My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today's guest is Maile Chapman, author of the novel Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto. Her stories have appeared in A Public Space, the Literary Review, the Boston Review, and Best American Fantasy Writing as well as many other journals. She teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Junot Diaz had this to say about her first novel: "Maile Chapman is one of my favorite writers and in Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto she has given us an eerie gift of a novel. It is a superb hallucinatory piercing, an ominous dispatch from that Gothic frontier of the Female Body."
My First Writing Contest
I entered a writing competition for the first time through my elementary school when I was in the fifth grade. I remember being excited about the prize: a ticket to a conference with grown-up writers and illustrators who would talk about books. Could anything be better? I gave my story to the school librarian with high hopes.
My childhood readings included a lot of Ray Bradbury, the supernatural shelves at the public library, and all kinds of scary stories intended for adults...I liked anything with a mysterious or creepy atmosphere. (I also picked up a few Gothic paperbacks whose coded erotic content went mostly over my head.) For the school competition I wrote a story called "The Shadow Box," in which a boy named Marco and a girl named Kristen find themselves trapped in an abandoned old mansion with a beautiful, scantily-clad woman who sometimes appears as a giant snake. The snake-woman forces men carry her around on a litter, through a series of decrepitly opulent rooms and hallways, and she owns the titular box that Marco wants to open.
It was my first submission, and my first rejection. The school librarian–one of my favorite people in the world at the time–handed the story back to me saying that the judges thought my mother had "helped" me, because it didn't seem like fifth-grade subject matter. I assumed this meant it was too scary, and the next year I wrote a simpler story: a boy and a girl (their names were also Marco and Kristen) find themselves lost on a beach during a sudden storm and take shelter in a cave, where they see a bearded and drunken (but not sinister) elderly ship's captain clutching a bottle of brandy and dozing by a warm fire. He mumbles some sage advice, and they get home safely. It was ghostly but not scary. The judges, whoever they were, accepted the story, and I was invited to attend the conference the second time around.
But there wasn't much joy in it by then. I had belatedly felt the sting of what the judges were implying, and it violated all my young ideas about fairness–especially because that first rejection, the off-handed dismissal of the year before, had been delivered by an adult I admired and whose good opinion I craved. I wasn't offered a chance to defend myself, and it permanently tainted my feelings about the librarian, and the conference, and probably a lot of other things, too.
Now I see the funny side, because quality and/or authenticity aside, there is no way the school would have sent me anywhere with those lurid pages clutched in my hot little hands, despite the fact that only a fifth-grader, in our post-Freudian world, could have innocently written a tale in which a young boy has a crush on a half-nude woman who is also a large snake...a woman with a mysteriously compelling box and sadistic tendencies...in a labyrinthine house of secret rooms with red-painted walls.
That the contest readers imagined my mother (or any mother) sitting down at the kitchen table in the evenings to coach me into writing a phallic-symbol-strewn horror story is hilarious in the morbid, uncomfortable, queasily transgressive way I have come to appreciate most. Kristen, the girl in the story, was deeply jealous of the sexy older woman; did the judges think this somehow reflected my mother's wishful thinking? Whether the judges were male or female, that's an awful thought...and also pretty funny.
At this stage in the game I could probably come up with a more mature meta-retelling, in which someone submits a disturbingly suggestive tale about two children and a sexy older snake-lady to a grade-school writing contest. (The new title will be something like "The Age-Inappropriate Box" or "The Erotic Munchhausen-by-Proxy Box"...or maybe just "The Daughter Doppelganger Box.") In the updated version, questions will be asked outright: did an eleven-year-old girl really write the story? Or was it her repressed suburban mother? If it was the eleven-year-old girl, then aren't the judges themselves being a little perverted in reading too much into the story? But if it really was the mother's influence at work, wouldn't it be awesome if she turned out to be as normal as blueberry pie, and totally oblivious to the symbolic content?
I'm sure "The Shadow Box" was a really bad story, and rejection is a fact of life that all writers have to learn not to internalize (and the earlier, the better). But to be so casually accused of–I can barely even write the word–plagiarism? Because I was such a conscientious little student this hit me where it hurt, and, now that I think about it, I've gone an awful long way academically since then to legitimize both myself and my interest in morbid tales–as far as a doctorate in creative writing with emphasis on Freud and Narrative and Gothic Literature. I know it was a wee little contest that nobody else has any reason to remember, but the fact remains that I wrote that story myself, with my feverishly uncensored childhood brain, and judges, for the record, it sucks that you assumed otherwise without even asking.
Photo by Wayne Wallace