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 Melanie Thorne, author of Hand Me Down, a novel that BookPage said was “impossible to put down,” comparing it to Janet Finch’s 1999 bestseller White Oleander. Melanie earned her MA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Davis, where she was awarded the Alva Englund Fellowship and the Maurice Prize in fiction. She was a resident at the Hedgebrook Writers’ Retreat in 2011, and her work has appeared in various journals, including The Greenbelt Review and Global City Review. She has spent the last few years copywriting and teaching community college composition classes. Her long list of other jobs includes teaching test prep and ESL, executive assisting the CEO of a Palo Alto mortgage brokerage firm, and Subway sandwich artist-ing. Visit her website and find her on Facebook and Twitter.
My First Story Acceptance, Which Led to
My First Moment of Belief
Almost exactly four years ago, I received word that a literary magazine wanted to publish one of my short stories. The circumstances of that moment stand out—I was sitting in the communal computer room of a writing conference, next to my newest literary heroine at the time, Molly Giles—but what I remember now even more than Molly’s excitement, more than my pride, more than the joy of an impartial reader loving my work, is the glimmer of hope. For the first time since deciding I wanted to be a writer, I felt truly validated; like this career I’d dreamed about, sacrificed for, and worked toward for years could just maybe actually be possible.
Four years ago, I was swimming in vast, deep oceans of self-doubt. It had been two years since I’d graduated from my fiction MA program and I still had nothing to show for my hard work except student loan debt and a revised thesis that wasn’t quite a novel.
After graduation, I worked six jobs, moved three times, and wrote my ass off in twelve-hour stretches on weekends. I submitted stories to journals, I researched contests and conferences, and I revised, revised, revised my book, but I felt even less like a writer than I had in grad school. I was beginning to think I would never make it, that giving up weekends and activities and vacations and a financially-stable career with health insurance to chip away at a story—words!—an intangible non-product that might never pay off, was a big, fat waste of time.
And then someone I didn’t know, someone not a teacher or workshop classmate or friend, wrote to me and said she liked my work. Someone who had no investment in my writing other than to choose high-quality stories worth sharing with the world not only liked my work, but liked it enough to publish it in a literary journal.
I re-read the email ten times, there on the public computer in the lodge at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers conference, and then I smiled at the screen. I bounced in my seat, wanting to share this amazing news, but no one was in the room except Molly Giles, who I had not previously met, who had wowed me to actual open-mouthed awe with her speech about endings, who was a literary icon, who lowly me could not bother with such trivial information. But she seemed so nice.
I leaned toward her and whispered, “Can I tell you something? I just found out I’m going to have a story published.”
“Congratulations!” she said, sounding genuinely happy for me and turning away from her computer. “Is this your first?”
I told her it was and she said it was wonderful, that it was likely the start of things to come. She even grabbed someone she knew who was walking by and told them I had just gotten published. “That’s very exciting,” Molly said. “You should be proud.” I beamed, I’m sure. Rainbows could have shot out of my chest I was so full of joy.
Of course, let’s not pretend I never doubted myself again. I did, big time. Doubt is a nasty little parasite, a persistent, niggling voice in your brain, and I don’t know a single writer who doesn’t suffer from its attempts to suck our souls dry. It’s a daily battle. But after that publication, after Molly and my professor’s acceptance, my confidence was boosted enough to push through the doubt; to refuse to let it win. A reader had liked my story enough to print it because she thought other people would enjoy it. That magazine editor had put her stamp of approval on my work, and maybe someday someone else would, too. I finally felt like I was at least on the right track, even if I couldn’t see the whole path.
It would take over three more years to see my book on shelves, but a few months after this conference, I won a novel contest with a much-needed cash prize. A few months after that, I was signed by the second agent I queried. A year later, we sold Hand Me Down to a fantastic editor in less than a week. I’m not saying that first moment of validation created these opportunities—I worked really freaking hard every step of the way—but I do think the belief in myself and my future that was born in that moment made it impossible for me to quit.
Never underestimate the power of a little hope.