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.
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.
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.