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 Janyce Stefan-Cole. Her debut novel, Hollywood Boulevard, has just been published by Unbridled Books. A finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, Janyce Stefan-Cole is included in the Boston Globe bestselling anthology, Dick for a Day (Villard Books), Being Human: Call of the Wild, The Healing Muse and Knock Literary Arts Magazine. A fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, she attended the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and resides with her husband in Brooklyn, NY, and Freedom, NH. Her website can be found here.
My First Disappearance
There’s a saying in Hollywood: when the phone stops ringing you’re done. Once they stop taking your calls, silence tells the story. For someone who spends vast amounts of time alone tooling with words, the internet as follow-up avoids the vulnerability of voices across the wire, but emails are easier to ignore.
Story submissions used to be sent snail mail. Manila envelopes, various stamps, query letter copies to be filed, and then the long wait, three months typically, for the return envelope containing, 99.9 times out of 100, a mass-produced rejection letter. With luck, an intern touched pen to paper with a wispy word of encouragement, sometimes only initials. Those were rare and meaningless but they gave rise to hope large enough to have kept the Titanic afloat even after hitting the iceberg.
When I first started writing short stories I was so full of naïve hope the Titanic would have missed the iceberg altogether. Buoyed but not remotely ready for primetime, I hand-delivered my first submission to The Paris Review. I started right at the top. The rejections piled up from there. I learned to weather the doom of "no." I did not turn to drink or whine to friends and family. (Okay, maybe a little.) Writing is so hard anyway—what was a little rejection by comparison?
The anonymous refusals almost never said what was wrong with the submissions. It was possible to convince myself the reader was in a bad mood, or that it was all rigged toward friends or friends of friends anyway. Sometimes I was able to see that some of the work I’d sent needed work. Enlightenment comes in many packages.
Eight years or so after that first hopeful hand-delivery to The Paris Review I received a letter from the fiction editor. It came via email, though I’d sent my story via snail mail. I trembled that day reading her words. The editor liked my piece but had suggestions. I don’t remember if I was offended that she wasn’t utterly smitten or if I thought, I’ll do anything: change the characters, the plot, sell my soul and give away my car. I wrote back, perhaps lightly defending my literary choices but I saw her points and wanted to work them into the story. I don’t remember if I sent re-worked pages or not. It didn’t matter, she never responded to my email.
She’s busy, I thought, or on vacation. I waited. Had there been a clerical error? I waited. Had I done something wrong? Like what?
Why would she take the time to write and then ignore me?
Why encourage me? Why throw me a rope if I’m not going to make it?
Finally, I stopped waiting.
I just disappeared off her radar. This was baffling.
Disappointment was bad enough, but that silence at the other end of the Ethernet was a kind of void; an abyss where all hope died. I had no way to respond. I couldn’t stalk the editor or call her up and tell her that was no way to treat a writer. I’ve disappeared from other literary radar since, surprised anew each time by such shabby behavior. But that first time was like being invited to sit down and then having the chair thrown at my head. Ouch.
Photo by Scott Neary