Monday, October 27, 2014

My First Time: Sara Lippmann

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 Sara Lippmann, the author of the story collection Doll Palace, now out from Dock Street Press.  Leesa Cross-Smith at Sun Dog Lit says, “Lippmann is one of those authors who can get away with both seriousness and hilarity in the same sentence.”  Sara's stories have been published in The Good Men Project, Wigleaf, Slice magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, Joyland and elsewhere.  She is the recipient of a 2012 fellowship in Fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts and co-hosts the Sunday Salon at Jimmy's 43, a longstanding reading series in New York's East Village.  Click here to visit her website.  You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

My First Lucky Break,
Which Screwed Me Up Good

My first time I got lucky.

First short story I ever wrote, accepted on its first shot.

It wasn’t The New Yorker or anything.  Not even close.  Still, the quick return screwed me up good.

Oh, please, you say.  Cry me a river.

A fluke, of course, a freak occurrence.  Not remotely representative of the lit world order where rejection is the norm.  Where rejection can be the best kind of teacher.

Those of us who’ve been around have come to respect the submission process.  We’ve spilled the blood, sweat, and tears.  We’ve stumbled, detoured, gotten lost, given up, rediscovered our way.  We know there is no choice but to persevere, to put down one word then the next.

But try telling that to my twenty-five-year-old self.  Not only did I believe I was deserving of–even, entitled to–this random blip of success, I quickly adopted the delusional notion that this was how it was going to go.  This writer business, it was Cake.

It all seemed so easy.  An email blast in grad school: The Beacon Street Review (now Redivider) had an open call for submissions.  Did I have a story?  Why, yes. I had a story.  Exactly one story.  I wrote it that fall in a workshop with Darcey Steinke, my first writing instructor, my first term in graduate school.  Was it ready?  What did I know?  Ready or not, I mailed it.

It was a season of firsts.  First serious relationship, first (and only) man I’ve ever lived with.  When I received the good news I was in Florida, visiting my boyfriend (now husband) who was stationed there for a stint in medical school.

One for one!  He said.  We high fived.  We actually did that.  Slapped palms in his student housing then drove down to the Everglades and paddled a canoe around mangroves, alligators.

That summer, I’d left my charmed job at a magazine (which I’d landed after college, thanks to another stroke of serendipity), where I was paid to write about things like aphrodisiacs and Atari.  I assumed fiction would be a logical extension of that, like a freelance gig.  I even felt indignant that I wasn’t being compensated to the tune of $2/word.  Here, I thought, lay the recipe to The Writing Life: Scratch something out, fire it off, watch doors fly open, sirens sing.

When the issue was published, Emerson College invited me up to their school to do a reading at the BSR launch party.  I wore a dress and read my Lola Giter story–in character.  There were cheese cubes, warm grapes.  Wine in plastic cups.  I told myself this was fancy and grown up.

Maybe I affected modesty.  Perhaps I shrugged it off as Beginner’s Luck.  After all, this crap happens all the time.  But when the crap actually happened to me, it couldn’t have felt less arbitrary.

It felt…destined.

You know those self-congratulatory parents of angel babies who attribute their child’s sunny disposition and miraculous sleeping to their homemade organic mush and expert swaddling skills?  Until the next kid comes along, colicky and up all night?  Only then do the poor schnooks realize how little they had to do it with it, how vast the world is; how much they have to learn.

I was that schnook.

Intellectually, sure. I understood the path to publication could be pitted with potholes.

But I didn’t get it.  I thought, not me.  I sent out my second story, my third.  I didn’t wait to make sure my stories were honest or earned or necessary, urgent–much less well-told.  My sentences were empty but I was hungry for instant gratification.  One taste and I was a junkie for praise.

Entitlement is an ugly thing, particularly in young writers.  Steve Almond recently addressed this.  When the rejections started to pile up, they crushed me.  I didn’t process them for the lessons they contained.  I grew bitter.  Worse, I felt owed.  I played the toxic comparison game.  I fell into deep wells of self-pity.  There must be something wrong with me.  Or the world.  Both.

It is embarrassing to look back and admit this.

Mostly, I lacked “perversity of spirit,” a phrase I love, coined by Rufi Thorpe in the latest issue of Poets & Writers.  It was a short, fast fall from inflated sense of self to total absence of conviction.

It has taken fourteen years from that first publication for my first story collection to come out.  I have been through it, saddled by it, stuck in the muck.  Sometimes the work pays off quickly and sometimes not and sometimes it may feel like things happen or don’t without rhyme or reason, and true, some of it shakes out by chance.  Yet, the work is all we have.  It is not a race.  There are no shortcuts.  If I’ve learned anything since the fall of 2000 it is to keep my head down, pace myself for the long haul and approach the page with openness and humility.

A part of me wishes my first time had been different.  That I hadn’t been so clueless, so hasty, so ridiculously na├»ve.  But I am grateful for the years.  I’ve become a better writer–and hopefully, a better person–because of it.

Recently, I dug up my contributor’s copy of the BSR.  My first published story begins like this: “The night the fire alarms shook the Riverdale Home for the Aged, Lola Giter stayed in bed.”  The story must be 8,000 words.  It is about the German Jewish immigrant experience told entirely in interior monologue, as a woman contemplates her mortality, with switchbacks to past and present.  It goes on (and on and on) as the inferno rages in her mind but little happens until it ends:
She was old, true, an old woman already. But how could she be remembered with such little respect? Lola Giter threw back the covers. Pheh. She would get up.
No frosted wings or magic cranes.  No one to lift you out of your misery, to quell the indulgent fantasies, the rampant surges of self-doubt.  It is a wonky combination but writers must both must believe in themselves, in the singular value of their work, and be absolutely ruthless, unsatisfied, and self-effacing in order to ensure what is put out there is worthy of its reader.

No rejection or acceptance slip can achieve that.  That’s our work alone.  Only we can do that for ourselves.

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