Is My Book Jewish? An Afternoon with Anna Solomon

- | 2

1. “And if I perish, I perish.”
Anna Solomon is not the first person I would’ve expected to write a Jewish novel.

I met Anna seven years ago – we were both students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop – and while I knew Anna was Jewish, it wasn’t the first, or second, or even third thing I would’ve expected her to mention about her identity. Writer. Woman. From Gloucester, Mass. All those would have come first.

Her fiction, back then – and we had this in common – was scrubbed of any obviously Jewish characters or themes. The short story I remember most from workshop, which eventually became “What Is Alaska Like?” (One Story, April 2006), is about a chambermaid in Blue Lake Lodge, a roadside motel on Boston’s North Shore.

“There was no lake at Blue Lake,” Anna writes in the story. “The Lodge was a stucco motel on the Clam River, about an hour north of Boston. The stink came twice a day with low tide: mud and mussel shells and half-eaten crabs baking in the sun like the darkest casserole. It didn’t take a genius to figure out the smell, but these tourists from Ohio would stuff their faces into the sink like there was an answer in there. They wore visors that got in their way. ‘Sewage?’ they’d ask me. ‘Sulfur?’ ”

Her characters are Darlene and Jimmy and Ellen Crane. Even her rivers are treyf. It feels about as far from a depiction of Jewish experience as I can imagine.

Which is why, I’ll admit, I was surprised when I learned that Anna’s first novel, The Little Bride, released in September, is the story of Minna, a Jewish mail-order bride from Odessa, Ukraine, and her marriage to Max, a rigidly Orthodox Jew living on the “Sodokota” plains in the late 19th century. It’s about Am Olam, or “Eternal People,” a little-known historical movement that began in the 1800s, when immigrant Jews moved to the Western states and founded communal, agrarian colonies. Its most vivid scenes are Jewish, involving prayerbooks, teffilin, and kippot. The inscription is Hebrew: V’ka’asher ovadet ovadeti, “And if I perish, I perish.”

It’s a book that’s Jewish in its kishkes.

I sat down, recently, with Anna at a Park Slope, Brooklyn, coffee shop. We talked about her tenure a decade ago as National Public Radio’s Washington, D.C. bureau chief, when she spent 10 days in South Dakota producing a story about ranchers and the farm bill – an experience that would provide much of the scenic grist for her novel. (“I was totally blown away by the South Dakota landscape, especially the land near the Missouri River, the rolling hills – it feels like the motion is in the earth itself. And the air, how it just constantly seemed to be moving in one direction … very hot, gusting, dry air. I felt like I was in the middle of a continent.”) She recalled the afternoon she spent riding around with U.S. Senator Tom Daschle in his SUV. (“He’s just like he seems: short and friendly; speaks like a politician.”) We covered her approach to research.  (“I’m not, as a reader, interested in how many buttons a dress had in the 1970s compared to the 1920s – so I don’t care as a writer.”) But we returned, time and again, to thorny questions of Jewish identity.

“I’m still getting used to the idea of getting called a ‘Jewish Writer,’” Anna said. “What does that even mean?”

2. “My Hair Got Curly”
Anna Solomon was one of only a few Jews at my son’s bris in Iowa City. Most of my friends from Workshop who came weren’t Jewish. As it turned out, we couldn’t even find a moyle to perform the ritual circumcision. The closest one lived in Chicago, some three hours away, and couldn’t drive to our home on Shabbat, the day of the ceremony.

When I asked Anna what she remembers about that day, she recalls talking another writer through it. He had never been to a bris and was, to say the least, “very uncomfortable.”

Standing in my living room in Iowa City that day Anna was an insider.

Growing up in Gloucester, she in many ways was not.

As it happens, I spent many summer weeks in Gloucester as a kid. To me, Gloucester was the Wreck of the Hesperus, the Gorton’s fisherman, and the reef of Norman’s Woe. Ten Pound Island and the Yankee Clipper fishing fleet, offering half-day trips for cod, pollock, and cusk. Gloucester was the small restaurant on the approach to Bass Rocks that my grandfather called “Goo Foo” – the d’s had long ago fallen off the signboard, and no one ever thought to replace them. I knew it as a tourist, yes, but I also knew it before Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm brought George Clooney to town, making it a permanent stop on Hollywood’s on-location tour.

Anna, meanwhile, knew a very different place, a mix of working class and patrician New England, ethnically Irish Catholic, Italian Catholic, and Protestant. Her dad was an art dealer. Her mom, a teacher. Both had doctorates in education from Harvard University. Anna, a “white, privileged female,” should have fit right in.

Only, she didn’t.

She recalls sensing this as early as kindergarten, when her teacher often asked her to write her name on the board: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum. (She has since dropped “Greenbaum,” her father’s surname, to make it easier for readers.) “It was a very Jewish name to write on the board,” Anna told me. “I think at that point, I started to feel the difference.”

Anna’s family was active in the local conservative synagogue, Ahavath Achim. Her parents led Shabbat services. Her mom was the first female president of the synagogue. Anna went to Hebrew school and had a bat mitzvah. In high school, she played lacrosse, and began to stand out in more obvious, physical ways. “All the girls had straight, blondey, browny hair, and little noses,” she recalls. “My hair got curly.”

Things like sailing and skiing came naturally to other New Englanders. Anna’s family had to work at them.

“I was aware of myself being Jewish,” she said. “And it was important for me to fit in to a non-Jewish society.”

Anna’s early short stories, she told me, reflected this.

“The first short story I published in Shenandoah, ‘Proof We Exist,’ is about a 70-year-old WASP man living in Maine, with the last name Seed,” she says. “I was writing about the people I longed to be and not the person I was.

“I was so far from writing about myself,” she continued. “It took me a long time to do that. Even when I first started writing about young women, they were not Jewish. It took me a long time to open up to that aspect of my identity.”

“In my writing, I’ve gotten closer and closer to the things that really matter to me.”

3. Russian Dolls
The Little Bride is a beautiful book. In some ways, a writer’s book, with intricate, deeply moving language, powerful symbolism (one my favorite scenes depicts Minna, a new bride, literally blindfolded during her wedding reception), and vivid metaphor.

“New York is like being in the middle of a parade where everyone has been called home, all at once, in all different directions,” Anna writes.

And: “He was thin in the way of cellar insects, as if made to slip through cracks.”

“He was the sort of man that could locate praise in a bowl of teeth.”

There is a playful, riddle-like quality to the prose that, to me, evoked Russian dolls — “She dreamed the kind of dreams that seemed to be dreams of other dreams” and “He was like a boy actor playing a man actor playing a boy” and “He was like two men, the miner and the mined … and the mined man was two men, too, one stripped empty, the other filled back up with rage” — suggestive of the selves that we hide within ourselves.

More than once, I found myself nodding along in recognition. “So a decision was made. Or rather a decision was not not-made, and she came to Odessa by not not-coming.” Sure. That’s the same way a dozen years ago I moved to Washington, D.C.

Yet The Little Bride is also a sweeping historical novel about a Jewish woman’s journey: from the crowded streets of Odessa on the northwest shore of the Black Sea, Imperial Russia’s fourth largest city — where Jews faced four horrific pogroms in the 19th century — to the vast, harsh plains of South Dakota. The middle of a continent. Where Jews were largely unknown.

The narrative is in some ways reminiscent of biblical narrative. Minna leaves the land she knows and goes forth into the unknown, just like Abraham. She struggles to conceive, like Sarah. Max’s two sons, Jacob and Samuel, evoke Jacob (the angel wrestler) and Esau (the rough hunter), respectively, and, like the biblical Jacob, each prove capable of devastating betrayal.

In Judaism, memory is an obligation. Zachor. Remember that we were slaves in Egypt. Remember to keep Shabbat. Remember the Holocaust. In The Little Bride, memory sometimes feels fungible, not quite reliable. “Like any moment one waited for,” Anna writes, “Minna did not experience it so much as she saw herself experiencing it, so that as soon as it was over her memory of it was already made.”

There were times when twisting, circular sentences left me scratching my head, grappling for meaning. “Knowing the opposite of a thing,” Anna writes, “often seemed to Minna to be the same as knowing the thing itself.”

More often, the Lewis Carroll-like prose landed effortlessly, with a flash of insight: “They were never almost anywhere but the place they’d been a half hour ago.”

It’s a description of a ship crossing an ocean. But it could be almost anything. A person seeking a job. A couple having the same old fight.

A couple of yeshiva bochers, talking about the nature of God.

4. “It’s only a cross”
In The Little Bride, Anna tells the story of Jewish characters struggling to live Jewish lives, trying to understand what that means, and in that way, her writing is much closer to her experience. These are the characters she has been waiting for. Or, maybe, these are the characters that have been waiting for her.

“She learned to concentrate on not concentrating,” Anna writes of Minna, “to let her mind spread out, puddle-like, far enough from the body that the body was forgotten. Or at least silenced. A calm fell over her limbs. She wondered if this was prayer. If prayer was nothing more than a giving in, like sickness — if you weren’t required to believe, only to stop struggling.”

Reading this, it’s impossible for me to not hear echoes “Is My Toddler More Jewish than Me?”, a recent article Anna wrote for the Jewish parenting website, in which Anna writes about her conflicted relationship with Judaism, made more acute as her toddler, Sylvie, embraces Jewish ritual with the passion and joy of a zealot.

“Maybe we’re complicating what could be simple, if we stopped trying to figure it out,” Anna concluded in the blog post. “Maybe, instead of working so hard to protect Sylvie from our own experience, we should open ourselves to hers. We, after all, are the ones who sit or stand in synagogue now and have no clue where we are. We focus on the cantor being too operatic or the siddurs too outdated because we are new to the synagogues, yes, but also because we are scared of just being there, not as Sylvie’s parents – thinking, figuring – but as ourselves.”

Stop struggling.

There is a scene, toward the end of the novel: an accident has destroyed the family’s sod home, leaving it in ruins. Minna and Max are taken in by a German couple, Christians. Living in their home, Max feels assaulted by the cross hanging above the door.

“They expect us to look at this little man,” Max says, indignant.

“Motke,” Minna says, “it’s only a cross. … There is no little man.”

In Minna’s rejoinder, as in Minna’s name, I recognize Anna.

“Why am I Jewish?” Anna told me in Park Slope. “Why am I here and not in church? I don’t know that it matters if I come to religion as a Jew or a Catholic or anything else. I do it as a Jew because I am a Jew.”

This is, at its core, a novel about Jewish questions, Jewish experience.

But it is also, as with some of Anna’s early stories, more broadly about choice. Specifically, Minna’s choices. Whether to leave Odessa. Whether to stay with Max. Whether to return to him.

Thinking about this, I’m reminded of my favorite definition of theme, from Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Theme, Burroway explains, is not what a novel is about, but, rather, what about what it’s about.

The Little Bride is a novel about choice. But what about choice?

“She had a choice,” Anna writes. “Which Minna used to think was the same as freedom.”

In fact, The Little Bride suggests, paradoxically, the opposite may be true. Max, who lives by a strict set of rules — God commands: what to eat, what to wear, how to act; there are few, if any existential questions — may just have more freedom than Minna.

By way of explaining, Anna posits the following scenario. Say you are teaching a creative writing workshop. You could tell your students: “Just write for 15 minutes. Something. Anything.” This, though, can be paralyzing. So instead, have them write for 15 minutes describing a barn from the point of view of a man whose has just learned his son has died – the classic John Gardner exercise.

“They suddenly have parameters,” Anna says. “They can just go.”

“You could love anyone, [Minna] thought, if you needed to,” Anna writes. “And in a curious way, not in spite of her need but because of it, because she was hungry and trapped, she felt safe.” Safe, in a moment when there are no decisions to make. Trapped, and therefore free.

To Anna:

“I am fascinated by people who join up — it could be Orthodox Judaism or the hard core punk scene — but they join in a very extreme, very intense, total way, and the idea is about following the rules. There’s a lot of liberty in that — a lot of comfort in it … I have a deep understanding of the appeal that kind of faith and fervor can hold.”

Here, Anna segues.

“In my early years as a writer,” she says, “I felt like I had to write. But some part of me wanted to stop. There was a real appeal for me to do something where the answers were provided … just to have a job or be in a community where it was clear what I was supposed to do. That would’ve been easier.”

“At its base, there’s this relationship to writing itself. Writing is so scary and unknown. When writing fiction, no one tells you what to do. There’s terror in having freedom.”

The Little Bride is, in this way, a novel about writing. Which brings me back, Russian doll-like, to the Anna I knew in the first place.

Ten Things I’ve Learned over 12 Years of Sending Out Stories

- | 20

1. Mark Farrington, my first writing teacher at the Johns Hopkins MA Program in Writing in the fall of 1998, suggested we should start sending our stories out “when they are as good as we can make them.” That may seem obvious, but I’ve found it to be a great rule of thumb. Perhaps you’ve had several rounds of feedback, you’ve revised, and while you still see problems, you don’t know how to fix them. When you’ve taken a story as far as you can on your own, send it out.

2. Send stories out broadly – ten to twenty journals at a time. This is particularly important if, over time, you hope to receive useful feedback. Since sending my first story out in January, 1999, I’ve sent to 225 journals, contests, or competitive retreats; I’ve received 219 rejections and had six stories published. But I’ve received some kind of encouragement – from formal letters to “send more” checked on a postcard – from 71 publications, about one-third of all my submissions.

3. Aim high. Make a list of the top tier journals you’d love to have your story published in, then start at the top and move down. I submitted my very first story in 1999 to 12 places, including the Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, Zoetrope, and Virginia Quarterly Review. While the odds are very low, any feedback you receive can keep you going.

4. Another of Farrington’s suggestions I’ve tried to follow religiously over the years: Send only to journals that pay – however little. Sure, writers should be paid for their work, but this is not just a question of principle. Payment (cash – not contributor’s copies) signifies an added seriousness, a heightened commitment to the piece being published. Using pay as a guide crisply sorts journals into two categories: those that do; those that don’t. While there are certainly serious, respectable journals that don’t or can’t pay, by and large payment is an efficient surrogate for quality.*

5. Send smartly. Read a journal’s submissions guidelines. Pay attention to page limits and manuscript needs. Don’t send to AGNI in July. Don’t send Fence a hard copy manuscript (they only take electronic). Most writers I know don’t read all the journals they send to in advance. But at the very least familiarize yourself with a journal’s unique pulse before sending, or take your lumps. Perhaps the most embarrassing (and humbling) rejection I received came from the Chariton Review, then published through the English Department at Brigham Young University: “Sorry – but we can’t consider anything with an f word in it. You surely must know that BYU is church-sponsored.”

6. Find out which journals respond personally to your work, and keep sending them stories. Even if they never take one, you’re likely to get a steady stream of feedback. Keep a file, tabbed by journal, of all the responses you receive – whether a letter from an editor or a form “send again” card; good, bad, or otherwise – so you can track them over time.

7. When you get a positive response, always reference it when sending your next story. Do this even if all you’ve received is a scribbled, unsigned “nice work” or an auspicious check mark. Sometimes, someone will initial their comments. Take the time to look them up online, and address your next story to them. I’ve started many letters: “Thank you for your encouraging note about my last story…” This immediately establishes your relationship with the journal, and can help lift your story off the slush pile.

8. Don’t take rejection personally. Every writer knows this, and yet it’s one of the toughest things to truly internalize. I once received an email from the Paris Review that felt, well, pretty personal: “I just finished ‘Innkeeping’ … I found it able but not, to be honest, terribly distinctive, and the tone sort of YA – not for us, I’m afraid.” I consider myself fairly well steeled, and, still, the email stung. Less than two months later, though, I received another email, from Field Maloney at the New Yorker: “I want to apologize for our taking so long to get back to you on ‘Innkeeping.’…I enjoyed reading this one – the voice is natural and distinctive – and I’d be glad to read more of your fiction in the future.” I keep both notes in their separate files, with a Post-It note on the Paris Review comments, reminding me of the New Yorker’s.

9. If you are fortunate enough to get a story accepted, immediately write or email the other journals where the story is still under consideration, letting them know your story has been placed.

10. Celebrate rejection. I’m not kidding. Each rejection is a chance you gave your story to live in the minds of readers; each, an opportunity to toughen your writerly skin. Mark milestone rejections by subscribing to the journal that didn’t take you. I did this when I received my 200th rejection – and in so doing, I owned the rejection, instead of letting it own me. Now, each month when One Story arrives, I’m reminded of my triumph.

*I recently contacted Farrington, still an instructor and faculty adviser at Hopkins, to run this piece by him. He said while he still recommends writers submit to journals that pay, he offered this addendum: “Sometimes there will be a story that you sincerely believe is finished – it doesn’t need to be revised, or put on a shelf for awhile, it is what it is – but it’s not a story that’s had success with the top tier journals. That’s a story I would feel absolutely fine about sending to a journal that doesn’t pay.”

Bonus Link: My Life in Stories

Image credit: gbSk/Flickr

My Life in Stories

- | 22

1. A Love Story
“So,” the agent said, “I like your stories. Are you working on a novel?”

I was sitting in the venerable Dey House, the 1857 Victorian home of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, meeting with another agent – the fifth or sixth I’d met since I’d arrived in Iowa City. She sat in a chair, facing me, across a large wooden desk, the question lingering in her eyes.

I’d known the question was coming. Every other agent I’d met had come around to the same thing, eventually.

The answer – the truth – was that I was not. Writing a novel. Perhaps eventually I would. But at the time, I was writing stories, exclusively. Even worse, the stories had nothing to do with each other. They had no re-occurring characters; they were not linked, even thematically. I had a vague notion that one day, the stories would miraculously interweave into a collection that felt somehow organic. But try telling that to an agent, whose job it will be to actually sell your book. The starry light goes out of their eyes. They hand over the obligatory business card, ask you to keep in touch.

No, I thought, eyeing her across the desk, I do not have a novel.

“Yes,” I said. “I do.”

She leaned forward, intertwining her fingers on the blotter.

“What’s it about?”

Here, I paused. There was still time to save myself. It’s about nothing. I don’t even have an idea. I haven’t written a single word. I don’t know what came over me.

But I had come across something interesting the week before, while researching a short story.

“It’s about life saving stations. Funded by Congress in the 1800s?” I sat back, hoping to discern some flicker of interest in her expression. “They were a precursor to the Coast Guard. Red houses that dotted the Atlantic Coast, manned by young men – kids, really. They’d stand watch in a storm, waiting for shipwrecks.”

Her eyebrow went up. “Tell me more.”

“Well, when they spotted one, they’d head out in a small dinghy – a rescue crew. My novel’s about a saving station crewman on Long Beach Island, New Jersey. A terrible shipwreck in a violent storm.”

I swallowed hard. Clearly, she could see right through me. My career as a writer was over before it’d even started.

“It’s a love story,” I added.

“I love it!” she said.

And that was that. I’d been writing short stories seriously for half a dozen years. Revising, polishing. Sending them out. Tallying rejections. Revising some more. I’d published one story by that point, with a second forthcoming. And she was all but ready to represent me on the basis of a few-sentence novel synopsis I’d concocted right there on the spot. Practically from thin air.

2. A Testing Ground
In my Akron, Ohio, home office, I have a square certificate hung in a clear plastic frame:
Certificate of Award
This Certifies that
Josh Rolnick
Lafayette Intermediate School
Has been awarded this certificate for
Creativity in Writing
Date November 10, 1980
I keep this on my wall to remind myself that I have identified as a writer, and loved creative writing, for a very long time.

I am not, however, one of those writers who has always wanted to be a writer. My mom will tell you: I wanted to be an entomologist. As a teenager, I joyfully fed crickets to Michelle, my pet tarantula. For years, my greatest wish – the one stroke of good fortune that seemed greedy even to hope for – was that my uncle, a professor at Rutgers, would somehow manage to score me a giant cockroach from one of the science labs on campus. While other budding writers were, I suppose, holing up in the local public library, I was dropping fat-bodied ants into spider webs and turning my fingers into landing pads for monarch butterflies.

My flirtation with insects ended finally after I enrolled at Rutgers College, signed up for “Bugs and Man,” and learned that practical entomology had more to do with pesticides and bug-resistant crops than the gory beauty of a wasp laying her eggs inside a paralyzed cicada.

I signed up to work for the Daily Targum newspaper, covering volleyball, writing sports columns, and eventually editorials. It was an outlet for my creativity, which led naturally to a career in journalism. I started off as news reporter at The News Tribune in Central Jersey, where I had the occasional opportunity to write off-beat features and even colorful reflections on major news events. Five years later, though, after taking a year to study and live in Israel, I found myself on the overnight shift at the Associated Press’s Trenton Bureau, rewriting radio copy for the morning drive. It was a great job for a budding reporter, with ample room for advancement. It wasn’t – in any sense that mattered to me – creative.

Sitting alone at 5 a.m. with a S’mores Pop-Tart and a bitter cup of coffee, waiting for the newspaper guy to arrive with the dailies, I’d contemplate a different future. Could I push the reset button? Could I go back to the kind of creative writing that had first animated me?

Of course not, I reasoned. Because creative writers wrote novels. And how in the world does one up and write a novel?

I’d read novels before. Each one seemed more daunting an undertaking than the next. How did David Bradley write 432 pages of The Chaneysville Incident? How did Stephen King write 1,090 pages of It? How did Victor Hugo write 1,260 pages of Les Miserables? In French?

Yes, these were inspirational to read. But to write? Novels were unwieldy, unmanageable, inexplicable doorstops.

And then one day, my sister gave me a gift: The Best American Short Stories, 1997.

Stories? I’d read very few.

“The Short Story is a difficult literary form, demanding more attention to control and balance than the novel,” writes E. Annie Proulx in the introduction. “It is the choice of most beginning writers, attracted to its brevity, its apparent friendliness (a deception) to slender themes, or even its perceived function as a testing ground before attempting the five-hundred-page novel.”

Here was a new option. A possibility. It was easy to ignore her notes of caution: “difficult,” “apparent,” “perceived.” This bright orange book seemed to offer nothing less than the suggestion of a path. A way forward.

I quit my job, enrolled in Johns Hopkins’ part-time writing program in Dupont Circle, moved to Washington, DC. I found a new job and, at night, I began writing stories.

3. A Scheme of Ascendable Rungs
One of the first things I read when I got to Hopkins in the Fall of 1998 was an essay by Richard Ford in Harper’s Magazine, “First Things First: One more writer’s beginnings” (August, 1988).

In it, Ford describes how he started out writing and dutifully sending short stories to literary journals. The conventional wisdom (in 1970, but it’s no less true today) was that you wrote stories, sent them out to lit magazines, and gradually, as your writing improved, you moved up to the ladder. You became known. Eventually, if you persevered, you might land in the Atlantic or New Yorker. Ford describes sending off his stories, fretting about the “level” of each journal. (“Maybe the Cimarron Review is just too good for me at this point.”) He kept a careful log, “where this story was sent and when.” He was rejected again and again, at one point by a journal called Fur-Bearing Trout (whose editor chattily told him the stories “need not be about fish”). Finally, Ford had a story accepted by a journal in New Zealand. He briefly considered moving there.

But he was discouraged by the steady stream of no’s – stories that “aren’t right for us” or that “showed promise” or that “would surely find a home elsewhere.”

“I began to resent what seemed to me the unprovable premise that there existed any useful structure or scheme of ascendable rungs whose rule was that my stories weren’t good enough at first but might be better later on,” he wrote, “and that I should have patience and go on surrendering myself to its clankings. What I felt was that I wanted my stories to be great stories, as good as could be written. And now. And if they weren’t (and they weren’t) that was my own business, my problem, not the concern of some system for orderly advancement in the literary arts.”

“What was out there,” Ford concluded, “is not a structure for writers to surrender to, but fidgety, dodgy chaos. And our privileged task is to force it, calm to our wills.”

His decision: quit writing stories; start a novel. “A novel would take… years; I could go more slowly; there was more to work on, get better at. No demoralizing rejections would crash into my mailbox every morning.”

It’s a powerful essay. Here was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose work I greatly admired writing openly and honestly about his humbling start. His conclusion made sense. Only, I knew myself. I couldn’t sequester myself away for the years it would take to write a novel. I agreed with Ford’s assessment: Writers wrote not to “aggrandize themselves” or “just to be published,” but rather “to be read” – to reach people. And I didn’t want to wait five years for readers.

What this meant was that I would have to try to get better – to improve as a writer – in the public eye. Writing stories. For better or for worse, I surrendered myself to the system’s clankings.

4. Crowdsourced Feedback
I too dutifully kept a notebook, recording where I sent my stories, when, and what, if anything, they sent back. This notebook – I still have it, and, despite all the advances in technology since 1998, maintain my records in it – turned out to be a literary lifeline.

My notebook tells me that in January, 1999, I sent my first story, “Flip-Flops,” out to 12 journals, including Atlantic Monthly, Paris Review, and the New Yorker. (I viewed the top literary rung the same way my mom viewed the Lottery: Hey, you never know.) In time, I received 11 post card rejections (“PC” in my log). Thrillingly, however, someone at Glimmer Train had checked the box: “Thank you for letting us read your work. We will not be publishing this story, but we enjoyed it and would like to see more.” The same person had also underlined the words “Thank you.” A new notation was born in my log: the “PC+”.

I went back to work. Just about a year later, I sent out another story. Again, I sent it to the New Yorker. This time, someone wrote on the post card rejection: “Strong writing. Thanks.” Then, in November, I received a two-sentence letter from C. Michael Curtis at Atlantic Monthly: “‘A New Year’s Resolution’ starts out promisingly, but we think it veers into improbability (emotional) and something like melodrama. You’re awfully good, however, and I hope you’ll try us again.”
It’s no exaggeration to say it: This letter kept me going for years.

That I never would break into Glimmer Train, the Atlantic, or the New Yorker is almost beside the point. These responses – and many others over the years (Laurence Goldstein at Michigan Quarterly Review, Ben Fountain at Southwest Review, and Bret Lott at Southern Review have been particularly kind) – whether actual letters of encouragement from editors or unsigned “send again” scribblings, were oxygen for me.

Moreover, they were a useful tool. I was able to mark my progress (or lack thereof) from one draft to the next based on the number and tenor of these notes. Keep going, they said. Or, if a story came back with only “PC’s”: Something’s not working.

It was crowdsourced feedback, if you will, from a knowledgeable crowd – editors, assistant editors, and even interns – who truly cared about stories, and, in many cases, were making them their life’s work.

5. ‘Beyond Entertainment’
Short stories, meanwhile, had become a passion.

In The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination, Robert Coles quotes one of his students, who, after reading a John Cheever story, feels as if he’s “been given the chance of a lifetime: to change trains, change my destination…”

“Novels and stories are renderings of life; they can not only keep us company, but admonish us, point us in new directions, or give us the courage to stay a given course,” Coles writes. “They can offer us kinsmen, kinswomen, comrades, advisers – offer us other eyes through which we might see, other ears with which we might make soundings.”

The more stories I read, the more I began to sense their unique potential to work in this way. It has something to do with the very brevity of the form.

“In the short story there lingers a faint sense of example, a trimmed, useful tautness implying a function for the reader beyond entertainment,” Proulx writes in her 1997 introduction. “The reader comes to the short story subliminally expecting enlightenment; that is, we accept the idea that there is some nugget of embedded truth in a short story…”

So it was that – when I read the second-to-last line of Alice Munro’s story, “Dimension”: “You don’t have to get to London?” – my eyes brimmed with tears. Not just for Doree, who has finally found the strength to stop visiting her husband – murderer of their three children – in a London, Ontario, prison. But also for myself: I, too, could reject the insanity in my life; the people who were sapping my strength.

I began clipping stories – every story I read – and filing them in manila folders under the author’s name, so that, in a moment, I could retrieve them, reread them, share them.

Today, I have hundreds of stories in my cabinet, filed alphabetically from Adichie to Wolff. Thumbing through, I find James Turner, Jr. and Mather; the disintegrating Ms. Swenson and the eight-year-old boy who finds the wig in the Dumpster and puts it on his head.

My kinsmen, kinswomen, comrades, advisers.

6. The Publication that Wasn’t
My first acceptance came in the form of a letter from a Washington, DC-area lit mag in March, 2000. I read the first few words, “We are pleased to inform you…” and I thought: I did it. No one can ever take this away from me.

I promptly called Harvey Grossinger, one of my writing teachers at Hopkins.

“Where did you say it’s getting published?” he asked.

I told him.

“Which story?”

I told him.

He paused. Congratulated me. Then he said he was going to give me some advice – advice I didn’t have to take; advice he was probably going to regret giving me. He knew the story I’d submitted, and he felt that if I kept working, kept revising, I could aim higher. The story could do more for my writing career.

“You’re suggesting I pull my first acceptance?”

Yes, he said. Reluctantly and with some trepidation.

But I trusted Harvey. And so I made one of the toughest calls in my life. I told the editors I wasn’t finished with the story. Apologized profusely. Pulled the story. Started reworking it. The following month I sent a revised version, with a new title, out to thirteen more publications. Mostly PC’s in response. But encouragement came from Michigan Quarterly Review, Missouri Review, Glimmer Train, and, again, from C. Michael Curtis.

Keep going.

In March 2001, I sent out another version – to seventeen journals. Fourteen PC’s. But Indiana Review, Texas Review, and Boulevard liked where I was headed.

Keep going.

Almost a year later, in February, 2002, I sent it out again – to five places. I got PC’s from all but one. My log records that, in June, more than two years after I’d pulled the story, I got a call from Arts & Letters. Robert Olen Butler had selected “Big Lake” for their annual fiction prize, beating out 12 finalists.

Arts & Letters flew me to Milledgeville, Georgia, Flannery O’Connor’s hometown, and put me up in the Antebellum Inn, where I met and had breakfast with Butler (who would quickly become a valued mentor and advocate), as well as the poetry winner and judge. I read the prize-winning story (my first reading) at Lockerly Hall, an 1852 antebellum mansion on a hill with six soaring Greek Revival columns that seemed to welcome me into some kind of formidable, rarefied fraternity.

I was lucky. And I was hooked.

7. Talk on Paper, Page After Page
“Pulp and Paper,” my debut collection of short stories thirteen years in the making, is coming out this fall. I’m thrilled, mainly, that these eight stories – six of which were published in literary journals over the years – will at last find a wider readership. I’m also relieved: that I can finally stop working on them. At long last, I am moving on to a novel.

As I make this transition, I find myself thinking of another extremely powerful essay I read years ago at Hopkins – a three-page brief by Betty S. Flowers, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin, entitled “Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge: Roles and the Writing Process.”

In it, Flowers identifies four different personas who come into the writing process sequentially. Writing begins with the madman, who brings ideas and energy to the page, uninhibited. Next comes the architect, who looks unsentimentally at the madman’s “wild scribblings,” selects a fraction, and arranges those nuggets into paragraphs. Along comes the carpenter, who nails the ideas together at the sentence level. Finally, in comes the judge, who inspects the work, critically.

Writers get tripped up, Flowers suggests, when their judge gets in the way of their madman.

“So start by promising your judge that you’ll get around to asking his opinion, but not now,” Flowers writes. “And then let the madman energy flow. Find what interests you in the topic, the question or emotion that it raises in you, and respond as you might to a friend – or an enemy. Talk on paper, page after page, and don’t stop to judge…”

To this day, it remains one of the most liberating things I’ve read about writing. And it’s always been perfectly suited for stories. I have never written an outline. Never plotted my stories in advance. I don’t do research until my characters teach me what I need to discover. I start with the madman’s creative spark – an image, a voice, a bit of dialogue, an emotion – and I see, over twenty-five or thirty pages, where it takes me.

Stories, for me, have always started in this fidgety, dodgy chaos. My privileged task now is to see if, over the length of an entire novel, I can force that chaos, calm to my will.

Bonus Link: Ten Things I’ve Learned over 12 Years of Sending Out Stories


Image of the author via Margaret Rolnick