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 Mitchell Jackson. His novel, The Residue Years, has just been published by Bloomsbury to great acclaim. Jesmyn Ward, author of Men We Reaped, hailed its arrival by saying, “A wrenchingly beautiful debut by a writer to be reckoned with, The Residue Years marks the beginning of a most promising career.” Jackson was born and raised in Portland, Oregon. He holds a Master’s in Writing from Portland State and an M.F.A. from New York University. He teaches writing at NYU, Medgar Evers College, and John Jay College. He also works as a journalist, writing about entertainment and sports for Vibe, The Source, and various others. His fiction and poetry have appeared in literary journals, and he is a winner of the Hurston Wright Award for College Writers and a fellowship from the Center For Fiction. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. Click here to visit his website.
My First Deadline
Though I set it down for a few years thereafter, I wrote the first words of my novel in 1997-1998 when I was, as the late great rapper Pimp C once put it, “in bondage.”
Fast forward, all those years later—a couple of MFA programs and scribbling and toiling and a few workshops and scribbling and toiling and ephemeral writing groups and scribbling and toiling and the hocus pocus of a coveted mentor and scribbling and toiling and the boon of landing an agent and scribbling and toiling and at last at last finding a publisher and scribbling and scribbling and scribbling— fast forward beyond all that and you would find me at the dining room table at my lady’s apartment stooped over the nth version of The Residue Years manuscript.
Add to my palsying hope the fact that I had to catch an early-morning flight to Atlanta to serve as a chaperone for my daughter’s field day. Let me clarify the details. The plan was to hop off a plane, zoom straight to the school, and get to chaperoning—a plan that was a big deal especially to a father like me who lives states away from his princess.
It must have been about 4 a.m. when I began to have what I can only describe as a nervetastic panic attack, when it hit me with the force of a derailed bullet train that there was a zero minus a zillion chance of me being able to edit the last twenty-plus pages of my novel and make my flight. So what’s a trepid listless aspiring sentence man to do when he’s up against an immutable truth?
The thought passed that I could forsake editing those last twenty-odd pages and send the whole shebang as is. I mean, I’d been working on the manuscript for a decade-plus. How much could I possibly improve it in the last few hours? But as I said, that thought was a flash. The way I see it, the way I will always see it, is this: if I am able to make at least one sentence even infinitesimally stronger, zonked out my skull or not, I owe it to myself to make the attempt.
That logic being the case, it was time for swift action. As my stingy luck would have it, my lady lived a few blocks from John Jay College, one of the schools where I teach. Hoping the school would be open, I grabbed my manuscript and double-timed it over. Talk about a moment made of white light. There was a security guard, looking a little perplexed, but not oppositional. I explained to him that I needed to get into my office and he checked my ID and ushered me on my way. I rushed upstairs, photocopied those last twenty-odd pages, and rushed back to my lady’s crib.
Meanwhile, I sent what I thought would be a well-received email to my editor explaining that I would leave the manuscript with my lady to be delivered by courier later that day, but that it wouldn’t include the last twenty-odd pages. The email explained that I’d have those edited pages to her by the end of the weekend.
I was expecting to get an email to the effect of, “Cool, Mitch. Thanks for working so hard to get it done. Take the extra two days.” That’s what I expected, but about the time I got to the airport, I received a reply from my editor that said in effect, “NOT COOL. You must turn in those pages today. You are selfsabotaging and hurting the book’s chances.“
Whoa! Talk about being spooked! Here I was headed to my daughter’s school and now I had to find a way to get the work done. Let’s not forget my near-zombie-like sleep-deprived state, admittedly not the best condition for editing. This is why, though I tried to edit on the plane, I used the bulk of the almost two-hour flight to Atlanta to catch a few winks of sleep. When I landed, I sped to my daughter’s school where I was promptly supplied with a name tag, assigned a station, and quoted instructions. For the next three hours, I supervised teams of elementary and middle school kids dueling with spoons that carried golf balls.
As I said, I live far from my princess, so I try as best I can to be present with her. I cheered, took pictures, found her on breaks between groups, but the truth is the fact that my manuscript lay unfinished in the car was a spike in my brain. It took what felt like a millennium for me to complete my duties. Well, what I thought were my duties. But silly me, we were also supposed to stick around for a lunch of pizza and bottled waters and then file into the school for a field day awards assembly.
Here’s where I had to make a top dog decision. Sans any pizza, I booked for the car, took out my manuscript, and began to scrawl. I read the pages aloud and marked them, no small amount of notes either. But here’s the boon: every time I made a mark, I smiled to myself because I knew I had done the right thing in revising to the last, last second. Here I was at the end and the work to my mind was still growing muscles.
Talk about timing. I finished my very last edit about the time the assembly was over and my princess strolled out of the school with her mother. Done! But “hold up homie, not so fast!” I chided myself in my head. The manuscript was a hard copy, which meant I was going to have to fax or scan the pages, and do it before the end of the work day.
It was about 4 pm, so that work day was Bolt-like (as in Usain) coming to a close. This called for a moment of group think. We Googled the nearest Kinko’s and drove over. My princess accompanied me to send the last bit, with what I thought would be a no-sweat type of task. Ha, ha. Wrong! There was some rule at Kinko’s about scanning, so I had to buy a hella-pricey flashdrive for them to scan and save the work on it. Then I had to sit at their computers to send it off. But of course the Kinko’s computer wasn’t working and refused to return my credit card. My princess (she’s much more tech-savvy than me) and I sat in Kinko’s trying everything we could to get the machine to work and/or unass my card. When it was clear neither would happen, I got up and asked the attendants for help. But of course, of course both of them were presidentially busy for the next billion hours.
Now, either I have abnormally high expectations of a Kinko’s counterperson or the two counter workers that day were some of the slowest human beings on earth. About the time I was about implode, one of them slugged over and yawned me through my tech drama.
So it went, a hairsbreadth from the end of the work day, I sent off a pdf of the last few (scanned) pages of The Residue Years, said my official goodbye to what had become life’s work that felt as if it would go on a lifetime. It was bittersweet for so many reasons, but also so so sweet because, as it worked out, it was a moment shared with my princess.
Author photo by John Ricard