Monday, March 31, 2014

My First Time: Jeffrey Shaffer

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 Jeffrey Shaffer.  He's been writing fiction, essays, and commentaries about American culture for more than 25 years.  His work has appeared in a wide range of publications including The New Yorker, BARK, The Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor and Year's Best Fantasy & Horror.  A recent collection entitled Humor Without Borders: Opinions, Half-Truths and Complete Fabrications is available as a Kindle or paperback edition from Amazon.  Two earlier humor collections, I'm Right Here, Fish-Cake (1995) and It Came with the House: Conversation Pieces (1997), are available from Catbird Press.  Shaffer also spent many years as a news writer for radio and TV stations on the west coast.  He currently contributes regularly to Huffington Post and  His personal blog is called The Trailing Edge because "I don't want to be on the cutting edge—I like to be following right behind it."  Shaffer lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, children's author Susan Blackaby and an always-shedding yellow Labrador named Lottie.

My First “I Can Do This” Moment

I got serious about writing in the fourth grade and enjoyed seeing my byline appear in student newspapers during high school and college.  Not surprisingly, I also developed a false notion that getting published wasn’t terribly difficult.  Then, inevitably, I hit a wall.   Welcome to the free market.  Competition for editorial space is fierce in the real world.  My manuscripts were returned steadily year after year through the late 1970s and into the new decade.

As the rejection slips piled up, I tried to maintain a positive attitude and always kept one thought front and center in my mind: “I can do this.”  I read The Writer’s Market diligently and carefully considered the suggestions offered by established authors.  I’m not a believer in Fate but I do think good timing is a factor in many success stories.  Much of my work is in the form of short personal commentaries.  Occasionally I have experiences that seem interesting enough to write about, and often my approach is humorous.  Toward the end of 1983 I was reading a newspaper and realized I had an idea that would make a good submission.  The paper was The Wall Street Journal.

My dad had given me a gift subscription and I found the Journal tremendously informative about commercial trends and other aspects of American culture.   The Op-Ed page was particularly interesting.  The main focus was on politics and economics and the authors of the major pieces were usually high-level policy makers or think tank experts.  But often there was a smaller entry on the bottom of the page that was oriented toward some aspect of everyday life, or a recollection from the writer’s past.   I began to look for those little essays before glancing at anything else on the Op-Ed page.  Each time a new one appeared, I would read it immediately and think: “I can do this.”

A number of factors seemed to be in my favor.  Standard advice for all aspiring writers is to look for publications that use a lot of material.  Back then the Journal came out five days a week (now it has a weekend edition), which meant they needed a steady flow of those slice of life essays.  I knew the paper was politically conservative but not humorless, and that having some link to economics would help the chances of any submission.  That’s when the good timing came into play.  An incident took place that matched up well with all the editorial considerations.  It combined popular culture and business in a setting that would connect with many of the readers.  The premise was simple: I needed a haircut, made a spontaneous decision, and the results were excellent.

There was a newly-opened barbershop in a small shopping center near my house and the owner looked like a nice person.  I went in one day and ended up becoming a regular customer.  This was at a time when the hair-cutting business in America had seen a huge shift toward fancy styling salons for men as well as women.  My impulse visit to the new guy in town saved me some time because there was no shampoo or blow-drying involved; I also saved money because he only charged $5.

I definitely had enough material to write 700 words, which is the about the length of a typical assignment in a high school English class.  And I was fortunate in high school to have an absolutely top-notch English teacher.  Mr. Thompson made sure we learned and understood basic rules for writing a compelling essay.  The rule he emphasized relentlessly was to state your thesis in the opening sentence and then support it with each following paragraph.  In the publishing world that first sentence is also crucial for grabbing an editor’s attention.  I wanted mine to be clear, concise, and engaging.  The final result was this: “Taking a big step toward managing my budget, I have rediscovered an American institution: the neighborhood barber.”

I had an economic theme linked with support for a traditional occupation.  It seemed like a solid combination and the rest of the piece fell into place with very little revising.  I joked about asserting my independence from the high-priced salon trend and the convenience of not having to make an appointment several days ahead of time.  The humor was cheerful not sarcastic.  I liked helping a small business and making a new friend.  The overall tone of the piece was upbeat.

I sent it off and wondered how long the response time would be.  In fact, I had never queried the Journal to confirm that it was okay to send in unsolicited submissions.  Both questions were answered a few days later when I came home and heard a message on my answering machine.  “This is ----- from The Wall Street Journal” the voice began, and he went on to say the piece had been accepted and to please call back.  A lot of writers talk about the feeling of that moment being indescribable and I agree.  I played the tape back a couple of times just to prolong the enjoyment.  The feeling returned with even greater intensity when I opened to the Op-Ed page on January 3, 1984 and saw my name underneath the headline “It’s A Shear Delight Not Getting Clipped.”

I took a copy to the barber and he quickly framed it for display in the front window.  I hope it brought him some additional customers.   A couple of friends in other parts of the country told me it was re-printed in their local papers.  To a writer, being published is validation that your self-confidence in the work is justified.  You’re not completely self-delusional after all.  And about 18 months later I received an extremely satisfying form of validation in the mail.  It was a request from an editor at Holt, Rinehart and Winston to include “Shear Delight” in a college textbook entitled Writing With A Thesis (5th edition by David and Sarah E. Skwire).  Thank you again, Mr. Thompson, for teaching me how to do it.  I said yes to the request, but then heard nothing back, and later found out the editor who contacted me passed away.  If anyone reading this owns a copy of that college textbook, feel free to take a look and see if I’m in there.

Debuting in the Journal was great but making that first breakthrough is no free pass to universal acceptance.  The rejections still come regularly.  But every time I look at a copy of that little barbershop essay I remember all the effort that came before it.  It’s impossible to count all the times I said to myself, “I can do this.”  And one day it turned out I was right.

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