Monday, December 14, 2015

My First Time: Leslie Pietrzyk



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 Leslie Pietrzyk, author of This Angel on My Chest. A collection of unconventionally-linked short stories, This Angel on My Chest won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Leslie is the author of two novels, Pears on a Willow Tree and A Year and a Day. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in many publications, including The Sun, Shenandoah, The Gettysburg Review, River Styx, and Salon. She is a member of the core faculty at the Converse College low-residency MFA program. For more information, visit her website at www.lesliepietrzyk.com.


My First Time Being a Literary Citizen

I went to get my Master of Fine Arts right after graduating from college, something I now advise against doing when anyone asks. I ended up at American University in Washington, DC, in what was then a fairly new program with a core of devoted faculty. Most of the students already lived in the DC area and were older than I was, with full-time jobs, or spouses supporting them, or retirement income. I came from Iowa via undergrad in Chicago with nothing but two suitcases: no spouse, no boyfriend, no nothing tying me to anything. It was immediately clear that these “adult” students—while being smart, lovely people—differed from me in at least one significant way: they appreciated being back in school after the harrowing grind of real life, and for them, time in a classroom was a delightful novelty. They flew through the reading assignments and never skipped class. Their papers exceeded the length limit. They joked with our professors in the hallway, comfortably referring to them by first names. At night after class, they drove home to their spouses and children and neighbors, and I trudged to a basement dorm room where I listened to my roommate complain about her boyfriend as I scribbled out short stories that I imagined were Carveresque. Having never been out of school except for summers, life was about the same as always, and I slid into my usual, passive routine of being a student.

There were two other grad students in a situation similar to mine, two guys each named Todd who had moved to Washington to join the MFA program, each in their early twenties, each with a fiancée, though they were organized enough to live in off-campus apartments. The three of us gravitated into a bonded trio, sitting side-by-side at readings, bitching about whatever needed to be bitched about. I was not unhappy—I had grown up wanting exactly this: to live on the East Coast, to be a writer (whatever that meant; I hadn’t dared call myself one yet). I knew how to work school, so even if I didn’t find joy in studying as the “adults” did, I knew how to do it. My stories were bad, but at the time, I didn’t understand exactly how bad, so it felt pleasant to write them in earnest longhand and stay up late at night typing on my portable electric typewriter, to watch Xeroxed copies passed hand to hand around the workshop table, to envision my words eventually printed in the pages of The Paris Review. (Personal computers had recently hit the market, but few people owned one yet.)

This was my new life, and if it felt fairly similar to the old life, well, so what? As we might say in workshop, there was no conflict, but I felt purposeful and busy, and if I wasn’t a capital W Writer yet, I would be eventually because I was in graduate school, which was what one did to become a Writer. I could drift with this simple, serene flow.

It must have been around November when one of the Todds said, “You know what? We should start a literary journal.” One of the things we had bitched about was the fact that our university didn’t publish its own literary journal. The statement suggesting that we start one was bold, but we didn’t know enough to think so then because though startling, it seemed like part of the natural order. Hadn’t The Paris Review been started by a group of young men? Wasn’t this what writers did, decide to start journals and stay up late arguing over what to name the journal and how to collect submissions and who would make copies of the announcement flyer to slip into everyone’s mailboxes? The director of the program was encouraging in an extremely non-committal way, which meant he didn’t tell us not to proceed, but he also didn’t dole out funding for the project or offer much hope for money in the future or offer any resources at all beyond a mailbox and the ratty desk in the student lounge. Consequently, I attended a number of graduate student council meetings, feigning interest in a million tedious topics until the agenda reached me and I could plead my case for some money to finance a student-run literary journal. The first issue would include university students and faculty only. Todd was going to typeset the whole thing on his fancy word-processor; he and I were co-editors. The other Todd was the fiction editor, and one of the older women stepped up to be the poetry editor. We papered our flyers around the English department, and…we got submissions! Grad students and undergrads handed over their poems and short stories for us to review and judge and edit, as if we weren’t a bunch of kids, as if we were real. The director of the program submitted a poem, which I now recognize as the generous act it was. During one exhaustively long-winded, late-at-night phone call, Todd and I had come to realize that alas, we could not include our own work if we wanted the journal to be taken seriously, which felt like an important moment. We were creating the journal for Writers, not for ourselves. And so it was sobering to cart around folders filled with sheaves of typed paper, to read and reread the poems and stories; to argue, to fight, sulk, cajole, beg, care—passionately—which poems and stories would be included in our first, possibly only, issue of Folio; to argue anew about the order of the work on the pages; to proof-read again and again and again, until we were ready to drive these 64 pieces of paper to Silver Spring, Maryland, to the cheapest printer we had found, which was still more than $1,000 as I recall; to cart home the five boxes holding 500 copies of our journal, our own journal that we had started, that we could hold in our own hands, that allowed us to say, “See? We did this. We put together this journal, where there was no journal before.” According to the contributors’ notes, many of the works included were first publications. We had done that, too: given the gift of publication and audience to young writers.

Todd had a party, and we sold copies of our journal for $2.50, and there was a lot of loud music through the night. Both Todds were there, and the fiancées, and the “adult” students and their families, and the undergrads and their friends, and my roommate, and even a faculty member. We were celebrating what we had done, and what I thought we had done was put together a journal—but what we really had done was put together a community, a writing community, and create opportunities for capital-W Writers to share their work and meet each other and find the faith to keep pushing on, to keep writing. All it took was one person saying, “You know what?” All it took was stepping off the easy, passive path.

Thirty years later, Folio is still published by the students in the American University MFA program, attracting work from across the nation and world.

During those thirty years I’ve found other ways to create communities for writers. None of these things is earth-shattering, none in my mind equal to creating, say, The Paris Review (where my words have yet to appear). But each is something, each is one tiny drop. Volunteering to teach a publication workshop during a stint as visiting writer. Organizing a monthly prompt writing group in my neighborhood. Founding Redux, an online journal that features previously published work not available online. Inviting my MFA fiction grads to interview authors about recently published books for my literary blog. Alone, what I’ve done is little. But together, what all of us can do is create the community we want to belong to. I’m grateful for every writer who has said, “You know what?” and who goes on to start VIDA, Cave Canem, Poets & Writers, The Sun, and Red Hen Press, to name a handful off the top of my head. The best part? There’s always room for more, room for you.


1 comment:

  1. I never knew this about you! And I'm glad to know it now, and share that feeling of "magic" that always seems to happen when writers join together.

    ReplyDelete