I was supposed to do this earlier. Publish a book, I mean. In 2004, I went to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and one night, long after many people had turned in, I found myself sitting between Richard Bausch and Morgan Entrekin, the publisher of Grove Atlantic [and co-founder of this website]. The two men were grand storytellers and they had traded memories back and forth all night about writers I had heard of and some I hadn’t. I was 26 years old and in their thrall. The night pressed against us, broken from time to time by Entrekin’s cigarette flaring red. I was in Bausch’s workshop and my story had been up that afternoon and he said something complimentary about my work to Entrekin. Entrekin said something to the effect that it was good to know me then and, later, when the party finally broke up—the bartenders had called it quits—I rose and shook Entrekin’s hand. “You should send me something to read,” he said.
Now, I was 26 but I wasn’t a complete idiot. I knew that an entrée to send Entrekin something to read didn’t mean I was going to automatically publish a novel with him. There was still the matter of securing an agent to send him the book. There was also the matter of me needing to finish this novel I had begun. You can tell how much of an idiot I was by the order in which I have placed those thoughts at the time. Entrekin gave me two agents to query, one of which was at the conference that year. When I met with the first, it turned out she represented two of the professors in my graduate program. She was excited to read my work and gave me her card. I thought I was going to sell a novel in the next year. All I had to do was finish the manuscript.
Three years before this I had moved to Richmond, Virginia with my brother Tim. I had quit a job just as the economy was tanking and finding a new one was proving more than difficult. My brother had accepted a position in Richmond that started in September and he said if I wanted to come with him and live, I could. I jumped at the chance not just because we are best friends but because it was going to get me out of our parents’ house in Kentucky. I also thought that in a bigger city I might be able to actually find employment. I didn’t. Not immediately. My brother went to work and, after going to the gym, I would come home and write stories for four hours every day and then spend the afternoon applying for jobs. This was a far remove from what I thought my life would be.
In college, I had been a good student, graduating with honors and completing a collection of stories as a thesis. My teachers had encouraged me and made me feel like writing was a way I could live my life. I had always planned to take some time off between college and graduate school and I expected to be accepted into a graduate program the fall after I moved to Richmond with Tim. I wasn’t.
At the time the rejections came rolling in, I was working as a mail clerk at the Medical College of Virginia. Each day I would load up a dolly with U.S. Postal Mail Crates, strapping them down with bungee cords, and make my way from building to building. Before my shift began at 5 am, I sat in my truck and listened to Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac on NPR, taking in a poem in the pre-dawn light, staring at the empty darkened rows in the parking garage across the street. I tried to tell myself on some mornings that my job was temporary, that I wasn’t going to be there forever, but then I would get out of the truck, punch in, and when I made the first delivery of the day, I would see the medical students lined up at the food truck outside the building where I sorted mail. I was the same age as them. Just as smart, I told myself, but on a different path. Still, it hurt to see them going off in pursuit of their dreams while I was walking into one department after another with secretaries calling out when I approached, “The mail man is here.”
So, in a sense, when I met Bausch and Entrekin that summer, it seemed my life, which I had viewed in Richmond as being in a tailspin had stabilized. When I got back to campus in the fall, I gave a reading with another graduate student and afterward one of my professors came up to compliment me and offered to serve on my thesis committee. In the spring I sold my first short story. I was preparing to apply for MFA programs and my teachers encouraged me to apply to the best programs in the country. When I objected, citing that I had already racked up three years’ worth of rejections to programs from my time in Virginia, they said I had to apply, arguing that I owed it to myself to make those programs say no. The agent I met at Sewanee had liked the first hundred pages of my novel I sent her and was waiting on me to finish. I thought I was beginning to understand how to write stories, how to craft fiction.
Nine rejections later, including my safety school, I was interviewing for a job at the Department of Education in Tallahassee, Florida. I tried to dust myself off and send in the rest of the novel to the agent. She wrote back extensive notes, which can be summed up as, It wasn’t working. When I asked one of my teachers about it, I told her it felt like I was in a relationship where the woman wanted to break up with me but couldn’t say the words. Her response was, “She probably thinks you are a good writer but doesn’t think this novel is very good.”
I crested thirty and still didn’t have a book to my name. The novel I had been working on for almost six years didn’t seem to want to bend itself into shape—or, I should say, I didn’t know how to bend it. Still, I managed to get into an MFA program and get my degree, and somehow had worked myself into the narrow slot that is academia these days. I was teaching creative writing in Cleveland and I began a new novel that I wrote in a year. I felt good about the novel and, having cut ties with the first agent, went about querying new ones. I landed with someone at an old school, established agency, but she couldn’t sell the novel. The closest we got was an editor at a Big Five publisher who wanted the book but marketing nixed it, saying they couldn’t sell the it. Or that’s what the email read. Mentors assured me that my writing was good, but at a certain point, a book became a kind of currency that I did not possess and I didn’t know how to earn. Meanwhile, my agent had moved out west. It took me a year to figure out she had stopped trying to sell my book.
I’m incredibly stubborn and loathe giving up on any project. I had put a lot of time and energy into those two novels and I believed—still believe—they were good enough to be published. When I had been a young man the novelist Lee Smith said to me, “I love to write but I hate to publish.” At the time, I had no comprehension of what that meant and could only think how fortunate she was to be able to have that opinion, but as I’ve gotten older I understand it more and more.
Every six months or so someone will post on Twitter or here at Lit Hub a list of debut authors over 40. The rationale, of course, is that some of your best loved authors took a long time to publish. The subtext seems to be, Take heart! You don’t have to be a wunderkind. You run your own race at your own pace. But when your pace doesn’t seem to keep up with everyone else’s, and in this age of social media, it’s easy to feel that way, you may find it hard to not feel the pressure of publishing a book. No matter how many mentors you have telling you you’re good, no matter how many stories and essays you publish, the book, well, the book sometimes feels like the only real thing.
At one point, I had been considered to be a wunderkind. When I was 22 I attended a writing workshop with a now famous novelist. We were both just starting out on our writing journeys and she told me I was a prodigy. I scoffed at her. Of course I was secretly pleased—who wouldn’t be?—but I didn’t believe her for one minute. I had gone to a directional university (Western Kentucky—Go Tops!) and she was an Ivy Leaguer. The novelist insisted, though. Later that week, when I had an individual conference with our instructor, he said to me, “Whatever it is, you have it.” I told him, “I don’t know about all that.” And he said, “Well, I do.”
A year before this, at the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop, I had been rooming with an oncologist from Tennessee. He had been unsure of himself the minute he arrived and when he had his meeting with the poet and novelist Robert Morgan on the third day of the conference, I came back to find him packing his bags. “I’m going home,” he said.
“What happened?” I asked and he explained the meeting with Morgan, which didn’t sound great but didn’t sound as bad as he thought it was, either. I feel like he said something to the effect of, “This isn’t for me,” meaning the conference I thought then, but maybe he meant writing. I was just a senior in college and here was this very accomplished man, packing his bags right before supper and fixing to head out into the night and go home. I didn’t understand how he didn’t believe in himself, how he couldn’t keep going.
Even as a young man, I knew that when I wrote my mind went somewhere else. My senses and sensitivity became engaged in a way like nothing else had made them before. The feeling of that is what drove me to writing when I was young and it is what made me believe in myself. I watched that doctor walk out the door and when people asked me at supper that night what had happened to him, I told them he left. “I guess he didn’t believe in himself, but you have to know deep down you’re good, right?” I was asking for myself more than giving an explanation of how we survive in this writing life. I only had my intangible feelings to go on and the encouragement of my college professor, but I just sort of felt like the way my mind seemed to transform was important to hold on to.I said to my major professor one day, regarding the failure with the agent, “I just never thought it would be like this.” She looked at me with earnest confusion. “Why?”
The rejections to graduate school were the first time in my life that my writing had been rejected. By then I had moved on from the mail room to working at a two-screen terminal for a financial services firm that compiled small, capsule reports for investors on publicly traded companies. My job—really—was to cut and paste company descriptions into an Access database and when there was no description to lift, create one. I did this eight hours a day, five days a week. I began to miss the mail room. I had never expected my early twenties to be soul-crushing and I became irritable and restless. One day my brother called me on the way home from work and I snapped at him in such a violent and hostile way that seconds after I hung up, I didn’t know what was happening to me. I didn’t know how to control my emotions, which I see now as a function of despair and shame. I had felt like an incredible failure. If only my friend could see me now, I thought, she’d take back that prodigy comment in a second.
I had to make some changes.
Little did I know that the writing life would be full of such existential struggle. It’s not just the rejections, which accumulate like cords of wood you can’t burn. It’s the daily questioning of yourself, of your worth, of your ability to press words into some form that has meaning for yourself as well as a reader. I had been buoyed by getting into a writing program and achieving some measure of success but when the book with the first agent collapsed and my options for the MFA dried up, too, I felt nearly as lost as I did in Richmond. I thought I had taken the steps I needed to—get into a program, work hard, meet important editors and agents who can help, more hard work, finish a novel. That was it, right? I said to my major professor one day, regarding the failure with the agent, “I just never thought it would be like this.” She looked at me with earnest confusion. “Why?” And I didn’t really have a good response for her. “Everyone thinks it will be different for them,” she said.
On the first day of classes, I tell my students that no one in the room has a more intimate relationship with rejection than I do. “Every day I’m told no by someone,” I say. They sort of look at one another both confused and bemused. I tell them this to remind them that I’m a writer first and that I know how hard it is to complete this work. I’m going to be tough on their stories—it tends to be my reputation—but that’s only because I want them to get better and I want them to avoid the mistakes I made as a young writer. What I have to offer my classes are not a life’s work of successes but a life’s work of failures and pulling myself through to keep writing and keep going.
When I was young I thought writing was about talent alone but I’ve learned that talent is not necessarily the most important part of the equation. Work ethic, stubbornness, the ability to take punches and believe in yourself, even dumbly so, matter just as much, if not more. If you don’t have those things then nothing will carry your talent across the line because the darkness will come for you in some form—a review, an editor dropping you, an agent abandoning your book.
My happy beginning now starts at 41 with my first book, a collection of stories, Any Other Place, being published this week by Blair. This book arrives only ten to fifteen years later than most of the most important people in my writing life expected it to. I certainly thought it would have happened before now. A younger me might have considered the wait, the length of time, a failure, a half-measure even, but not the writer that opened up a box of his books last week and marveled at the cover and the blurbs and pages inside that constitute a life’s work. I have been reading and writing very seriously for half of my life and I don’t know if I could get where I want to in another three lifetimes. What you learn with age is to make peace with that and to let the ambition and passion you first forge as a young person not ever die. If you can, try not to let it ever cool, but life will take you on its path. Your job is to keep yourself between the ditches, to do as little harm as you can to those you love and yourself, to write the story, poem, or essay that only you can write.
This writing life is often plodding. One foot in front of the other, so to speak, through deep mud and in the dark, it seems. You can only find your way by walking—working—moving toward the sun no matter how far ahead the horizon seems.