Monday, August 15, 2016

My First Time: James Carpenter

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 James Carpenter, author of the new novel No Place to Pray. James Carpenter began writing fiction after an eclectic career in education, business, and information technology. His stories have appeared in numerous publications including The Chicago Tribune Printers Row, Fiction International, and Fourteen Hills.

My First (and Worst) Fiction Publication

The second worst thing that happened to me as a fiction writer was getting the first story I wrote published—in descant’s 2009 issue. Worse yet was descant’s giving it their Frank O’Connor Award.

Ten years ago I was anxious about facing the vacuum of retirement after a life defined by work. I thought maybe I could fill it writing fiction and began work on a coming-of-age story about a teen-aged boy whose father makes him kill his dog. I worked on “Animal Story” nearly every day for six months. Revising, cutting, pasting back what I’d cut. Changing point of view, changing setting, grappling for mood and tone that were just dark enough to make the story disturbing but keep it on this side of parody.

When it was done and while I worked on new stories, I sent it to nineteen different publications, all of which rejected it. At the time I feared that all those rejections, nineteen for crying out loud, were telling me maybe I’d be better off finding something else to fill the retirement void.

I decided I would send it out one more time, get that twentieth rejection, and call it quits. Then lightning struck—my SASE to descant came back with the message “Acceptance enclosed” written along the bottom of the envelop in red ink. Evidently I wasn’t the only writer who despondently tossed those responses from literary journals in a pile to look at later (what’s the use, right?). A few weeks later David Kuhne, descant’s editor, emailed me to say I’d won the Frank O’Connor Award. A very bad thing for me—proving as it did that I was really hot stuff.

Shortly thereafter, I received another acceptance for my story “Two Jews Walk into a Bar,” about a frustrated author who could never finish anything. Somewhat experimental, the piece tells his story through the openings of ones he can’t finish. I labored at it for months, writing nearly seventy-five openings from which I eventually mined the thirty-two of the final published version.

I was also struggling with another story based on an experience I had riding my motorcycle to Alaska. I’d stopped at a roadside motel and restaurant in the Yukon Territory, when a very drunk, very sad old lady tried to get me up to her room “to look at her acrylics.” I began that story at least a dozen times. From the motorcyclist’s point of view, from the woman’s, from the clerk’s who’d waited on me. First person. Third person. Nothing worked. Setting it aside to gestate for a while, I started another story about a little boy who after the Sunday school lesson on Lazarus, decides to bring dead animals back to life. And then I had it—why the woman had landed in such a desolate place. I changed the boy to a girl who killed her baby brother so that she could resurrect him, made her a rising star of an artist, had her abandon her success to hitchhike north and imprison herself and her guilt in the godforsaken Yukon. Altogether I spent about eight months on “The Fairy of Destruction Bay” before sending it out, and Edie Meidav, then guest editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal, chose it for publication. (Not only is Edie the author of exquisitely beautiful novels, she’s the most gifted writing teacher I’ve ever known.)

Following that came a marvelous autumn when I had six stories accepted in three months. Every journal wanted changes and every one had a deadline. A crushing workload, but I was ecstatic in spite of the pressure, working at something I really enjoyed, filling my empty retirement days, but mostly because all of this success surely meant only one thing—that I was truly hot stuff. And if any little hesitancy or doubt were to creep in to suggest I might not be, all I had to do was remember that I’d won an award with my very first story.

I started churning out stories at the rate of about two a month. One week to write. One more to edit. And then out the door they went. Strangely, nothing the least bit encouraging, I mean not a single thing, came back from all those editors who clearly didn’t realize how hot I was.

I wasted nearly two years before taking stock. What was different?

What was different was that being hot stuff meant I didn’t have to spend all that time thinking and writing and discarding. On rewriting and research. On just plain diligence and hard work.

Chastened, I went back to the way I’d started, letting each story unravel on its own timeline and throwing the dreadful ones away. Accepting that 100 strong words in a day will get you to the end way faster than 2,500 weak ones. In time the acceptances began again, eventually building to a steady, if modest, stream.

Lesson learned, I took the same approach with my novel, No Place to Pray. Over a five-year period, its main characters evolved from a university professor leading a Denis Johnson-like coterie of down-and-out angels, to an Ivy League teaching assistant, to a couple of homeless alcoholics living under a bridge. It moved from North Dakota to west Philly, to a fictional southern state. I “finished” it at least six times before I was satisfied enough to send it out. A few months later Twisted Road Publications offered to publish it.

It’s too easy for me to forget that writing is hard. It’s hard even to do it badly, let alone well. But as long as I keep that in mind and stay honest to myself about my talents, I seem to do okay. As for my occasional hubristic relapse into believing that I am really hot stuff? That’s descant’s fault for publishing my very first story, not mine.

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