Monday, July 7, 2014

My First Time: Angela Pneuman

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 Angela Pneuman, author of the just-released Lay It On My Heart.  This debut novel tells the story of one unforgettable month in a Kentucky girl’s thirteenth year.  Julie Orringer, author of The Invisible Bridge, said Lay It On My Heart “evokes the genius of Angela Pneuman's canonical progenitors: Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Walker Percy...a gorgeous, riveting, and unforgettable book.”  Angela was raised in Kentucky, is a former Stegner Fellow and teaches fiction writing at Stanford University.  Her short story collection Home Remedies was hailed by the San Francisco Chronicle as “call[ing] to mind Alice Munro.”

My First Rejection

I went to a tiny college in my hometown in Kentucky.  It wasn’t officially a Bible college, and it was officially accredited, but it was very, very religious, very Southern evangelical Protestant.  Put it this way—when I matriculated in 1988 girls still had to wear skirts to class and RAs carried rulers to make sure the skirts stayed within one inch of the knee.  In 1988.  For their part, boys had to wear collared shirts.  Don’t even mention dancing, or drinking, or smoking—even though back then this college was surrounded by fields of tobacco.

This college did, however, have an enthusiastic poetry professor and poet in her own right.  She taught all the creative writing classes—two, if memory serves: Writing Poetry and Writing Fiction.  In Writing Fiction, which I took senior year, I had my first exposure to Best American Short Stories—the 1991 edition, which I read cover to cover in 24 hours.  Those writers: Lorrie Moore, Kate Braverman, Alice Munro, Robert Olen Butler, Charles Baxter—I’d never heard of them, and I headed right to the University of Kentucky library with a list of names, determined to read everything each of them had ever written.  Love at first sight, and I’m still pretty much a devotee.

I never took Writing Poetry.  Three handsome guys did, however, boys I’d known since before kindergarten, boys whose houses I’d spent lots of time in.  Let’s call them Matthew, Mark and John in the spirit of the New Testament, which was big at my school.  These three were on the fringe of the college as I was, by then, questioning the faith we’d all grown up with.  At some point we realized we all loved to read, a fact we guarded jealously from each other like disaster survivors with a secret stash of canned goods.  Or maybe that’s just me.  You know what they say—when you assume you know what others are thinking you reveal what you’re thinking, instead.  I remember one of them telling me how much he loved William Faulkner and I, who had puzzled my way through The Sound and the Fury once, then promptly reread it again, loving every word, sniffed diffidently and said something to the effect of “Faulkner’s okay.  I can see why you’d like him.”  And then I probably made sure I had, mysteriously, somewhere else to go.

However anyone else felt about it, I can say for sure that I felt possessive about reading.  My heart fell a little every time I realized a book I’d loved had already been loved by another.  Even by one of these three handsome boys whom I’d been wanting to impress since their voices dropped, at about 15.

So then they all took Writing Poetry together, formed our college literary review, and became its editorial board.  A poetry writing group—a workshop—started to meet every week or so, with one of the three always at the helm.  I pored over their poems.  They were so, so good.  How did they know those nature details?  How did they know when to break off a line—just right there in the middle of a sentence like that?

After attending the group a couple times, I worked up the courage to submit my own poetry.  Let me say, here, that I did not love poetry.  Not yet.  I loved fiction, and I loved writing in general, in my early way, and I loved all three of these boys, and I wanted to write something they would love, and they loved poetry.  They must have been kind about my poem, because I don’t remember otherwise.  I was probably too nervous to hear anything that was actually said.

Then submissions for the literary review came around, and I did not submit.  In fact, I brought another poem to the group for discussion, and when asked if I planned to submit—there was a deadline—I said that nothing I had was ready.  It’s a good, honest line I still use.  “Cool,” one of them probably said.

Then, in the College Post Office, I opened my box and found a typed rejection slip.  Strip, really.  Sliced by a paper cutter.  “We regret that we can’t use…blah blah blah name of my poem.”  Signed Matthew, Mark and John.

I was crushed.  Then I was mad.  Then I worked hard to find some significance.  One of them was mad at me?  One of them considered my great work a threat and wanted to take me down?  One of them liked me?  I saw these last two possibilities as hopeful stretches, even at the time.

It was a mistake, of course.  Nothing more.  But nearly ten years later I started sending out work for real, and got plenty of rejections from folks who’d never met me, some in the little strips, others with some encouragement, and I have kept them all in a folder with the original college rejection taped on the outside.  And Matthew, Mark and John are still friends of mine, kindred spirits still, even if we only see each other on Facebook.  They “like” me with great, supportive regularity and I like them right back.


  1. Lovely. I'm anxious to read Angela's book. Especially since another tiny Kentucky town, Carlisle, is near and dear to my heart.

  2. I always thought Angela was brillant. I look forward to reading this.