My First Time in Print
One morning when I was eleven, I went downstairs to find my father holding The Hartford Courant—beaming as he held up This Singing World, the poetry column. He pulled me over, and there I saw it: my poem, my name, and my age.
I wish I could say I felt excited, or as if I’d accomplished something, but I only felt happy because my father was proud. It didn’t occur to me to wonder how the poem had gotten there; I figured one had only to write a poem, then wake up to find it in the local paper.
This was a dangerous assumption. I wrote from an early age—not with any thought of being published, but just because I’d learned that putting everything down on paper made it possible for me to live. Doesn’t that sound melodramatic?
But it’s true; I had thin skin, and the world hurt my feelings on a daily basis. One January day in third grade a neighborhood boy threw my coat up in a tree, and my cheeks scalded as I wrote about the ignominy. That same winter I found a dead Dark-eyed Junco in the snow, and I grieved so terribly I couldn’t go to school until I’d written a story about it.
My mother recognized my love of writing and sent in who-knows-how-many of my poems and stories, causing a few more to magically appear in print. Later, when my father was dying and I dropped out of college to be near him, I started submitting my own short stories. Rejections poured in at a stunning rate.
The rejection slips were impersonal—printed form letters from The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Atlantic Monthly, and Redbook. Each was a blade to my heart. I doubted myself constantly. Wasn’t it hubristic to think I could ever be published in pages along with writers I revered: John Cheever, Anne Tyler, V. S. Pritchett, Laurie Colwin, Mary Robison?
I stopped being able to bear those rejection slips. When the self-addressed, self-stamped manila envelopes returned to me, I would stack them unopened, on my desk, just to the left of my Olympia portable typewriter.
The memory of that first poem didn’t help—what could be sadder than getting published because your mother sent something in, because the poetry editor probably considered it a novelty, the poem of an eleven-year-old?
One day when the stack was a foot tall, I decided to go through my stories and re-submit the stories to other magazines. As I ripped the envelopes open, I couldn’t believe my eyes: notes on the rejection slips. “Try us again!” “We love the characters.” “Please send us more.”
The best notes were from The New Yorker. Still rejections, but down below Eustace Tilley and the printed words, a note signed “M.D.” An actual editor! Also, clipped to one story, was a handwritten letter from Brendan Gill. The magazine’s drama critic, Brendan was a Hartford native who’d spent time on the Connecticut shoreline; he said my story’s strong setting had caused M.D. to show it to him.
Brendan invited me to New York for lunch at the Algonquin, where we sat one banquet away from William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker. We had lunch frequently after that; he told me that if I wanted to have a literary life I should move to New York. I did.
It took a few more years for a story of mine to see print, but that seems about right. Putting in time at the desk, reading everything, not giving up, is the fiction writer’s equivalent of grad school (unless she goes to grad school). Dan Curley, editor of Ascent, the literary magazine at the University of Illinois, accepted “July,” a short story about three sisters.
The New Yorker never did accept one of my stories. But now that I’ve gotten published on my own, I am grateful for that first poem in The Hartford Courant; it hangs, framed and yellowed with age, on my apartment wall.
Photo: Adrian Kinloch