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 Lincoln Michel, author of Upright Beasts, a collection of stories Vanity Fair said is “full of monstrous surprises and eerie silences.” Lincoln is the editor-in-chief of electricliterature.com and a founding editor of Gigantic. His work has appeared in Granta, Oxford American, Tin House, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and elsewhere. He is the co-editor of Gigantic Worlds, an anthology of science flash fiction. He was born in Virginia and lives in Brooklyn. You can find him online at lincolnmichel.com and on Twitter @thelincoln.
My First Publication and What I Did After
There are two literary success stories we like talking about: the prodigy who shoots to stardom after getting her first big break and the underappreciated writer who toils away in obscurity until suddenly finding success (often after death). It’s easy to see why. The former allows emerging writers to imagine writing success will be easy and quick, and the latter allows writers who haven’t found success yet to believe it’s still in the cards for them. And both of those things do indeed happen. For me and most writers I know, though, the journey is bit more of a long but steady slog.
On October 6th of 2004, I got my first short story accepted by email. On October 7th, I got another email from a different journal accepting my first poem. October 8th is my birthday. I think I was feeling pretty great that week. I was a senior in college, and those publications helped me believe that writing was something I could do once the “real world” kicked in. (Not that I had much of a back-up plan…)
It would be nice here to craft a story of how those first publications inspired me to new heights of creativity, or else imparted an unrealistic idea of success that sent me into the artistic wilderness for years that I came out of with important life lessons to give you now. Yet nothing very interesting happened. I didn’t print out the acceptances, wrap them around a brick, and toss them through the window of the writing teachers who doubted me. I didn’t go on a two-month soul searching journey to another country. I didn’t get wasted and kick down the front door of The New Yorker’s offices, shouting “I have arrived!”
Here’s what I did do: I kept working. And I made submitting a job.
I didn’t make writing a job. Probably to my detriment, I still think of writing as a magical art that thrives on inspiration, new ideas, and trying out different styles and constraints. So I kept writing with no particular direction except what I enjoyed and what challenged me. But submitting? I made that a rigid routine.
I read and studied lit mags. I figured out which were the ones I liked and wanted to be published in, and then I submitted to all of them. When I got a rejection, I waited a couple weeks and sent a new story. I stole office supplies to mail submissions with. I bought a notebook and drew columns for each story, and watched the accumulation of crossed out names. When a story was accepted, I highlighted the accepting journal and made a new column. If a story never got accepted, I revised it. If I couldn’t figure out how to revise it, I scratched up the column and moved on. I didn’t carpet-bomb magazines—sending the same story to thirty places at once—but instead tried to have a story out at no more than three to eight places at once. Years passed. Acceptances accumulated and solicitations started to trickle in.
I still have the notebook.
I got far more rejections than acceptances, but I knew that was the way of things. In one of my first creative writing classes, before I’d ever submitted, we read the previous year’s Best American Short Stories. In the back, the authors talked about their publication journey. I remember one author said she had been rejected thirty times before being accepted. Thirty times! However, she’d not only been accepted, but had been accepted by one of the best literary magazines out there, Tin House. And then she had been picked for one of the most prestigious year-end anthologies. It was a good thing to read before I started submitting, made me regard rejection as the norm and not take it personally. Well, mostly.
Again, I know this is not a very interesting story. But it is a typical one, and one that I think writers should remember when they are discouraged by rejection, or shrug off submitting because they believe nothing comes out of the slush. The latter is simply not true. I was published out of the slush with zero connections dozens of times before anyone ever solicited me. Lit mag editors really do read the slush. Rejection, on the other hand, is just a part of the life. You have you to accept it like a fish accepts water. And then get back to work.