Welcome to the 19th installment of The Millions' annual Year in Reading series! YIR gathers together some of today's most exciting writers, thinkers, and tastemakers to share the books that shaped their year. What makes the series special is that it celebrates the subjectivity of reading: where yearend best-of lists pass off their value judgement as definitive, YIR essayists take a more phenomenological tact, focusing instead on capturing the experience of the books they read. (I'm not particularly interested in handing down a decision on "The 10 Best Books of 2023," and neither are this year's contributors.) This, of course, makes for great, probing essays—in writing about our reading lives, we inevitably write about our inner lives. YIR contributors were encouraged approach the assignment—to reflect on the books they read this year, an intentionally vague prompt—however they wanted, and many did so with dazzling creativity. One contributor, a former writer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, arranged her essay like an art gallery, with each book she read assigned a museum wall label. Another, whose work revolves around revolutionary and utopian movements in history, organized her year by the long-defunct French Revolutionary calendar. Some opted to write personal narratives, while others embraced the listicle format. Some divided up their reading between work and pleasure; for others, the two blended together (as is often the case for those of us in the literary profession). The books that populate this year's essays also varied widely. Some contributors read with intention: one writer of nonfiction returned to reading fiction for the first time in 13 years; one poet decided to read only Black romance in the second half of 2023. For two new parents, their years in reading were defined by the many picture books that they read to their infants. There were, however, common threads. This year, contributors read one book more than any other: Catherine Lacey's novel Biography of X, which chronicles the life of a fictional artist against the backdrop of an alternate America. Also widely read and written about were Dan Sinykin's Big Fiction, an analysis of the conglomeration of the publishing industry, and the works of Annie Ernaux (a star of last year's YIR as well). I'm profoundly grateful for the generosity of this year's contributors, the names of whom will be revealed below as entries are published throughout the month, concluding on Thursday, December 21. Be sure to bookmark this page and follow us on Twitter to stay up to date. —Sophia Stewart, editor Emily Wilson, classicist and translator of The IliadVauhini Vara, author of This Is SalvagedJenn Shapland, author of Thin SkinDamion Searls, writer and translatorLaToya Watkins, author of Holler, ChildIsle McElroy, author of People CollideTaylor Byas, author of I Done Clicked My Heels Three TimesKristen Ghodsee, author of Everyday UtopiaJames Frankie Thomas, author of IdlewildJoanna Biggs, author of A Life of One's OwnAthena Dixon, author of The Loneliness FilesChristine Coulson, author of One Woman ShowPhillip Lopate, author of A Year and a Day
I dislike car culture so much, it's rare for me to actually agree to drive to anything when visiting Los Angeles. Except maybe for Roy Choi's Kogi tacos. And to visit Eso Won Books, a unique and charming bookstore in the historical Leimert Park neighborhood. The store recently made a cameo in an episode of HBO's Insecure, the L.A.-based series by creator and star Issa Rae, who comments, as her alter ego Issa Dee, “it's like my favorite place, ever. They support a lot of up-and-coming black writers.” At Eso Won I was greeted by the affable James Fugate, co-owner of the store with Tom Hamilton, who was behind the register. James had such a wide-ranging opinion of so many interesting reads, I ended up leaving with a pile of books—novels, nonfiction, children's books—as did some of the family members who accompanied me. Ta-Nehisi Coates has called Eso Won his favorite bookstore in the world—it has something for everyone, including the writer who has done the sad bookstore signing where barely anyone shows up: In 1995 they hosted a young writer with a new memoir, and only about eight people showed; they ended up moving the chairs into a campfire type circle and had a nice intimate chat with the author ... Barack Obama reading from his book Dreams from my Father. Obama and Bill Clinton have since done signings at the store (held at an off-site location, since the store is fairly small), as well as Maya Angelou, Misty Copeland, and a variety of local figures. "It was a good signing," James remembers. "[Then] in 2006 Obama told Random House that with the Audacity of Hope book he would only do our store." Although unfortunately, "It was a big event and our co-sponsors didn't have us listed anywhere or even on stage. Even now the Museum that it was held at says they hosted Obama, but no mention of Eso Won." Yet they go on. I asked them some questions about the store and The Millions: What was the genesis of this amazing store? Are you the original owners? James Fugate: We started in 1988, I was working as a bookstore manager for Compton College where I meant Tom Hamilton and third partner, and he’s moved to Maryland. Tom and Asamoa wanted to start a store and I met with them to talk about it. They passed on starting a store, as I thought it would be very hard to generate business, but as the manager of the Compton College Bookstore I had developed a great selection of Black books as general reading material for the students and I was being asked to come to various community functions to sell books on the weekends. The bookstore was run by Barnes and Noble’s college division and I felt very uncomfortable coming to Black community functions and representing Barnes and Noble. So I came up with the idea of selling on my own with Tom and Asamoa on the weekends. Tom and Asamoa had the seed money to start buying the books and I had the ordering knowledge to put the concept together. TM: What does Eso Won mean? JF: Eso Won means Water over Rocks. Asamoa and his wife had visited Aswan, Egypt, and the African name is said to be Eso Won. We had the saying for some time that as water flows over rocks, so does knowledge flow through books. TM: Who are your main clientele? JF: Our customers come from Central L.A. for the most part, mainly where most Black people live. But we also draw from all over the city. We were able to benefit from many many L.A. Times stories, plus amazing book signings. [millions_ad] TM: What do you like most about being a bookseller? What's the most surprising thing? JF: For me the most surprising thing about being a bookstore is meeting customers who love your suggestions. I love talking about books that really move me and seeing people respond to those. Seeing people respond to emails for new books that we like is another plus. There's a $200 signed Obama photo book coming this November and we’ve sold 20 just from our emails. It just blew me away. TM: Who are your best/worst customers? JF: The best customers are just the good people with pleasant attitudes. The worst are the many, many nutcases who come to our store and signings. Both Tom and I are just sick of them. I could write a book on the many incidents we’ve had over the year with customers and authors. I would write the book, but I need a co-writer. Trust me—we’ve had more than our share. TM: What are some of your recommendations? JF: Chokehold by Georgetown Law Professor Paul Butler may be the best book on race I’ve read since The Psychopathic Racial Personality. As a college student I struggled to understand hate. Blacks, Jews, Asians, Indians and Latinos all seemed to be feared by far too many white people. Psychopathic helped me understand why. Chokehold is the first book I’ve read which gets racism today. Plus Paul has very workable ideas on solving issues related to mass incarceration and other issues. TM: Are you yourself a writer? JF: Tom, Sam (Tom's son), and I are not writers at all. I would like to be, but writing is hard work. I don’t have many favorites authors right now. Walter Mosley is one, but some of my favorite books are The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley, Chester Himes—all of his books, Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, Locking Up Our Own by James Forman Jr.; Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean is outstanding, a roadmap to the insanity of the right. TM: I always ask the booksellers to recommend another bookstore. What's yours? JF: I love The Last Bookstore in downtown L.A. Their motto is, "What are you waiting for? We won't be here forever." Just about any used store is a favorite. TM: Any last thoughts? JF: Last thing: Books have knowledge and reading books gives you knowledge and power.
August is the only month the name of which is an adjective. But is August august? There’s nothing majestic or venerable about it. It’s sultry and lazy. It’s the height of the dog days, over which the dog star, Sirius, was said to reign with a malignity that brought on lassitude, disease, and madness. “These are strange and breathless days, the dog days,” promises the opening of Tuck Everlasting, “when people are led to do things they are sure to be sorry for after.” It’s not only the heat that can drive you mad; it’s the idleness. Without something to keep you occupied, there’s a danger your thoughts and actions will fall out of order. It was during the dog days of August that W.G. Sebald set out on a walking tour in the east of England in The Rings of Saturn, “in the hopes of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.” He couldn’t just enjoy his freedom; he became preoccupied by it, and by the “paralyzing horror” of the “traces of destruction” his leisured observation opened his eyes to. It strikes him as no coincidence at all that the following August he checked into a local hospital “in a state of almost total immobility.” What evil can restlessness gin up in August? “Wars begin in August,” Benny Profane declares in Pynchon’s V. The First World War, one of modernity’s more thorough examples of the human instinct for destruction, was kicked off in late June with two shots in Sarajevo, but it was only after a month of failed diplomacy that, as the title of Barbara Tuchman’s definitive history of the war’s beginning described them, The Guns of August began to fire. “In the month of August, 1914,” she wrote, “there was something looming, inescapable, universal that involved us all. Something in that awful gulf between perfect plans and fallible men.” In some editions, The Guns of August was called August 1914, the same title Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn used for his own book on the beginning of the war, a novel about the calamitous Battle of Tannenberg that exposed the rot under the tsar and helped bring on the years of Russian revolution. Not everyone is idle or evil in August. Many stay behind as the cities empty out in the heat, as Barbara Pym reminds us in Excellent Women, the best known of her witty and modestly willful novels of spinsters and others left out of the plots novelists usually concern themselves with. “‘Thank goodness some of one’s friends are unfashionable enough to be in town in August,’” William Caldicote says to Mildred Lathbury when he sees her on the street toward the end of the month. “‘No, I think there are a good many people who have to stay in London in August,’” she replies, “remembering the bus queues and the patient line of people moving with their trays in the great cafeteria.” Put your idleness, if you're fortunate enough to have some, to good use with these suggested August readings: The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons by John Wesley Powell (1875) What better use for idleness than an appreciation of someone else's industry? In this case, the laconic record of the dramatic first expedition through the unknown dangers of the Grand Canyon by the one-armed geology professor who led it in the summer of 1869. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915) Among the threads in Ford's intricately woven "saddest story" is the date August 4, which runs through the doomed life of Frances Dowell like a line of fate, or of self-destructive determination: it's the date, among other things, of her birth, her marriage, and her suicide. Light in August by William Faulkner (1932) Faulkner planned to call his tale of uncertain parentage “Dark House” until he was inspired, by those “few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall” and “a luminous quality to the light,” to name it instead after the month in which most of its tragedy is set. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946) Embedded in Warren’s tale of compromises and betrayals is a summer interlude between Jack Burden and Anne Stanton, the kind of young romance during which, as Jack recalls, “even though the calendar said it was August I had not been able to believe that the summer, and the world, would ever end.” The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers (1946) It’s the last Friday of August in that “green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old,” and on Sunday her brother is going to be married. In the two days between, Frankie does her best to do a lot of growing up and, by misdirection, she does. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952) It’s hard to state how thrilling it is to see the expectations and supposed rules of the novel broken so quietly and confidently: not through style or structure but through one character’s intelligent self-sufficiency, and through her creator’s willingness to pay attention to her. The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman (1962) It only added to the aura surrounding Tuchman’s breakthrough history of the first, error-filled month of the First World War that soon after it was published John F. Kennedy gave copies of the book to his aides and told his brother Bobby, “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time [called] The Missiles of October.” Letters to Felice by Franz Kafka (1967) One of literature's most notoriously failed (and best documented) courtships was sparked by Kafka's August 1912 encounter with Felice Bauer. By the end of the evening, despite -- or because of -- what he describes as her "bony, empty face," he reported he was "completely under the influence of the girl." The Family by Ed Sanders (1971) and Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi (1974) The terrible events at the Tate and LaBianca households on the night of August 8, 1969, were recounted in these two pop-culture tombstones for the 60s, one by Beat poet Sanders, writing from within the counterculture that had curdled into evil in Charles Manson's hands, and one by Manson's prosecutor that's part Warren Report and part In Cold Blood. The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley (1981) Bradley's nearly forgotten modern classic concerns two incidents in Chaneysville, Pa: the shooting -- self-inflicted, the legends say -- of 13 escaped slaves about to be captured, and the mysterious August death, a century later, of a black moonshiner of local wealth and power, whose son, in attempting to connect the two, pulls together a web of personal and national history. "The Fall River Axe Murders" by Angela Carter Carter's fictional retelling of the August 1892 murders of which Lizzie Borden was acquitted by a jury but convicted by popular opinion is a fever dream of New England humidity and repression that will cause you to feel the squeeze of a corset, the jaw-clench of parsimony, and the hovering presence of the angel of death. The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald (1995) A book -- call it a memoir or a travelogue or a novel -- grounded in an August walk through Suffolk, although Sebald could hardly go a sentence without being diverted by his restless curiosity into the echoes of personal and national history he heard wherever he went. Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (2000) In August, in a seaside village in southwest France, Bourdain tasted his first oyster, pulled straight from the ocean, and everything changed: “I’d not only survived -- I’d enjoyed.” Image Credit: Flickr/Paulo Otávio
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 Of 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