Monday, August 22, 2016

My First Time: Michael Copperman

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 Copperman, author of Teacher, a memoir about teaching in the rural public schools of the Mississippi Delta. Copperman has taught writing to low-income, first-generation students of diverse background at the University of Oregon for the last decade. His prose has appeared in The Oxford American, The Sun, Creative Nonfiction, Salon, Gulf Coast, Guernica, Waxwing, and Copper Nickel, among other magazines, and has won awards and garnered fellowships from the Munster Literature Center, Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, Oregon Literary Arts, and the Oregon Arts Commission. In addition to his own writing, Michael also helps run the The Oregon Writers’ Collective, a group co-founded by Heather Ryan. Through readings and workshops they foster a vibrant community to nurture working literary writers, particularly those who are beginning their careers, by connecting them with audiences and developing their craft. Click here to visit his website.

My First Book

For years and years, I preached process to my literary friends. I listened to their fears and doubts about the long odds inherent in the pursuit of lyric and literary art, and affirmed them (since I share them). I insisted that the intersection of art and commerce is the wrong obsession, that all that matters is the work of making meaning which is an end unto itself. I said (and meant it) that the integrity of art lies purely in the purity of pursuit, that what matters is not publications or awards or pay, but in the doing which is its own reward, to have reached and to have honed and to have made your work as beautiful and significant as you can. But I found my faith being tested as my agent and I tried to find a home for my memoir Teacher, a book about working in the rural public schools of the Mississippi Delta.

That philosophy of process and persistence and integrity held up through what was eight years of submissions to literary magazines and journals and newspapers—held up through the years of rejection it often takes to place even an excellent story or essay out of the slush pile, held up as fellowships and opportunities and lovers passed me by, as friends left and peers seemed to soar and I struggled on the ground floor. I kept an ink-stained record of my submissions—first one side of a page, then two—more ink, smaller writing, the occasional piece circled and crossed off when it was placed.

Things settled out in that process—I ascended from slush with regularity, published between four and eight pieces a year of literary fiction and nonfiction since 2008 in some of the country’s finest venues, eventually won fellowships that had formerly passed me by, hewed to process and kept a stiff upper lip when disappointment set in. I queried perhaps 125 agents with parts of the two finished novel manuscripts that were enjambed, kept on through two years of rejection until I realized each book had to live as its own expression. I realized that being published in literary magazines matters little—even at good publications—and just as I accepted how little it meant to be in The Sun or Gulf Coast or The Oxford-American or a Norton anthology, an agent came to me saying they’d read something of mine in Creative Nonfiction and wanted to read the manuscript the piece had come from. I sent it on, expecting it to come to nothing. Days later, a phone call came from New York and suddenly I was revising the memoir with my agent, and being prepared to go to editors.

That was when things got difficult. I had been psychologically dependent on production, on process, and there was a safety to that state of career—I just did the work. Now, I was judged on a finished project, and nothing to work on and no submissions to make and nothing boiling forth. I felt sick with dread, shaken by the impending stakes, by verdicts with real consequences to come. This was exactly how I used to feel before a big wrestling tournament; exactly why I grew to hate competition even as I loved the sport. For a few weeks, a month, I felt similarly about writing: I missed the doing, the reaching for meaning. And then, even as the rejections began to come, first close calls at the big houses, and then the editors who wanted the manuscript, and then got turned down by the offer makers or boards, and then the long period when it seemed nobody at all would come calling, I kept writing. The same process: I worked on my novel, and spilled more ink on the submissions sheet for short work, and kept working even through the last months of one full year of rejection. In the end, I still did not yet have a publisher, but I did have a second manuscript.

An ancient Japanese proverb tells us, “If you focus your will upon a stone, it can pass through it.” Ten and a half years ago, I began submitting work. I kept the records on this sheet of paper (two-sided), vowing not to stop until I had a published book. On September 1 this year, that sheet can be retired, as University Press of Mississippi will finally release my memoir Teacher. And now, as my agent has moved along with his career, I am beginning to search for the right representation for my novel.

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