The editor of the small, seemingly young literary magazine sends me an email with a proof and many little edits, asking if I approve. I don’t open it at first, because the very thought brings rushing waves of panic. They need me to say everything’s good to go so that they can publish the piece. I tell myself that nobody will probably ever read it anyway because it would be so hard to find, so it’s okay. On the other hand, don’t I want to brag about my hard work and good fortune, not to mention stamp of approval, in the form of sharing this publication? That’s what it’s all about, right? To get credit for this so that I can move on to bigger and better things, which will be the same, but more and longer and in bigger, more renowned publications?
I originally scribbled out this particular piece in pencil in one of the kids’ notebooks for my very first writing group session with a new writing group composed of my sister and two of her friends about two years ago. I felt nervous pressure to perform and produce something good and interesting to read for them. My sister had read a poem from a New Yorker or something, and I had incorporated lines from the poetry into the piece. And then when I’d read it out loud to them, my sister seemed to have been impressed. She said it was clear I’d been listening to all those New Yorker fiction podcasts. I didn’t tell her, but I went so far as to actually submit the piece to The New Yorker a few days later, with hardly any editing. It’s embarrassing to admit, but it’s the kind of thing I still do. In secret.
The first line I’d come up with weeks earlier, during the summer months. It’s the most fun way to begin any sort of writing, at least in my experience: to discover an assortment of words in a row together rattling around naggingly in your brain. You have to try to grab them. So the refrain or the vague idea, however you want to call it, had materialized in my mind, as some occasionally do to my delight every time, though it’s always scary too. You worry you won’t actually be able to form the thing you are supposed to form out of them, that perhaps they’re just a red herring or a shiny, slippery unidentifiable fish that you will allow to get away from you. “Your parents fell in love on Central American islands.” That was the line.
And then, contrary to the bad times when you aren’t able to get the thing out as pictured (shadowy and lumpy in your unseeing mind), I started writing, and it just came out whole and unfettered, like a baby finally squelching out of the womb, fully formed. Still, that’s certainly not to say the writing is good or anything. I just did the task of creating the thing I had envisioned, which is satisfying of its own accord: getting it out on paper. And when I shot the submission off to some small journal with a cute name after my sister told me they’d accepted her piece and said it was their favorite story ever. I made sure I used my married last name so that they wouldn’t recognize we were sisters, and voila.
I wasn’t being extremely intentional. It was just my typical scattershot, carpet-bombing method where I decide to blast every literary journal I can find with some of my writing in hopes they will deem some scribble worthy of publication or perhaps be desperate enough for something to put on the printed page that they’ll use what I have offered, like Abraham and Isaac and the sheep stuck in the bush. No, not exactly like that.
This morning as I lay in my bed after my second alarm clock, the one at 6:15, I thought about what a vain and stupid task this writing is. I tried to convince myself to just go back to sleep, to cuddle closer with my son and husband who want me to stay with them under the covers instead of returning to pursue this Sisyphean endeavor that causes me nothing but stress and compulsion and self-loathing. But I couldn’t.
I am like a friend we know who paints abstract paintings obsessively and has nothing he can do with them. He puts so much time and effort and money and faith into this act that produces nothing but waste and clutter. He has tried to sell them, he has tried to give them away, he has given several away to us, but they aren’t that good, and they aren’t framed or anything, and something about them feels cheap; you wouldn’t want them on your wall. I would hate for him to read these things I am saying, but it’s exactly the same way I feel about my writing: I wouldn’t want it in my literary journal. My words are too concise and too clear; there’s no subtext or subtlety. I remember looking up the word “prosaic” and the disappointing “aha” I felt when I realized that my writing fit the bill: much more prosaic than poetic, by the first definition. Matter-of-fact or dull, lacking poetic beauty. At least my writing is not such a costly act as the painting, but I create all these little snippets of who-knows-what trying to do who-knows-what for who-knows-who to read, and then I humiliate myself by submitting them for rejection. So they wait for eternity, cluttering my Google Docs and filling up my computer memory when I download them, never to be some fully fleshed thing of completion.
At last I open the email from the editor. I usually don’t complete tasks until I have to apologize for being late, but I know that if some glaring, mortifying thing does need to be changed, better sooner than last-minute or a day after the due date. And when I read the lines he highlighted in the proof—the accompanying comments that were supposed to be there did not show up for some reason—I couldn’t believe the audacity of my writing. I had written about the first time my nebulous unnamed narrator, who is myself, had had sex—”intentional, consensual intercourse,” I call it. It’s an earlier draft of a piece I later edited and mollified, and I can’t believe my husband or anyone at all will possibly read it in any form other than some scribble I produced like a dog turd in the yard.
The guy seems nice enough. I just got another email back from him this morning. It’s been two days since I saw the proofs, and I am feeling slightly better, slightly more distanced. Part of the reason is because I am less convinced that anyone will read my horrifying work. It’s such a small journal, and literally no one I know reads short stories of any sort in any journal anyway, unless they are so commanded in junior high or high school to consume one of the handful of classics, like “The Necklace” or “The Lottery.” And the one good thing, my one solace, is that at least this particular piece is only disparaging, potentially, to me and my husband, not to other people in my life, like the fiasco with my unnamed annoying neighbors who I mentioned as unnamed annoying neighbors in my very first work accepted for publication, a fiction piece that I foolishly shared on social media. Every neighbor thought I was referring to them.
At least in “Islands,” another hyper-autobiographical piece that I was able to conveniently classify as “hybrid work” and the piece in question, my only real concern is my parents, who don’t know we had premarital sex even though we traveled around Central America for three weeks alone together. I know it seems slightly unbelievable that they would allow themselves to be so naive, but I was always a really good kid. On the other hand, I would bet a lot of money that they too partook in that pleasure before they sealed the deal. The other person who could be affected by the piece is my husband. When I once excitedly shared a draft of this particular writing with him by email for him to read on his train ride home from work, he did not seem pleased. Later, when I had to ask him about it, he said. “Oh, that? It made our relationship seem kind of dirty. I like to think of it as beautiful, almost holy.”
But oh, the tragedy of that. I feel it is my job in life to show the underbelly of things. Maybe that is a little too dramatic—what I mean to say is that nothing that is perfect is interesting. It can’t be. If I were to describe this fairytale trip my future husband and I took in Central America, you would not be interested, nor would you believe it. I must show things as they really are: messy and kind of gross. Also, there are endless mentions of drinking excessive alcohol in the piece, and it is now too late to remove them before it heads off into the world for public consumption, and I blame that on the poem my sister selected for us as a prompt.
The editor’s ideas are that I remove the term “white” when I reference a European couple we saw at a restaurant, which I completely agree with, and that I change this excruciating line about sex. He comments that perhaps the term “consensual” intercourse suggests that at other times it was not so, which is, of course, a huge no-no. I compose an email with my prettiest, simplest writing to tell him he’s perfectly correct, of course, and both things should be changed as suggested. I want to ask him how and why they accepted my writing and if he too finds it good enough to print or if it was just for a lack of other submissions that I earned this spot on their list of authors. I cannot ask him that question. Instead, I try to convince him through my elegant responses that I am as intelligent and thoughtful as he or maybe his editorial colleagues chose to believe I was. But I wonder, how can they really trust me? What if my other writing is about the genius of Trump’s politics? Or something like what I am now composing?
The final request by the editor, after we have completed the adjustments about the uncomfortable line edits, is for a photograph. So instead of spending my sacred morning hours stringing words together on my computer or editing the ones I already cranked out on other days, I go through all the old photos of myself on my phone to find an appropriate one for a writer’s bio. I learn several things about myself as I do so. I do not take flattering selfies. In fact, I take unflattering selfies. I like to look silly when I pose for a picture, or intentionally ugly. I only attempt to look nice in pictures with someone else.
I find two options. One is a picture I took of myself on a hike in the snow from a ski vacation we went on a few years ago. Our baby, strapped to my chest though you can’t see him, was too young to ski, so I went hiking every day. The background is snow and jutting rock, and my face is red and triumphant. There are a series of other pictures that my daughter took for me a few years ago too. These are far more embarrassing or “cringey,” as my children would say. My youngest son was a model for a brief period, and his agency sent out a request for mom models to which I responded with some photos. I am wearing a one-piece black romper with short shorts and spaghetti straps, and I look vaguely sexy for my age. I look like I am at least trying to look pretty, perhaps trying too hard, unlike the other self-portraits in the vast collection on my phone where I am making weird faces or acting self-conscious.
I feel like I have developed some sort of rapport with this editor, and I try to determine what sending each photo could mean. One seems flirtatious; the other seems braggy. I resort to asking one of my daughters, and she says to use a modeling shot, me in black sitting on the deck steps, naked limbs exposed. The sort of picture a person who wrote a story like mine would send. So I send it. No writing is done that day.
A few weeks later, I receive an email saying the journal is completed, both the online and print journal version. And that is it. There is nothing else to do, and the writing I have thought so much about—so much more about than when I first wrote it in a heave of inspiration and imagery—is live somewhere, is in a literary magazine somewhere, and nobody that I know knows. It’s just there, published, and I will begin to list this publication whenever I try to get my work published elsewhere. I won’t know if and when anyone reads it, and they probably won’t. This is how publishing your writing works now.