The first story I ever had any success with was just published, four years after I wrote it. You can read it here. Here’s the story behind that story.
I first had the initial inkling for that story in 2004, not long after I found my way back to writing. It was just an image. I’d been planting tulips. I thought more about how clever I could be with this image, but had no idea what kind of plot or character would go with it, so I never started. Clever is not a starting point. Eventually, I forgot about it.
In 2011, I was in a writing rut. I’d been rejected by an MFA program. I’d turned in my best work, and it wasn’t good enough. I’d told everyone about how I was going to be pursuing a Masters degree in Creative Writing, perhaps as my own way of trying to say “I am a writer! Take me seriously!” and now I hadn’t gotten in. I wasn’t writing. I wasn’t sure if I was up for writing. The MFA people said “Apply again” but I wasn’t sure I was going to. I mean, what was the point? Clearly, I sucked.
Dispirited, I took a writing practice class in the spring with Sarah Selecky. I almost didn’t take the class, because I sucked, but it got me jazzed up on writing again. Perhaps I did not suck. I wrote a story for her class–not this story, another one. I wanted to take another class. Sarah wasn’t teaching that summer, but instead passed over her online class to Matthew J. Trafford, and so I took his class. I needed to come up with another story and suddenly I remembered tulip bulbs.
I still had no idea what the story was going to be about when I wrote it. I just wrote it. It surprised me. Matthew made a number of positive comments about the story and suggested a restructuring. I hated restructuring stories (what, they don’t just come out perfect?) but I ran with it and it worked. I used that story and the other story I wrote for Sarah’s class to re-apply to the MFA program. I got in.
I sent the story to The Star short story contest. I made a resolution to write a new story every month and send it to a friend of mine. I made plans for what I was going to do with my winnings from the contest. I wrote nothing. I did not win. New rut.
But I got an email from Jessica Westhead, who had been a judge for the contest, saying that she had loved my story, but consensus, taste, blah, blah. I spent the next hour running around my apartment repeating “Jessica Westhead likes my story” to myself.
I started the MFA program, having published nothing, and faced a class where it seemed like everyone had a huge writing CV. I re-read Jessica’s email. I got up the nerve to ask her about working with me and with her help refined it a little more.
I sent that story around to a dozen places. I collected a dozen rejections. I decided it was done, it sucked, there was no point in sending it anywhere else. Clearly, I sucked. I put it away. Months passed. I pulled it out again, looked at it again. Everyone hated it, but I still liked it. Jessica had liked it. I sent it back out to a dozen more places. I collected a dozen more rejections. Put it away. Pull it out again. Collect more rejections. I sucked.
The other story I had written got published. My first publication. Other work I wrote got published. I had a play produced. Maybe I didn’t entirely suck. But this story was being rejected left, right and centre. Put it away. Pull it out again. Was there something wrong with me that I still liked this story that everyone hated? Was this hubris? Collect more rejections.
A few places gave me some feedback on the story. Conflicting feedback. One said it was too on the nose. One said it was too subtle. One gave me gardening advice.
I emailed Jessica. “Everyone hates this story but you!” She reminded me about persistence and taste. I stopped putting it away and kept putting it out there. Collect more rejections. Collect more rejections. Collect more rejections.
And then, four years and perhaps forty rejections later–we would like to publish your story.
I would like to say that I am now a supremely confident writer who has complete faith in everything I write. This is not true. This will never be true. Over and over again.