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 Marian Palaia, author of The Given World, coming in April from Simon and Schuster. Lorrie Moore (author of Bark) has this to say about the book: “In The Given World, Marian Palaia has assembled a collection of restive seekers and beautifully told their stories of love and lovelessness, home and homelessness, with an emphasis on both makeshift and enduring ideas of family. It has been a long time since a first book contained this much wisdom and knowledge of the world. She has a great ear for dialogue, a feel for dramatic confrontation, and a keen understanding of when background suddenly becomes foreground. She is a strong, soulful, and deeply gifted writer.” Marian was born in Riverside, California, and has lived in Washington, DC, Montana, Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City, and Nepal, where she was a Peace Corps volunteer. Now living in San Francisco, Marian has been a teacher, a truck driver, a bartender, and a logger. She is currently working on a new novel, The Hello Kitty Justice League.
My First Story
I was going to college in Olympia, Washington, at Evergreen, a perfect school (for this itinerant hippie) if there ever was one. I was 25, having spent my early college years doing other things I won’t go into here, but which are extrapolate-able, I reckon, from stories in other places. Anyway.
The second half of my sociologically split self worked in the card room at King Solomon’s Reef (café, saloon, poker). In Washington then (I don’t know about now), a hard-liquor-serving area of an establishment had to be hidden from public view; hence, in the back, dark, no windows, booths of tucked and rolled red Naugahyde, on account of which my sister referred to the place as “The Jello Mold.” The middle section of the Reef was inhabited by the café, indistinguishable from any other, and next to the cash register in front was the door to a side room containing three felt-covered poker tables, at which were seated a die-hard group of Texas Hold ‘em players and the occasional interloper. There were windows. It was a fishbowl and no one cared. They only cared about the cards, the next turn, the flop, the river. Me, I occasionally interloped. And regretted it just about every time.
I spent some years (too many) writing about stock tragic characters anyway—ranch girls, poker players, barmaids, twisted individuals behaving badly—because, basically, I didn’t know anything else. I wrote my very first short story in a bar, and the opening line was, “There is something to be said for being sober.” Meaning, I imagine, I was sober that day, and it felt pretty good, and I was lucid, at least for a while; lucid enough to start writing. I knew nothing at all about craft, narrative arc, interiority, etc. But I had just read Panama by Tom McGuane, and his voice got into my head, and into my writing. That first story was about a girl who plays poker, who gets beaten up by another poker player. She has a boyfriend, Mitch, who is a wonderful guy but if she doesn’t get her shit together, she is going to lose him. She gets a gun. Events conspire. She shoots someone. It ends with Mitch, the girl and their cat driving off into the mountains. He asks where she wants to go, and she says, “The moon.” He says, “Okay, but you know we have to come back.” She does know this. She has to face the music. The cat is on the seat between them. The end.
Twenty-five years later this story, called “The Last House in East Missoula” was published in a lovely but now-defunct literary journal called River Oak Review. The editors mentioned some overwritten parts, some potential editing, but they never did send me any edits, so it was published the way I sent it to them. And, yes, it was overwritten, among other flaws, but it was still way better than it had once been. Because I had used it for my education, had gone back to it in the years between first draft and last. I had worked on it a great deal. This story. My first one. I became an inveterate revisionist. I could revise the same paragraph for, like, months. With this and one or two other of my early short stories (by no means all, because some of them were truly awful), it is how I taught myself to write. Also by reading, of course. I did this, at least partially, in sort of a perverse manner. If something in a story or a novel bugged me—and this normally was because it seemed that a shortcut had been taken, or some other kind of “cheating” was going on—I would go back to my own work and see if the something I didn’t like was a thing I was also guilty of. Nine times out of ten . . . yup. So I would change, fix, revise to death. But I got better. It was my apprenticeship. My 10,000 hours.
I still love that first story, maybe because there is so much of the girl who wrote it, damaged as she was, still in there. I love that first line (though it is no longer the first line). I tamed it, made it better, and in the process it lost some of its rawness. Raw is a hard thing to add back into a piece; it might even be impossible. But what I learned was that raw (talent, writing, whatever) isn’t enough. A collection of clever lines is not enough, though they often indicate a feel for language, which is good, but it is only a starting place. I think many writers mistake it for a destination, and I did that very thing for a long time. Then I went out into the world and discovered something far bigger than me and my peripatetic/”tragically romantic”/Punk Western life and my oh-so-very-clever way with words. And then I started, again, to write. And, yes, being less of a wild thing helps, but this, here, is not that kind of a story.