Monday, January 25, 2016

My First Time: Rachel Cantor

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 Rachel Cantor, author of Good on Paper, a new novel published by Melville House. Rachel’s stories have appeared in such magazines as The Paris Review, One Story, Ninth Letter, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Fence, and Volume 1 Brooklyn. They have been anthologized, nominated for three Pushcart Prizes, short-listed by both the O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories, and awarded runner-up Bridport and Graywolf/SLS Prizes. Rachel is also the author of A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World. She currently lives in Brooklyn. Click here to visit her website.

My First Artists’ Colony

It was February 1999. I had finished my creative writing MA at Johns Hopkins nine months earlier, but hadn’t decided what to do next. I’d been a summer intern at a Jewish retreat center, I’d stayed on a friend’s couch in her studio apartment in D.C., I’m sure I spent time visiting my sister and her young family, and I was, by January, staying on the couch of yet another friend, this time in Philly. I was anything but settled. Probably I hadn’t written in months. But I was a writer—I was sure about that, and it wasn’t just my degree that told me so. Still, I hadn’t published even one short story—publication was all but unimaginable! But the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, an artists’ colony located in Amherst, Virginia, didn’t care about that. They invited me for a five-week residency—five weeks! Five weeks during which time—could it be?—I was to do nothing but write. I’d have my own room, with a door! I could unpack a suitcase, finally. Good people would cook me meals. I could meditate, pretend to do yoga. The clicking of my laptop would disturb no one, nor would I be disturbed by toddlers, curious cats, the daily lives of my most generous friends.

As I arrived, according to my diary, I was even more unsettled. I was organizing a work trip to Rwanda to start just days after the residency. I’d just had emergency dental work—my cheek the night before I traveled was, I wrote, “swole like a pumpkin.” Maybe my back hurt: I was concerned about managing my suitcases through two commuter rail legs and two flights.

I was soothed, though, by the affable Robert Johnson, longtime driver for VCCA (and fried-chicken chef and poker player and VCCA institution), who picked me up at the airport, and welcomed me with his hard-for-this-Yankee-to-always-understand Virginia accent. And I was charmed by my studio—more specifically, the presence within it of the “La-Z-Boy of my dreams.” Before I’d had five minutes to sit in it, I was coming up with plans: I would be “up at 6, washed by 6:30, stretched and sat by 7:30, breakfasted and off to work by 8,” though I’d never voluntarily gotten up at 6 for any reason, ever. I had so many plans! I would write new work in the morning, revise in the afternoon, and read all night. I named something like a dozen short stories I could rework. According to one plan I mapped out that first night, in addition to all this new work, and this revision, and this reading, I would reread and revise a novel I’d written some years before—easy if I broke it up into pieces, right? Thirty-nine days seemed an endless expanse. Probably I cried at the thought of it. I know I marveled at the gift.

By lunchtime my first day, I had spent three straight hours revising a story. Still, I wrote that I needed to “resist this feeling (already!) that I'm not being productive.” Again and again in the days to come, I would berate myself for not working hard enough. But I did work hard—harder than I’d ever worked before—and I was productive. One afternoon, I wrote: “The hours just slip away. Have I ever spent so many hours in one day working on a single story (must count: nearly five hours)? Probably not. I want to write all day.” There were dead ends, of course, mostly involving attempts to revive old work, like that early novel. But sitting on my beloved La-Z-Boy, listening to Nirvana on my cassette Walkman (yes!), I drafted or revised five stories I would later publish.

More than that, however, I set the course for the work I would do for the next decade. “I’d so much like to start a new series,” I wrote that first night after rereading some drafts, “give my writing over the next few weeks some structure, some direction, but of course I can't imagine what that series might be, esp. now that I’m so disillusioned by Shira … To follow a single character through vastly different moments in her life—that would be a good structure …” From this germ came the first “Shira” stories, eight of which I since published in magazines like the Kenyon Review, One Story, New England Review, and Fence. From this germ (and I guess despite my “disillusion”!) also came Good on Paper, a “Shira” story that became my just-now-published second novel.

My first colony was not just about writing—doing good work and discovering how hard I could work, how much I could write. It was about artistic community. I met composers, I met the accordionist for the Pogues, I met sculptors, and book artists, and a 98-year-old painter. I lit Shabbat candles with an Israeli and a former rebbetzin. I played nickel-ante poker, I heard other writers read, I went to open studios, and, yes, a dance party or two. People asked to read my work! They wanted me to read for them—me! The unpublished writer! How I admired them, those accomplished, dedicated people, those professionals, with their agents and galleries and recordings! How I wanted to be like them. And for five beautiful weeks I was.

“Write this down,” I wrote during one of those first days, “in case I ever forget it: writing is the best thing. Even revising is wonderful. I can’t believe it’s after 10 already. That’s all I needed to say.” I have since had the incredible good fortune to be a fellow at nearly 30 residencies in four countries. Every time, I hope to approach this gift with the wonder and excitement of my first time.

Author photo: Bennett Beckenstein; VCCA photo: Katey Schultz


  1. I love that you concluded this piece with "I hope to approach this gift with the wonder and excitement of my first time." I focus on the word "hope" because as time moves on, that is the one thing hardest to hold on to—hope. With hope, there is no failure or rejection. Thank you for this piece!

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience. Mine was one that I kept rejecting at the insistence of painter Pinkney Herbert. Finally I applied and had a similar experience of the ah ha moments of being able to spend a concentrated amount of uninterrupted time on my work. At present I am collecting memories of Robert Johnson, if they is more you can share about your reflections on his special spirit, I would appreciate it. Thanks,