Monday, October 3, 2016

My First Time: Rachel Hall

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 Hall, author of Heirlooms, a collection of linked stories which was BkMk Press’ 2015 G. S. Sharat prize winner selected by Marge Piercy. Rachel’s short stories and essays have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies including Black Warrior Review, Crab Orchard Review, Gettysburg Review, Fifth Wednesday and New Letters, which awarded her the Alexander Cappon Prize for Fiction. She has received other honors and awards from Lilith, Glimmer Train, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Ragdale, the Ox-Bow School of the Arts, and the Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Rachel is a Professor of English in the creative writing program at the State University of New York at Geneseo where she holds the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. She lives in Rochester, New York with her husband and daughter. Click here to visit her website.

My First Fan Mail

In the hot house that is graduate school, we were all madly trying to publish our poems and stories. That was the goal, the sign we were real writers, the golden ring. During my second year, I was thrilled to have a story accepted for publication in the Black Warrior Review. In those pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook days there was no easy way to let the world know that you held in your sweaty hand that golden ring. There was no posting or sharing or humble bragging. One’s work arrived by post, bound, and in this case, attractively so. I added the publication to my fledgling CV and sent my extra contributors copies to my family, who ohh and ahhed sufficiently. The End.

Or so I thought. Some months later, I received a letter from BWR. I’m not sure what I thought it was—payment perhaps, or information about ordering additional contributors’ copies. I opened the letter to find another envelope and on it, a pink post-it on which the editor had scrawled “A letter for you.” The letter was addressed to me c/o BWR. I didn’t recognize the handwriting or the return address, but I most certainly recognized the sender’s name: Andre Dubus. I had loved Dubus’ stories since I encountered them in my first creative writing course—“The Winter Father,” “Killings,” “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” and especially the beautiful and tender, “A Father’s Story.” I’d taught these stories in my role as a graduate teaching assistant (I still teach these stories regularly), pointing out the ways Dubus makes us care for—like even—characters whose actions are troubling—dishonest, sometimes cruel or violent.

I leaned against the knotty pine wall in my apartment, slid down to sitting, and tore open the envelope. Inside, on a piece of paper torn from a spiral notebook, was this letter from Andre Dubus:
Hello Rachel Hall:
     Your story, “T’ai Chi” deeply moved me, and it is beautifully put together, beautifully written, with breathing characters. It could have been a story about my own grown children whose parents and parent’s friends were married in the sixties, and now are not. Painful for me, in a lovely musical way.
The letter went on for another paragraph after this—first to offer me an introduction to his agent when I was ready, and to wish me continued growth in all things, a lovely closing, which says so much about Dubus and his generosity.

I reread the letter. I loved especially that final sentence: Painful for me, in a lovely musical way. Not that I wanted to cause pain, but I did want, without really knowing it, to move readers as Dubus’ stories had moved me, evoked feeling: sadness and recognition, identification. Of course I did. This is the real goal of writing, not publication. Publication is—and this is easy to forget, and not just in graduate school either—the means to reach readers. It’s the beginning of a conversation, not the whole conversation.

In her book Making a Literary Life, the late great Caroline See writes that writers should do two things five days a week: write a thousand words and send a charming note. Many writers recommend a writing schedule or routine, but as far as I know, no one else recommends writing a charming note as part of a writing practice; and yet, it is brilliant advice. See devotes an entire chapter to this practice. Charming notes are letters to authors whose work has touched you, made you think or remember. At the same time, they say to the author, while writing is lonely, “you are not alone.” In addition, when we write charming notes, we announce our presence. In effect, we’re saying, I’m here, too, and I want to engage in this conversation. A charming note is many things; it’s a wave of recognition, a thumbs up or a handshake, the answering voice: I see you, I hear you, I get it. An affirmation.

Over the years I’d drafted in my head letters to my literary heroes—Dear Alice Munro, Laurie Colwin, John Updike, Lorrie Moore—but I hadn’t ever actually put pen to paper to write them. For several of these writers, it’s too late, something I will always regret. I have so much to say to Laurie Colwin about her characters (how like my family members they are!) or their homes, which I can see clearly, as if I were a guest there, their tastes and preoccupations and concerns. It wasn’t until reading Making a Literary Life, that I realized Dubus’ letter was in addition to being incredibly kind, a model of this crucial component of literary citizenship. This is what engaged members of the literary community do, his letter indicates. We keep up our end of the conversation. We respond.

While See strongly recommends buying nice personalized stationary for writing charming notes, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary. It seems to me that the important thing is to get those letters out there, to speak up, and in doing so, engage with the literary community. I’ve emailed charming notes or sent them via Facebook messenger. Some are very brief and to the point. Others are longer, more detailed. Here’s the thing: Nobody will reject fan mail of any length, in any form. I’ve always received a response to my charming notes, and the recipients have always seemed both thrilled and surprised to hear from a reader. After all, who doesn’t want to know that their words had impact?

Since I received Dubus’ letter, I’ve moved five times—across the country, from city to suburbs, from apartments to houses. In each place I’ve lived, I keep the letter close. At present, it’s tacked to the bulletin board next to my writing desk, still in the original envelope. I’ve kept the pink post-it too. There are stains on the notebook paper, and the return address is smudged. But it is one of my most treasured possessions. It’s helped me weather rejection, uncertainty and anxiety, dry years and thwarted ambition. Andre Dubus liked my story, and he wrote to tell me so, I’d remind myself, and that has helped me keep going.

Photo of Rachel Hall by Pamela Frame

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