Monday, May 6, 2013

My First Time: Jessica Francis Kane

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 Jessica Francis Kane, author of the new short story collection This Close from Graywolf Press.  Her first novel, The Report, was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and a finalist for both the Center for Fiction’s 2010 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and the Indie Booksellers’ Choice Award.  She is a contributor to the Morning News and lives in New York City.  You can follow Jessica on Twitter at @JessicaFKane.

My First Acceptance

For a long time, the thing I knew I had to do was publish a story.  This would be the beginning, as I understood it, of a writing career.  I knew that before this day could come, I would have to send out stories, lots of them, and receive many, many rejection letters.  I accepted this.  So I graduated from college with a degree in English and went to New York City to get started.  I got a job at a mid-size publishing house.  By day I was a publicity assistant; by night, a writer.  I worked on my stories, crafted careful, polite cover letters, and always had the next self-addressed stamped envelope, or SASE, at the ready.

As predicted, the rejection letters started arriving.

But I knew this was a long, rough road.  I’d read about one writer who papered his bathroom wall with rejections.  I’d heard others speak of bulging file folders.  I was not discouraged, not yet.  I went to readings when I could.  I read magazines at the library.  I memorized the typefaces of every magazine and literary journal, knew the dimensions of each one’s pre-printed rejection slip.

When my file folder started to bulge, I switched to a file box.

After a time there were little glimmers of hope: handwritten notes, bits of encouragement.  One letter I’ll never forget, from a famous glossy magazine, described the story I’d submitted as “a bit numbing” but went on to say, “you’re plainly a writer and I’m sure we should see more of your work.”  How I rejoiced and agonized over those words.  Was it an invitation?  If so, why not just say, We’d like to see more of your work.  Or, Send us another story.

Meanwhile, I created a special area of my apartment where I kept my SASE supplies: envelopes, stamps, manila envelopes, paper clips, staples.  I even invested in a little white plastic scale so that I could determine postage myself and cut down on time spent at the post office.  I began to joke with my family that I was the fastest SASE-addresser in the west, though I lived in the east.

It wasn’t a very funny joke.

I did allow myself to daydream about the day of acceptance.  Often, this was the only dream that kept me going.  I was pretty sure the news would come by phone, and so sometimes if I came home from work and there was a message on my machine (this was before cell phones and texting, you see), I would walk slowly to the table to press the button, relishing the last few moments of possibility before hearing a message from my mom or bank or dentist.

But it also seemed possible that the news might come by fresh envelope, the magazine’s own letterhead, my handwriting nowhere in sight.  This is perhaps an under-reported and, as more and more submissions are handled electronically, soon to be forgotten consequence of the SASE system—eventually you despise the sight of your own handwriting.

Which is why on a spring day in 2000, when I opened one of my own SASEs returned to me from the Virginia Quarterly Review, I was so confused.  There wasn’t a slip inside.  There was a whole piece of paper that I had to unfold.  Then I read the first sentence and it didn’t contain the word “unfortunately.”  I stood in my kitchen and read that letter through twice before I truly understood it was an acceptance.  The VQR was accepting my story, “Exposure,” my first major fiction publication.

That night my husband and I went out to dinner to celebrate.

Here’s the moral of the story: Very little happens exactly as you imagine it will, and this might be especially true of publishing and the writing life.  Months later I asked the editor why he had used my own SASE to accept my story.  Didn’t he know I’d been waiting all my life for a different kind of sign?  His answer: He was just saving postage.

Photo by Nina Subin


  1. Perfect! (At least for me, right now, at this stage of being in "never-never land"). Thank you, Jessica. In particular, I love: "Often, this was the only dream that kept me going."

    It is sad that rejection slips rarely come in the mail anymore. However, I also happily trashed my "big-ass folder" of them about a year ago. I also trash them on my computer when they come in.

    Great piece. Thanks again.

  2. I love these kinds of stories--gives me hope that if I persist, publication in a major literary journal will happen. But I wonder too if the initial thrill will last long. If anyone will other than the editors will read the story. What I really want is to know if the story touched someone, made them see things in a new way, made them understand something better, or give them joy, or break their heart. I wish more journals would give space to responses to stories. I'm coming to realize it's not really just the publication I want, the validation from literary critics or editors, it's the connection with readers.

    1. That's a great point, Deborah. I often feel like I'm banging my head against my laptop screen, trying to pull the milk of human kindness from social networks that are anything but, when a sense that something hit home would be so gratifying. That said, even though I write full time I also still write letters to the writers who inspire me to tell them just that. So if you publish and make that connection, it will probably happen. Godspeed!

  3. Thank you, Jessica. This is encouraging and those day dreams are important.

  4. This is was beautiful,
    thank you.