Monday, September 15, 2014

My First Time: John Warner

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 John Warner, the author of, most recently, the story collection Tough Day for the Army, which I previously blogged about here.  Roxane Gay praised the book by saying, “John Warner is an uncanny writer, bringing both heart and humor to his stories in the most winning of ways.”  John's previous novel is called The Funny Man.  He writes a column for the Chicago Tribune book supplement, Printers Row (which I, for one, read religiously every Sunday), and also regularly blogs for Inside Higher Ed.  He’s been editorially involved with McSweeney’s Internet Tendency since 2003 and currently teaches at the College of Charleston.  You can find him on Twitter, where he tweets as biblioracle.

The First Time I Quit Writing

The first time I quit writing was at the end of graduate school, McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana MA, MFA ’97.

I’d sold my possessions down to a lamp, a bedroll, a copy of Infinite Jest and my dog Sam, a collie mix.  I’d successfully turned in and “defended” my thesis, which felt like something, but it also laid bare the fact that I was not nearly as good at writing as I wanted or needed to be.

This felt strange, because back in college I seemed to have few doubts about my abilities.  I would workshop a story in class, polish it up and mail it to the New Yorker and wait for my ticket to be punched.  This was the late 80’s, early 90’s, when it was still possible to live with the delusion that placing a story in one of the biggies (Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Playboy, Esquire) was the route to an eventual stable career as a writer.

It was the path all of my professors had followed, so why not me?

Why not me became clear when I started graduate school following two years of make-do work back home in Chicago.  My cohort was larded with talent, many of whom were already publishing stories in better-than-reputable outlets, and included Adam Johnson who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize.  The gap between my work and that of my new colleagues was apparent.  I felt deeply embarrassed for my college self.  If I owned a time machine, I would’ve used it to go back and punch myself in the face and also to have one less drink during that sorority semi-formal that I’m not going to go into.

I mostly used my colleagues’ talent as inspiration to get better, only occasionally letting despair take control.  I was not as good as I wanted to be, but I was getting better.  I was no longer sending my stories to the New Yorker, but began taking my shots at the many excellent “little” magazines.  Still, despite improving and setting my sights on more reasonable targets, after three years, I hadn’t managed to find a home for a single story.

It’s painful to remember how important this was for me.  Partly it was ego, wanting to be able to come to class and let it casually slip that my story would be in the Mid-American Review or the Cimarron Review or Carolina Quarterly, but mostly it was that after three years of writing 100,000 words of fiction a year, I needed to know I was getting better.

I told myself that if I didn’t publish a story before I left Louisiana I would try to quit writing.

I went home, twenty-seven years old, broke, owner of a dog and a big-ass novel.  I spent three months in my parents’ basement in the Chicago ’burbs until I found a job at a marketing research firm in Chicago and started making my plan for moving out.  Nights, I kept reading Infinite Jest and then re-reading it, finding it amazing and inspiring.  It kept the flames burning.

The marketing research firm’s offices were in the North Pier area, near Lake Michigan.  A gothic-level fog often crept in, blanketing the spaces between the buildings.  One of those foggy evenings as I walked toward the train home, a woman holding an umbrella disappeared into an especially thick patch in front of me.  As I crossed through the patch, she was no longer visible ahead.

I had the sense that she had been lifted away, transported by a gust under her umbrella, Mary Poppins-style.

I went home and wrote the scene.  Then I added another based on a very bizarre experience I had with a career counselor, and still another from when I woke up one morning during grad school and half a dozen of the books on my top shelf were strewn across the floor as though they had leapt free of their own volition.

The story was strange, very different from what I’d been working on, but it also really pleased me.

At around the same time, Dave Eggers was producing the first issues of McSweeney’s Quarterly and was reportedly looking for material.  As only a clueless asshole can do, I titled the story “Stillness” and sent it to him.

I don’t know how many weeks later, but not that long, he called me and said he’d like to publish the story in the upcoming (3rd) edition of the quarterly.  His only caveat was that I had to change the title because only a clueless asshole calls his story “Stillness.”  (He was actually much nicer than that about the stupid title.)

I ended up titling the story “The Circus Elephants Look Sad Because They Are” and the story did indeed appear in the 3rd edition of McSweeney’s Quarterly, and if you’ve seen the care McSweeney’s takes with their printed items, you can imagine my excitement when I held the physical copy in my hands.

In short order, I wrote another story that found a home, and then I went back to my graduate thesis and picked the most promising pieces and reworked them and they found homes and I realized that my previous self-imposed deadline was arbitrary, that the things I wished for myself and my writing were never going to arrive on a schedule under my control.  Two of those once-disappointing stories from the thesis wound up in my collection, Tough Day for the Army.

I’ve stopped writing fiction a couple of other times over the years, but I now look at these stretches as periods where it’s time to let the fields lie fallow.  So now, when I’m not writing, I call it a sabbatical.

I’ll quit when I’m dead.

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