The Writing Life: Getting Down to Business
- The Writing Life
- The Writing Life: The Beginning
- The Writing Life: Getting Down to Business
- The Writing Life: Lessons Learned
- The Writing Life: A New Millennium
- The Writing Life: A Blessing in Disguise
- The Writing Life: Finally!
- The Writing Life:”Darker” Days
- The Writing Life: Struggling For a New Idea
- The Writing Life: The Last Straw
- The Writing Life: Floundering
- The Writing Life: Opportunities and New Lessons Learned
- The Writing Life: Turning Point
- The Writing Life: Opening Doors
The origins of my first novel, “November Rust”, began as an experiment. I just started writing, without any clear idea as to what the hell the thing was going to be. Even though I had read literally hundreds of novels by this point in my life (Spring 1996), I was absolutely clueless as to what to do. What kind of book was I going to write? I had no idea. All I knew was that it was going to be something akin to what I liked to read. I also knew I didn’t want to write any genre fiction. (I had made a few abortive attempts at writing hardboiled detective novels in mid-1980s, and even submitted a few short stories to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and one called Hardboiled. All of them were ceremoniously rejected–as they should have been—but I did come close a couple of times with “Hardboiled”. By the time the mid-90s rolled around, I wasn’t interested in writing that kind of thing anymore. I wanted to do something with “higher aspirations” so to speak). I also knew that I had never really written anything serious before so I was a little hesitant to get started. But I just jumped right into it, following the now familiar mantra “write what you know”.
So I thought about what had been going on in my life for the past two years or so and decided, ok, I’ll “write what I know’, which was, for the most part, the little artistic and creative circles I had been running around in. I envisioned this first attempt at a novel to be a truthful look at what I had experienced in those circles, drawing on real life circumstances, incidents, etc as well as things from the past—childhood, growing up in New York, etc. I guess that seems a fairly typical and familiar thing to do. I was writing under the extremely heavy influence of Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and in these early pages it showed. But I didn’t care. I didn’t mind wearing my influences on my sleeve. Ashow to write it, I didn’t know. So I started writing it like the books I enjoyed reading. First person, autobiographical, but fictionalized to a heavy degree, of course. I also knew I didn’t want to write it as a “straight” novel. I had ambitions, you see (note the sarcasm). So I just started writing and after writing nearly every day for over a couple of months, I had a good 100 plus pages sitting in my paper tray.
But there was a problem. There was an awful lot of writing but not much of a story. Did that matter? I asked myself. I had read many novels, most of them of the “literary” bent, that simply had no story at all! They were merely ruminations on things, ideas, life; reflections on one’s personal philosophy, views on existence, the nature of art and creativity, etc. Oh, there may have been some sense of “story” in between it all, something like a thread to pull it all together, but by and large there wasn’t any story at all, nor was there anything resembling a plot of any kind. It occurred to me that there were an awful lot of literary works that simply had no story at all. So what the hell kinds of books were these? I came to the conclusion, however mistaken I may have been at the time, that a novel didn’t have to have a story in order for it to be an interesting and enjoyable read. After all, I read and enjoyed many of them myself, right?
So I plodded on, occasionally stopping and putting it aside because I had no confidence in my abilities. It was a whole different ball game than writing poetry, which seemed more natural to me; easier, more concise, streamlined. I began to have my doubts about whether or not I was cut out to write a novel. So I stuffed what I had done into my desk drawer for a very long time and went back putting my energies into poetry.
The years between 1997 and 2003 was mostly focused on poetry. I wrote many—though many of them weren’t all that good, I began to submit them everywhere and anywhere I could. I scoured the Writers Market and Small Press Marketplace, went through the listings in the small press zines and just started sending them out by the hundreds. (I would sometimes pull the novel out of the drawer but rarely would I write anything new. I mostly moved everything around, trying to find a better way to tell my “story”. After giving up on that again for a while, I went back to the poetry). I would carefully select which ones would go where, sometimes getting acceptances, other times not. Something occurred to me during this process. I’d noticed that some of the poems I didn’t think were all that great were getting accepted while the others I thought were really good were being rejected (especially by the more renowned journals—which I didn’t think would take them but you never know unless you try, right?). Sometimes the reverse would happen: the one’s I thought were really good would get accepted and the shit ones would come back with the standard, impersonal rejection letters. I kept all of these rejection letters. Sometimes, though not often, they would come with a little note of encouragement or reasons why the work was rejected, but most of the time it was very impersonal. Sometimes the reasons were simply head scratching. It was when I received a rejection notice from one of the more “popular” underground magazines that I learned something else about this whole business of submitting your work to magazines.
I had sent a couple of poems that I thought were my best ones at the time to a very popular journal. Not in the same league as Poetry or the Paris Review or Granta but popular in the “underground” sense. I don’t even think it’s around anymore. Anyway, I thought I had a good shot there but the poems came back, much to my disappointment. There was the standard rejection notice wrapped around the unused poems but there was also a handwritten note. I eagerly read what it had to say: “Keep interrogating Stalin”. What? What the hell did that mean? It made me laugh but at the same time I was like, “what the fu**?” I shrugged it off, sent the rejected poems off to another magazine, a much smaller one but still fairly respected in the “underground” circles at the time. They were accepted. Go figure. The acceptance letter came to me, also with a handwritten note, this time, letting me know how much they enjoyed the poems. At that precise moment it occurred to me that this was all a fucking crap shoot. Who the hell knew what editor was going to like this or that, which ones they wouldn’t? After that, I stopped “carefully selecting” where I sent anything. This is what I did:
I printed out a pile of poems, pretty much all of them I had at the time which numbered in the hundreds, and placed the stack on one side of my desk. The next few days were spent filling out envelopes with the addresses with all the literary journals I could find in the Writers Market and elsewhere that would be open to the kind of poetry I was writing. The next couple of days was spent making out the self addressed stamped envelopes for the return of the poems, acceptance and/or rejection letters the journals were inclined to send back. Most journals wanted a minimum of three poems to read. So that’s what I did. I placed the pile of envelopes on one side, the stack of poems on the other, grabbed three off the top and sent them to the first journal intended. Then I took the next three, which went to whoever it was addressed to. So on and so forth, no rhyme or reason, totally random, until all the poems were sealed and ready to go. I took the huge stack of submissions and dumped them into the mailbox and waited for the whole process to begin. In the meantime, I addressed more envelopes to more journals and magazines, placed them at a corner on my desk. The idea was that whatever came back got sent to the next journal, whichever was on top of the pile.
In the meantime, I tried to get back to work on the novel and got on with the natural course of my every day life. I managed to write another section of the novel but yet there was something about it that still wasn’t sitting right with me. The idea “who the hell is going to be interested in reading this shit!?” crossed my mind many times and I came close to just tossing the whole thing in the garbage and forgetting about it. I began to think that maybe I just didn’t have a book in me. Maybe I was only kidding myself. But I didn’t throw it away. Instead, I shoved it back in the drawer, after tinkering with it on and off again for a couple of weeks, the idea of tossing it not far from my mind.
That particular week turned out to be an inspiring one for one simple reason. Erica Jong. She happened to be doing a reading somewhere on the Upper West Side that week and my friend Linda (who is a huge fan of Erica Jong) and I decided to go and listen to her, perhaps meet her briefly and enjoy a nice night out. I remember it was a beautiful night and the reading was held on some sort of outdoor roof deck but where exactly I can’t remember. At some point during the Q&A portion of the reading, she went on to talk about how when she was writing her first novel, “Fear of Flying” (a great book, by the way. I highly recommend it), she had the same feeling come over her that I had been having. She, too, wondered who the hell was going to be interested in reading what she wrote. She went on to say that many writers have that feeling now and then and it was natural to have those feelings. I felt better about my ever increasing abortion of a novel and decided right then I wouldn’t trash it but soldier on, for better or for worse.
In the meantime, over the course of the next couple of weeks, the envelopes started coming back. I got quite a few acceptances, even some in Canada and Europe, which was very exciting. Those that were rejected went off to the next group of journals. Some of them wound up getting accepted elsewhere, while many others, a majority of them in fact, came back home. No problem, I said to myself (since the majority of the rejection letters were no more than a standard slip they send to everyone), off to the next group, and so and and so on. The ratio of acceptances to rejections were about 5 acceptances for every 50 rejections or so. Not bad, really, when you think about it. I was just happy that anyone accepted them. It kept up the encouragement I needed to keep moving forward, only now, with much less stress. It seemed to me the whole “carefully select your markets” thing turned out to be a bunch of crap. The random approach seemed to be working just fine.
The poems circulated for months on end, coming back, going out, coming back, going out. In the meantime, I kept writing new poems, working on the novel, feeling inspired, still feeling determined. I was thoroughly enjoying myself and I was feeling good.
Then the rug got pulled out from under me yet again….
(To be continued…..)
Tags: abortive attempts, alfred hitchcock, aspirations, circles, detective novels, ellery queen, genre fiction, hardboiled detective, henry miller, hitchcock mystery, jack kerouac, julian gallo, life circumstances, life spring, louis ferdinand céline, mid 1980s, mid 90s, origins, rust, short stories