I already know and have started. The other, I know what story I want to write. The question is, can I figure it out, make it compelling, and not feel contrived—it needs to do a lot of things, first and foremost, fulfill all that was promised by the opening story and echo and illuminate everything that was built in the subsequent stories. Tall order for a story of whose shape I only have the fuzziest shadow.

Dorm life is caput.
Dorm life is caput.

And so I look forward to a new semester in the fall in a new office, teaching a new batch of freaked-out freshmen, in a new apartment somewhere around seacoast New Hampshire with a whole new host of weird issues to contend with. It’s almost as if two years isn’t really long enough for an MFA, but simultaneously, I can’t wait to be done. Some chapters are short, some are not?

Ultimately, it’s that odd combination of end-of-a-good-book sad and end-of-a-good-book excitement, and I’m trying to savor the end of said good book, but I’m already starting to think about what book to read next.

AWP = Actual Writer People

I helped staff the Barnstorm table at this year’s AWP conference in Minneapolis this past week. It was my first professional conference.

Whew.

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Let me judge you over the top of my glasses.

I think the main takeaway isn’t what anyone told me it would be. Yes, I “networked,” whatever the fuck that means. Yes, I discovered the sweet spot in the rhetorical triangle between sleep, booze, and panels. Yes, I attended panels about publishing and rejection and craft. And sure, I learned some things, but nothing revolutionary, nothing that left me with this surge of creative inspiration propelling me home in a whirlwind of story ideas and renewed dedication to my craft.

No, it was just being in a place with a lot of people who love the things I love that did that. It wasn’t anything anyone said or anything I saw. It was just this unspoken vibe of community. I imagine this is what families feel when they get together or class reunions or Sunday church-goers. This sense of shared experience, this collectivism, for lack of a better word. We spend so much time, or at least I do, in this very solitary pursuit, writing at strange hours alone, fielding submissions and rejections through impersonal guidelines and cryptic dismissals, and it’s easy to forget that there’s a whole world of people out there doing the same things, loving the same things, trying to connect us all together.

Not that I’m also not discouraged as well, spending four days surrounded by 12000 people who are also trying to do what I do, who hunger for triumph and success as much as I do.

Trust me, there were a lot of Highlander—there can be only one—jokes bandied about. Luckily none of the writers brought swords.

You didn’t think a post about AWP was going to be all hugs and snuggles, did you?

Lloyd Reginald Rigby

My first story, “Punchline Number Nine” is now up in the latest issue of decomP magazinE. Read it. Or listen to an oddly, extra-bassy me read it to you. It takes eighteen minutes. It took hours and hours to write and revise. Think of the time compression. Think of how dense an experience it is that you’re digesting. Reading a story is, by this analogy, one of the richest experiences. Like the difference between a thousand calories of kale versus a thousand calories of cake. Same calories, but cake is the dense story of the two. Have some cake. You deserve it.

The Punchline is I Got Published

I’m excited to announce my story, “Punchline Number Nine” will appear in the February edition of decomP magazinE. I’ll also be recording an audio version of the story for them this week as well.

This is my first official publication since I started down this path in earnest and not too shabby for the third story I ever wrote, though it’s been heavily revised since that first rough draft tumbled its way out of me back in the spring of 2012.

"Transam Bird" by Russ Pekkonen
“Transam Bird” by Russ Pekkonen

Who knew, back then, that my little faux-noir story of a recovering alcoholic subpoena process server driving around in a beast of a TransAM looking for his artist ex-girlfriend would be my first publication?

I’ll update later when it’s live and you can see the beaut. Right now, I have to go update my CV and publications page and my Submittable bio.

As my son said, I’m playing on the pro courts now.

When Losing Is Winning

I did not win the 2014 Missouri Review’s Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. Nope. Lost! DID NOT WIN. But I was so excited about the results I told everyone, jumped around (figuratively), and had such a goddamn big smile on my face, that four more rejections that week did little to scuff my shine because I was a semifinalist. Which means I was in the top 25, that elite 1% of stories that made it to the final rounds. Holy hell.

Early in your writing career, the reward system of your brain gets rewired. We face so much rejection that even the tiniest wins seem monstrous achievements. We might break our legs over and over trying to ascend Everest and almost die of exposure, but you should see us dance when we actually step up a curb without falling on our asses.

We check RejectionWiki for the slightest chance that we got a higher-tier form rejection letter, something our published advisors have said is like trying to read fortunes in tea leaves. We brag to our fellow writers about that Raiders of the Lost Ark golden idol of a personal rejection—sure we lost to some pompous prick and were almost killed by Amazonians, but by golly, someone fucking noticed us.

So sure, I lost the contest and had stories rejected almost 40 times last year, but this time, this time, that Pavlovian response of dopamine is mine and I’m going to savor that son of a bitch.

Summer Submission Sadness

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.

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 iftumblr_n85dcx1caB1qhyj0po1_1280 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.

How to Waste Time and Piss Everyone Off

Regarding portrayals of women in fiction, Junot Diaz said, “Unless you are actively, consciously working against the gravitational pull of the culture, you will predictably, thematically, create these sort of fucked-up representations.” If you’re not actively subverting the sexist/racist/homophobic status quo of our culture, you’re likely reinforcing it. And it’s the duty of any writer worth their salt to do so. Subvert, transform, transmute the shit of our culture into gold. And it’s hard work and it’s not easy. There’s a fine line between accurately representing a racist culture and reinforcing that racism. Just ask Dave Chappelle. One of the advantages of a workshop-centric MFA program is that you have the opportunity to learn these lessons before you start putting your sexist/racist/etc stories out into the world.

A few weeks ago, a to-remain-nameless writer in our program wrote a story in which there was a borderline racist portrayal of a character. (The only black character in the story is the one with all of the problems; everyone else in the story are white saviors. Oh, and her skin is described using food terms.)

So we spend—at the most—five minutes saying that yeah, that’s problematic, when you write about marginalized groups, you have to be careful not to stereotype, do your research, avoid racist tropes, maybe read Writing the Other, et cetera. You know, general helpful things that any aspiring writer should know before sticking their uneducated, privileged, white foot in their mouth.

Fast forward to aforementioned writer’s next story. Universally panned as a terrible: the plot is incoherent and illogical and there is no arc nor character development. There are no physical descriptions of people, nor are there any gender pronouns (which could have been a great experiment but hang on—), because all of the characters are only described as food items and their behavior never stretched beyond their food moniker. (For instance, a nice and sweet character would be named after a candy bar, that sort of shortcut.) We are baffled by the story and the writer’s general incompetence.

The writer informs us later, after we’d workshopped it, trying our damnedest to find something constructive to say, something to salvage in this trainwreck of a story, that the whole thing was basically a fuck-you to our workshop for “wasting twenty minutes harping on” their black character in the previous story. A childish “Oh you don’t like that I described someone as food . . . I’ll describe everyone as food!” retaliation. Needless to say, everyone was pissed that this writer would waste our time in such a way, wasting a precious workshop opportunity on what’s basically a 101-level, getting-called-out-on-your-racism, temper-tantrum.

Want to piss off your entire workshop, the community of writers whose support, advice, insight, et cetera, et cetera, you’re paying an ungodly amount of money for? Want to take a big steaming dump on an opportunity to learn, to grow, to avoid filling the world with more racist bullshit? This is how you do it.