My First Published Story
On September 27, 1994 I received a typed letter in an off-white envelope from the late Staige Blackford, editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review. He wanted to publish a story I'd sent him four months before. He didn't get to that point quickly. Instead, he talked about the reader he'd given my piece to, a guy who worked construction over the summer and may have lost the manuscript along the way. He was sorry everything had taken so long, but wanted to let me know his reader's thoughts were positive.
Finally, in the third paragraph, he said what I'd been waiting to hear. It was my first acceptance. I'd been writing about nine years by then, not very well, and had sent stories just about everywhere. The one that found a home was called, "A Painful Shade of Blue." Like so much early fiction, it's autobiographical. I wrote about my parents' divorce, and about our lives in upstate New York. I didn't tell anyone in my family what the story was about, and as the year passed between Mr. Blackford's acceptance and the story's appearance in the fall of 1995, I grew increasingly concerned. The character representing my father was, as the reader said, "a parody of the man in mid-life crisis." The narrator even refers to her dad as "Joe College." I debated whether I should tell them that, in all likelihood, they would be unhappy to see how I'd rendered them. In the end, I let them find out for themselves. My father, who at first was pleased for me because years before while a graduate student in English at Harvard he'd placed his first scholarly article in the Virginia Quarterly Review, later said, "I wish Anne's fiction were more fictional."
The story was written in a moment of frustration over not getting published. Looking back, I see the reason for the delay had a great deal to do with a dreary character I was obsessed with, Nina, who was always depressed, caught up in her own misery, short on energy and ultimately charm for my readers. My mother suggested I write about something else. "Write about your crazy family," she said. My two-and-a-half year old son entered day care, and I had six weeks to go until my daughter was born. That's when I wrote the story. Naturally I came to think that part of my problem with getting published had been that my energies were divided among life, writing, and childcare. I don't think that's true now, however. I think it just took the time it took.
I provided my bio for the journal's Green Room. I didn't have much to say, with no prior writing credits, though I had been named as a finalist in the 1992 Nelson Algren Award. I mentioned that I was a native of upstate New York, where the story took place. I also said it was my first published piece. Mr. Blackford deleted that. When I reviewed the galleys and returned them, I re-inserted it. He deleted it once again when the issue went to press. I didn't know if he was embarrassed at presenting a brand new writer, but ultimately I didn't care.
The issue's other contributors, including the poet Tess Gallagher whose work appeared on the page just before mine, read like a Who's Who of American Letters. Authors with many publications and awards, creative writing professors, top-notch historians, renowned commentators, and me. Suddenly, I was in very good company. I can do this, I thought. I can write from my heart and someone will make it available to people I'd never know and who would never know me, except through my stories. That was truly a stunning moment, and one that's lasted to this day.