Monday, June 27, 2016

My First Time: Brandon Davis Jennings

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 Brandon Davis Jennings, an Iraq War veteran from West Virginia and the author of two Kindle Singles: Waiting for the Enemy and Battle Rattle. Brandon received his Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from Bowling Green State University, and his PhD. from Western Michigan University. His work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Berkeley Fiction ReviewNinth LetterMonkeybicycle, Passages North and elsewhere. Brandon’s chapbook Waiting for the Enemy was Iron Horse Literary Review’s 2012 Single Author Chapbook Competition winner, and he is the 2013 winner of the Thomas J. Hruska prize in Creative Non Fiction. His first full-length collection of essays Operation Iraqi Freedom is My Fault is forthcoming later this year. Visit his website to learn more about his life and writing.

My First Time Never Happened

Back in the olden days, when I was still in my MFA at Bowling Green State University (a school I highly recommend to anyone foolish enough to want to be a writer), my submission strategy was to scour Duotrope for every magazine that existed and then shotgun-blast my terrible stories at every magazine that accepted simultaneous submissions; this is not an approach I recommend (nor employ any longer). An additional recommendation is that you should not write a story about a man who lives on a hair farm built on one of the earth’s ass cheeks. Even if the character’s name is Harry Moon, do not do it. That story, “Moon Gold,” the one about the hairy crack farmer, was never published despite being submitted to a number of journals; thank God. But if it had been, it wouldn’t have been my first time that never happened; which is what this is all about.

The story that was accepted at a now defunct journal was titled, “Derrick is a Big Man.” It’s about a pararescue guy and his buddies who were on leave and drinking their asses off in a dormitory. Why pararescue? I picked a job I’d never done and then used details about that job to build metaphors and add a layer of intrigue that I did not possess the skill to construct with a job like custodian or a dorm manager: not without adding some fantastical elements like the ass crack of the earth, for instance. I can’t make a mop exciting. I know because I’ve tried.

Some good things happened for me because of “Derrick is a Big Man;” it won me the Devine Fellowship at BGSU my second year and it was the story I submitted in my packet to Western Michigan University where I was accepted and where I then completed my PhD. Both of those things happened after the story was accepted for publication in a print magazine that is now defunct; a print magazine that defuncted (sic) before my story saw the light of day.

At one point while that story drifted in the purgatory between acceptance and publication, the editor emailed to tell me that the funds for the print magazine had dried up, but that they’d love to publish my story online. We have readers for you online, he wrote. I immediately said no to that proposition. Why? Because I wanted to hold a book in my hands that had my story in it. Why did I want that? Because everyone I’d ever talked to at the time thought publishing electronically was subpar. A story online was online because there is limitless space there (which is not true; Google it). Editors and readers care less about your story because it’s just going up online; editors don’t need to worry about editing or proofing online stories because they can go online and fix the mistakes anytime they get a wild hair or they can leave errors as they stand because no one is going to read the story anyway; it’s online. People hate reading stories on screens and stories published online will just fade into the abyss with all the other stories online, and your career will disintegrate right along with all those unread, unedited stories.

So I said, Nah, dude. No thank you. I will not allow you to destroy my career and my life by publishing my story online. I was a mighty MFA student with zero publication credits and zero prospects and zero confidence who told that editor of the now defunct journal that I was taking my story back, and that I’d seek publication in some other print magazine. I was sorry about the state of his print journal because if his print journal died, then surely his journal was doomed outright; no magazine could survive by being online alone. Everyone knew something that ridiculous would never happen. It was as likely as Antarctica breaking apart and falling into the ocean in huge chunks.

For more than a year I was embarrassed by this not-first-time. I’d told friends and family that a story of mine was getting published moments after I’d received the acceptance in the mail. I might have waited an entire minute after I’d ripped open the letter and seen that what was inside wasn’t another form rejection that to add to the stacks of form rejections in my already overfull filing cabinet before I called my friends. People congratulated me. I drank beers and cracked jokes because I was on my way. My one short story that was going to be published in a print magazine that no one had ever heard of was going to be the thing that turned my life around. I wasn’t going to be, as it were, a virgin anymore. But as you’re already aware, I was wrong. Just like the kid in Stuart Dybeck’s “We Didn’t,” I was not about to get what had at one time seemed inevitable. For months I waited to hear from the editor about when the magazine would be released and when to expect my contributor’s copies that I would stand on my coffee table to do my bragging for me. Yet no word came. After a couple months, people started to ask questions. “When’s your story coming out? What’s the name of that magazine again? Are you gonna call and ask them what the deal is? Aren’t you worried that something weird is going on?”

Yeah I was worried and angry and scared that people would think I’d just made it all up. My whole life had gone from Job’s life pre-God and Devil’s bet to a life much like Harry Moon’s at the end of his story “Moon Gold” where he and his entire farm end up covered in shit after he strikes “gold” in the valley between the earth’s cheeks (how else could that story have ended?) And this all started before I had a chance to say no. The unknown that accompanies submitting work for publication is something I’ve become more familiar with over time, and I am more numb to it now, but back then, the thought that someone would accept my story for publication and then never publish it seemed like a horror story. You work on something until it nearly consumes you, send it to some faceless god like an offering, and then you’re supposed to just put it out of your mind until they tell you they do or do not want to publish that thing. (In the case of agents, they might not tell you that they even received that thing: something that also took some getting used to.) And there’s no point in going much farther into this spiral of terror because, as you know, the editor did finally contact me, and then I did finally tell him no. And ultimately the story was never published in any magazine: print or electronic. On a hard-drive it remains, only remembered on rare occasions such as this when I wax nostalgic about the anxieties wedded to the world of submitting things that you love while hoping against hope that whoever is on the receiving end of your submission doesn’t send you back an email that says something like: “Every joke falls flat, and I hope your character isn’t named Derrick because this story is about the war for oil.” An aside is that I once submitted a poem and the rejection said that it didn’t have the “ness” of a poem. I won’t argue that the poem was good, but that kind of rejection is as full of ness as they come.

So why write about this not-first-time as my first time? There’s not a whole lot of good in talking about this writing game if we don’t talk about the parts that are most frustrating and how we overcame those frustrating parts. And sometimes those frustrating parts are caused by beliefs that are imposed on us by others, and not beliefs that we agree with if we take a few minutes to evaluate those beliefs ourselves. I cannot say for a fact whether or not having that story published online would’ve been good or bad for my writing career. And that not-knowing bothered me for a long, long time. It doesn’t now, though; which is not to say that other not-knowings have been as easy to overcome.

I feel lucky (some might say blessed.) I’ve had stories published in journals that I can hold in my hands and have a bookshelf where I keep them, so I can look at them if I am feeling particularly miserable about my current writing progress (I doubt this ever stops recurring regardless of one’s success). But I have also published electronically, and I feel just as good when I see a story or essay of mine online as I do when I hold one of them in my hands. If I didn’t feel that way, then I wouldn’t have two Kindle Singles right now. The main character in both of those books is Derrick Vezchek, a version of the character in my never-published “Derrick is a Big Man.” Those Kindle Singles might have never happened if “Derrick is a Big Man” had been published back when my first time never happened. Because that story was never published I was able to write new and better stories about that character. Some of those stories were published in print magazines individually. Then Iron Horse Literary Review published them as a chapbook called Waiting for the Enemy, and then when, by the grace of God, that chapbook sold out, it might have died like so many chapbooks do. Instead of accepting that, I submitted the chapbook to Kindle Singles, and it is now available online and will be until Amazon or the internet dies.

Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, “Don’t write a novella.” I heard it a lot. Why? Because where on earth are you gonna get it published? There are a few novella contests (I was lucky enough to judge one of them last year), but novellas are tough to publish in part because they just aren’t economical for most publishers. And that sounds stupid to most artists because “it’s not about the money” (which is true until it is about the money). I’ve told people a million times that a story is as long as it needs to be, and I believe that. But I also know that is bad advice for someone trying to get a book deal. And what happened to me? Because I was so focused on a collection of essays that I didn’t have the energy to finish my second novel, I ended up with a novella. If I’d been afraid of electronic publications, that novella would be sitting on my hard-drive, maybe forever. Instead of that, I went back to Kindle Singles and they published the novella, Battle Rattle, a novella about Derrick Vezchek. What’s even more thrilling about it for me, is that it became a best-seller: which, sadly, does not mean I made a million (or even a thousand) dollars.

“Derrick is a Big Man” was my first time that never happened, and it made me anxious for a long time. I got it over, and eventually I published other stories in journals that are not defunct, and I had interactions with editors and a couple agents that were positive and inspiring. Because I am the luckiest man I know, my supportive and encouraging wife framed both Waiting for the Enemy and the issue of Crazyhorse where my first published essay “Operation Iraqi Freedom is My Fault” appeared. I am proud of those physical artifacts, but I am also proud that when someone types my name into the search bar on Google or Amazon they can find my work, and they can read the things published online. Because some of my work exists online, a couple of my essays were found and then translated into Czech. And because Amazon published Waiting for the Enemy, Eike Schönfeld, (translator of the likes of J. D. Salinger, Jonathan Franzen, and Kathryn Mansfield), is translating my chapbook into German. How could that have happened for an agentless goofball like myself without electronic publications?

I’m glad I grew up as a writer in this transitory period, and I’m glad that I didn’t choose the side of stubbornness over progress because it’s mostly been good to me. I’m excited that print and electronic publications are able to coexist in a way that so many people told me wouldn’t be possible. And I am glad my first time never happened. Because if it had, I may not have been as driven to write better stories and essays. “Moon Gold” might have been the end of my writing career, and what a crappy ending that would’ve been.

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