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 Wendy J. Fox, author of the short story collection The Seven Stages of Anger, winner of the 2014 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction. She holds an MFA from the Inland Northwest Center for Writers and has contributed to numerous literary journals, including Washington Square, The Missouri Review, The Madison Review, The Tusculum Review, PMS poemmemoirstory and ZYZZVA. Her non-fiction was included in Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey (Seal Press), a #1 English-language bestseller which was recommended by National Geographic Traveler and featured on The Today Show. Wendy lives in Denver. Click here to visit her website.
My First Book
In 2001, I finished my MFA at Eastern Washington University (now the Inland Northwest Center for Writers). This is pretty easy math, but I’ll do it anyhow: 13 years ago. It’s not such a long time, in the trajectory of a life, but it’s not nothing, either.
I think I was actually pretty realistic about what getting an MFA meant. I knew it wasn’t going to lead directly to a book contract, and I definitely didn’t think it would help me get a job, but I was also young and hopeful, and I wasn’t ready to face anything other than the gentrified poverty of being a grad student.
Once I matriculated, I gave myself three years. I thought, Three years and I’ll either get a book published, or if I don’t, I’ll go back for a Ph.D.
But the three years passed. I did some things. I taught at a community college, and then I took a job in Turkey and moved away (there is no context here—I did this for no reason other than that I could), and then after two universities in two very different parts of the country, I came back to the U.S. and started working at a construction company where I learned a lot about HVAC.
I was at the three-year mark by then, but the book had not been published, because there was no book; I had not written a book. The Ph.D. program had not happened, because I had only applied to one place, halfheartedly. I was still writing, reams of pages and many scrawled notebooks, but it was all in an unfocused way. In this time, it was hard to finish anything, to give it any structure. I think my writing life mirrored the rest of my life. There was some sense of urgency to be productive, but there was no sense of what that meant or of where it might be going.
Yet, when I thought I could put a shape on the pages, I worked. I kept sending stories out, even though the publication list was growing beyond slowly. Around 2006, I made a weak attempt at going to library school—hell, I thought, I like books, why not—and I got in, but I also had just gotten an offer for a job at a software company.
I followed the paycheck.
Surprisingly, going corporate helped. There were a lot of meetings. There was a lot of travel. There was a sheer avalanche of email and the black holes of conference calls. It required organization to not be buried completely in false busyness, and it required some attention to being judicious—some might say selfish—about time if I was still going to carve out any hours for the writing life.
But under the pressure of corporate commitments—the necessary discipline—the pages started to shape. I wrote a novel, which is still unpublished, and I wrote a second novel (that too, unpublished) and with the failure of the novels, I leaned on stories as a way to make progress. I collected the published ones and then just the ones that I liked the most into several different versions. After some tries, I made it onto a shortlist that I mostly ignored. It was a “short” list of ten. Ten seem like a lot. I figured I had no chance.
“Plus,” I told my mom, “They put me at the bottom of the list. So, you know…”
It took me a few days to realize the list was alphabetical by first name, and in the absence of any Xavier, Yolanda, or Zachary, Wendy was the last.
Then, a week later, two missed calls on my phone from a number I didn’t recognize. Me, irritated by the audacity of telemarketers in the middle of my workday. How did they get my cell number?! I wondered, but I listened to the message. A publisher. Call us back, the man said, We have a question about your manuscript.
The question was whether or not I could clear my schedule for an October launch.
The volume is slim, 124 typeset pages, but it changed everything. That old three-year deadline actualizing very, very late, but at least finally reconciled, and the issue of the thirteen years that have passed since finishing the MFA, (at least partially) accounted for.
And the stories—stories I wrote on airplanes and in waiting rooms, at many different desks and on many different patios, stories I wrote as a lifeline out of corporate life and stories I needed to put down to simply process—I am prouder of this first time than of anything.