Archive | October, 2012

Bygone Era

31 Oct


There was a time when I lived on two eggs and a baked potato a day. It was a real loser time for me, a time of roach clips and resin and shivering and sweating and discount grain alcohol and unspeakable depression. My girlfriend of two years had broken up with me over a can of Pepsi while swinging from a swing set in her mother’s backyard. “You can’t love me like I need to be loved,” she had said, and the next day she drove me to Pittsburgh and unceremoniously deposited me on my best friend’s doorstep, like an animal she wished to abandon, and that was that.

I was 26 years old and working in a grocery store for minimum wage–at that time, five-fifteen an hour. In an act of charity which I am still paying off, my best friend had invited me to sleep and write in his basement, providing I help with some of the bills. It was not a nice basement. It was a bunker, a hovel. There was a drain in the floor that I pissed in. A single hanging light bulb. Cockroaches crawled on me as I slept. I will go to my grave believing that the two years I spent swatting spiders and gulping Radon in that rancid basement shaved at least ten years off the tail end of my life.

I mention this not to be cute or to prove my street cred as a starving artist–although, if anyone wants to throw down on a better claim to poverty, I will see your Ramen noodles and raise you a baked potato–but to make a larger point about the process of publishing stories in 2012. You see, back then, if I wanted to submit work to a magazine, I had to walk to the Post Office, pull on the door, and convince a human to sell me a coil of stamps. I had to draft personalized cover letters, do research as to which editors were working where, the sorts of stories they favored. I had to allocate my funds judiciously and draconianly, and make decisions between envelopes and food.

Third Coast, and many journals like it, no longer accept “snail mail” submissions. Nifty electronic submission managers like Submittable, once a taboo concept in publishing, are the norm. Now all you have to do is upload a document into a database and press Send. The process takes no longer than a minute and a half. Cover letters are optional. So is crossing your fingers. You can log into the system and monitor the status of your submission at your leisure. And when the inevitable rejection arrives, it comes via email, and is often detected as spam; and the whole experience seems weightless and somehow machinelike to me, a correspondence dreamed up out of the ether.

A nice family lives in that house now–young professionals with kids and dogs and flower boxes in the windows. I imagine them putting their children to sleep, reading them stories in rooms lit by Ikea lamps and draped in roller-coaster wallpaper, never knowing the caliber of riffraff that once crept around in their house after midnight; the things I did, and ate, to survive. Sometimes, while walking home from the bar, I will pass by the house and peer in through the basement windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of something I might have left behind, a relic to connect me with that part of myself, but the house is always dark, and the flowers obscure my view.


Top Hats and Monocles

29 Oct

Every writer dreams of being published in The New Yorker. It is, one can argue, the Shangri-La of American Letters, a kind of nebulous dreamworld where mediocre writers will occasionally gain entry, and from which, by joyous choice, none ever returns.

Perhaps it is the seduction of the magazine’s aesthetic pedigree; the stupid fantasy of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with spectral figures like J.D. Salinger and Vladimir Nabokov; the prestige of overcoming the magazine’s legendary selectivity; and the rather practical effects an acceptance from The New Yorker can have on one’s career.

Of course, the dirty, open secret of writers and readers alike, is that for a number of years the stories published by The New Yorker have been not very good. Far better fiction is routinely found in the pages of Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, Conjunctions, McSweeney’s, and even Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Still the magazine–and its master image, a dandy in a top hat viewing a butterfly through a monocle, often incorrectly attributed to Al Hirschfeld–contains an unmistakably sexy allure, even though the only truly unique content that The New Yorker provides anymore is the cartoons.

The New Yorker is the first magazine I ever submitted work to–not because my writing style was suited to the magazine (spoiler: it wasn’t) but simply because it was the most obvious and famous destination for a short story. I was 17 and without a clue as to where to direct my fiction, and the absolute certainty of rejection insulated me from the cold, naked truth, that my work was not very good. I have continued this practice, each time my work goes out on submission, as a kind of sentimental gesture, but also for the sheer thrill of the gamble, for the pencil-thin possibility that maybe, just maybe, my work will find its way into an editor’s good graces, and then I can retire to my paradise, stop screaming at the world from down here in the weeds.

I have so many of these crisp-cornered, cream-colored cards, that I use them as bookmarks; and I have been known to send them to friends and relatives on their birthdays, with humorous messages scribbled on the back, in lieu of a greeting card.


25 Oct

I thought Alaska Quarterly Review would like this piece because of its decidedly nautical tilt, but in the end I think the story was just too political and odd to be a good fit.

Here we see that the editor wrote the name of the story at the top of the rejection form, and a brief note of thanks at the bottom. This sort of personal touch makes a rejection much easier to swallow; it shows that the story was considered by a living, breathing human, and creates in the writer a feeling that he/she is not merely firing stories out of a cannon and into a vast, nameless, inorganic and unforgiving ocean.

Santa Classy

24 Oct

A very classy rejection letter. Speaks for itself:

January 10, 2009

Dear Martin Slag,

Thank you for submitting to the Santa Clara Review. After much consideration, we regret to inform you that your piece, “Jevon’s Paradox,” has not been accepted in the upcoming issue. Inundated with so many incredible stories, poems, and art, we are forced to select only a handful of pieces each round. We acknowledge and respect the courage it takes to send out your work and are grateful to you for considering the Santa Clara Review. Know that though your piece will not be in the next issue, our staff always welcomes your submissions and hopes to continue to receive your work.

Thank you for your support of the Santa Clara Review.



Cantie Nguyen

Fiction Editor

Nice letterhead, too.


23 Oct

She poured herself another glass of wine and watched me as I sat on the floor sifting through my little wooden box of staggering failure.

“Can’t you just relax?” she said. It is a question I am asked often.

“I am relaxed. This is me relaxing.” And I took a swig of vodka, to prove it.

“Can I ask you a question? And I don’t mean to sound bitchy or condescending. But that is a lot of rejection letters. I mean … how do you see that every day and keep writing? What keeps you going?”

The truth is, I’d never really thought about it. But I wanted to answer her question as best I could. So I told her that the process of submitting manuscripts for publication involves, necessarily, an element of delusion. Delusion–because to believe in one’s talent, in the face of such strong evidence to the contrary, requires a Herculean effort of denial, a miracle of mental gymnastics. Delusion, and not persistence, is the key to success in the Arts.

But then, one must also understand–rightly, sanely–that this is all a part of the game. This box of papers, this crate that used to hold Spanish oranges, now stacked with sharp-edged letters–this is all in the game. This is normal. This is Good. This is how it happens. Rejection is the fuel that feeds the engine of the short story market; it is what separates the gold from the sand; it is a kind of self-cleaning, perpetual-motion machine, because if everyone’s a writer, no one is. Stephen King was probably rejected four times as much as me.

Or so I tell myself. Again: not persistence, but delusion.

I want to tell her that a real writer, a capital-W Writer, will not stop writing no matter how many pink slips he/she gets in the mail. But that would not be the truth. Because, the truth is, I am addicted to my writing as surely as she is addicted to her wine. I don’t write out of some heightened insight into the human condition. I write because it passes the time. I don’t stop because I can’t stop. It is a compulsion, not unlike touching the bedroom mirror fifty-seven times before going to sleep, or combing the frill of an Oriental rug at three in the morning. It is the sickness that makes one well.

She finished her bottle of wine and dipped into my vodka and ended up barfing all over my bathroom. I put her to bed and was alone with my letters until I crawled into bed around 3. And I knew, when I woke in the morning to an empty bedroom, that the box of anonymous letters, the evidence of my continued failure, would be waiting for me where I left it.

good work tho

19 Oct

The first thing you will notice, when holding this rejection letter in your hands, is the quality of paper it’s printed on–good, heavy white bond paper, the kind you use for a resume.

And then, the vivid crimson color of the iconic Esquire logo, soaked into the paper like blood.

Then the blue ink, straight from an editor’s pen, which reads:

good work tho not right for us. good luck placing it.

Re: Revolver

“Revolver” is the name of the story I submitted.

“Though” has been unnecessarily truncated.

Words that should be capitalized, have not been capitalized.

I remember distinctly the day I received this. It was raining, and I was walking to the liquor store to get my breakfast, and there was a letter in the mail from Esquire. The envelope contained weight–a good sign. I stuffed the envelope with its potentially life-altering contents in my jacket pocket and kept it there as I browsed the aisles for the finest vodka not bottled in plastic. Then I returned home with my purchase and ripped open the letter.

Ordinarily I would be thrilled to receive a personalized response (from an editor at Esquire, no less!) with a generous note of encouragement: good work. But on this occasion, all I felt was dread and despair. Because at the end of the day, I did not make the sale. I was 28 years old, probably an alcoholic, I was losing my girlfriend, losing my hair, losing my life, and what I really needed right now was a sale. I had been writing and submitting stories for ten years, and it seemed to me that I should be farther along than this. That I should be giving interviews to bloggers; doing local readings; making a name for myself. And it struck me how silly the whole enterprise was, this whole insufferable pageantry of honors and awards and obscure accolades and publication credits and Twitter followers and Google hits. I was too old to want these things and too old not to have them. I felt, in the end, like the worst kind of fuck-up–one who did not even have the courage, the drive, the integrity to establish himself as a world-class fuck-up.

“Revolver” was eventually published by Suspense Magazine.

There Is No Graceful Way

19 Oct

Harper’s might be the first magazine I ever considered sending work to. I remember picking up an issue of Harper’s when I was fifteen or sixteen, thumbing through the first thirty pages or so, orienting myself with its format, with quirky, recurring features like Readings, Annotations, Findings, and of course the Harper’s Index. The magazine was funnier*, faster-paced, than I’d expected; it had a satiric edge to it that was lacking in more brittle fare like The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly.

Harper’s has an interesting editorial format. The first third of each issue is filled with quick, comical items (such as the one linked in the comments below); with curious tidbits and factoids and pop-culture ephemera inserted in the margins. The middle third is reserved for hard-hitting journalism, for Pulitzer-worthy investigations of voter fraud and climate-change-denialism; for intricate dissections of international scandals. The final third is where you will find short stories, film reviews, fine art, poetry. Harper’s starts funny, gets serious, and ends by moving you. It is truly a Great American Periodical.

I remember wondering, as a teenage boy who thought he might like to write screenplays for a living, where all these stories came from, how they ended up in the magazine. I flipped to a part of the magazine that no one reads and is perhaps not meant to be read, a dense area of fine print and names that meant nothing to me, and found this life-changing passage:

Harper’s Magazine will neither consider nor return unsolicited nonfiction manuscripts that have not been preceded by a written query. Harper’s will consider unsolicited fiction. Unsolicited poetry will not be considered or returned … Submissions to the Readings section are welcome and encouraged, though volume precludes individual acknowledgement.

(emphasis mine)

How amazing that I could–that anyone could–simply stuff a story into an envelope and send it to New York City, and a serious person–maybe not an editor, but a person like an editor–would give it a glance. Thank God I was not a poet, a memoirist, a journalist, a political cartoonist–for then I would truly be fucked, and my work would be neither considered nor returned. But I could write fiction, and Harper’s would consider it–blind, unsolicited–and for the first time in my life I was aware of the idea, and lured by the possibility, of writing fiction professionally.

(It was not lost on me then, nor is it now, that the mailing address of Harper’s is 666 Broadway.)

Examining this rejection letter, we see that the word “writer” in the salutation has not been capitalized. An editorial oversight, probably, but also emblematic of the culture of journalism, in which the writer is often an anonymous, diminutive figure, held forever in the shadow of the almighty Subject. The letter comes, ostensibly, from the desk of a mysterious “Editorial Assistant,” and has not been signed.


18 Oct

Boulevard is a wonderful literary journal, featuring fiction and poetry by the likes of Joyce Carol Oates and Billy Collins.

From Richard Burgin, founding editor (via Wikipedia):

“My suspicion, especially of many MFA writers, is that they are writing what they think will get published and are not sufficiently interested in exploring the form … In Boulevard’s slush pile, I find very little experimentation in form and structure. The stuff is tame. I see very little experimentation in point of view, in language. The subject matter is generally politically correct. Political correctness is the most noxious disease and enemy of the literary artist of our current time.”

I have never figured out the meaning of that cryptic “VAD”.


18 Oct

The first thing that strikes me about this rejection letter is the mysterious lightning bolt bifurcating the first paragraph. What is that?

Also: the editor who drew the zappy line–presumably Laurence Goldstein–has an even sloppier signature than mine. I imagine the editor sitting at his desk with a black pen and a thermos full of coffee, presiding over a fresh batch of stories from the slush pile. By the time he gets to mine, his penmanship has devolved from a beautiful, distinct calligraphy to something resembling the scribblings of a howler monkey on a CNS depressant. Poor Laurence Goldstein probably writes these all day long.

But the piece de resistance of this rejection letter is the cheeky “Sorry!” just above the signature. It reminds me of one of my favorite Mitch Hedberg jokes. To wit:

I was walking by a dry cleaner at 3AM and it said: “Sorry, we’re closed.” You don’t have to be sorry. It’s 3AM, and you’re a dry cleaner. It would be ridiculous for me to expect you to be open. I’m not gonna walk by at 10AM and say, “Hey, I walked by here at 3, you guys were closed. Someone owes me an apology!”

In other words, you don’t have to be sorry, Laurence Goldstein. I expect rejection. I savor rejection. Rejection fortifies me. If you had accepted my story, well, then, that would be something.