Monday, March 24, 2014

My First Time: Michael Parker

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 Michael Parker.  His new novel, All I Have in This World, has just been released to great acclaim.  His previous novels include Towns Without Rivers, Virginia Lovers, If You Want Me To Stay, and The Watery Part of the World.  His short stories have appeared in two collections: The Geographical Cure and Don’t Make Me Stop Now.  His work has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and many other magazines.  He is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, an O. Henry Award, a Pushcart Prize, and three lifetime achievement awards, including the North Carolina Award for Literature.  He teaches in the MFA writing program at UNC-Greensboro and lives in North Carolina and Texas.  Click here to visit his website.  (On a personal note: like Michael describes in the following essay, my first major story publication was in The Greensboro Review; I remain forever in their debt for publishing "Eating the Albino" back in 1993.)

My First Story Publication

I was in my second year of graduate school at the University of Virginia when a copy of my story in The Greensboro Review arrived in the mail.  Actually, I’d had two more acceptances a couple weeks before I got the letter from the Review—one from Limestone, a magazine associated with the University of Kentucky and edited by my old college roommate, which didn’t really count; and another in a now-defunct magazine called Quarry West, which was started by Raymond Carver when he was teaching at UC Santa Cruz.  Old college roommate aside (he wasn’t the sole editor, and he told me later he’d mostly stayed out of the process), Limestone published writers I had both heard of and respected, and anything associated with Raymond Carver—this being the mid 80s—was golden back in the day.  These were both significant publications for which I was, and am still, thirty years later, grateful.  But The Greensboro Review happened to show up at my post office first, and so it felt—and still feels—like my first.

In those days, my wife (now ex-wife) and I lived ten miles out in the beautiful countryside surrounding Charlottesville, in an early 19th-century restored church.  There wasn’t a mailbox—we collected our mail at a post office across the divided highway to which I made several trips a day.  I was in that first flush of submitting stories, and a trip across the highway to stoop to see if a letter lay slanted behind the glass (our box was near the bottom row and so small all correspondence was curled inside) was the pinnacle of my day.

I realize I may sound like a dinosaur here, but these days of online submissions and acceptances, while certainly more efficient than the old system of stories printed in block dot matrix and enclosed SASEs, feel so much less exciting than the old way.  I, like you, am so besieged by emails, half of which requiring some sort of response, that clicking on my inbox is not something I look forward to with the anticipation I felt dodging tractor trailers to check to see if anyone wanted to make public the stories I had sat with so long in private.

I knew exactly when the mail arrived and I knew exactly when the postmistress, whose grandchildren and arthritis and newly added family room were all familiar and daily topics of conversation, would have put up the mail.  But that did not stop me from making several trips.  Maybe she got to my box earlier?  And if she was late, no matter how hard I tried to seem nonchalant, I am sure she sensed my irritation, especially if one of my neighbors was standing at the window engaging her in an extended chinwag about the weather.

But one day it came.  Because it was too big to fit in the box, there was a pick-up slip.  Writing fiction calls for equal parts faith and doubt, and we so often protect ourselves from bad news—rejection, word from your editor that the novel needs yet another draft, a nasty review—by leaning on the doubt.  Probably something my wife ordered, I thought.  Or another catalog from Land’s End, J. Crew, L.L Bean.  But the postmistress was smiling when she handed me the package, as if she knew that I had been waiting for weeks to hold it in my hands.

”Is that it?” the postmistress asked.


“Well open it up and let’s look,” she said.

A part of me thought I ought to wait until my wife got home and share the moment with her, but the larger, more anxious part of me knew I could not wait.  Plus, the postmistress had had to endure my multiple and anxious trips to the box.  I felt like I owed her at least this moment, if not a copy of the magazine itself.

I ripped open the package and pulled out my two complimentary copies.  The magazine was not glossy or slick, its design simple: ordinary card stock cover, an eggshell color, the name of the magazine printed across the top, a list of its contributors at the bottom.

“There you are, “said the postmistress, pointing to my name.

I could tell she was not terribly impressed by the look of the thing.  I mean, it wasn’t Reader’s Digest or Field and Stream.  But it didn’t matter to me.  I loved the way it looked, and three years later, when I got my first tenure track teaching job at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, home of the Review (where I have taught for the last 22 years) I learned that the magazine had been designed by Betty Watson, the wife of Robert Watson, one of the co-founders of the third oldest MFA program in the country.  They’ve kept the cover simple and minimalist all these years for two reasons: to honor Betty’s vision and to emphasize the contents of the magazine, not the cover.

My getting hired at UNCG had nothing to do with my having published my first story there, though it is a happy accident that I ended up an advisory editor for that magazine I was so proud to hold in my hand twenty-six years ago.  Publishing anything at all, then and now, seems to require an alignment of the stars—someone has to love your story enough to print it, you have to submit at the right time, there has to be room in the magazine—and so it could be said that everything that has to do with publishing is, in a sense, a happy accident.  But I don’t remember the accidental part.  I just remember the happiness I felt when I saw my name printed on the front of that magazine, and how sweet the postmistress was in humoring me as I acted as though I had won a Pulitzer.

1 comment:

  1. I love this story. Like you, I started submitting my work to agents and publishers back in the days of typewriters and badly-photocopied rejection letters. I remember the thrill of walking out to the mailbox, the sadness of finding it empty, and the punch in the gut of finding (yet another) rejection. You're right that things have changed, and though I'm now a happily published author too, I'll never forget those early days.

    Thank you for sharing your story, and for this trip into memory.