Tuesday, December 19, 2017

My First Time: Giano Cromley

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 Giano Cromley, author of the novel The Last Good Halloween, which was a finalist for the High Plains Book Award. His short story collection What We Build Upon the Ruins was released by Tortoise Books in November. He is the chair of the Communications Department at Kennedy-King College, and he lives on the South Side of Chicago with his wife and two dogs.

My First Devastating Writing Workshop

The first time I submitted a story for workshop in my Master of Fine Arts program I learned more about what it means to be a writer than any experience I’d had before or since. Those lessons took a long time to congeal—I certainly didn’t recognize them in the moment—but with the blessed hindsight of over 15 years, I can say now that’s where I first learned what it is like to be a writer.

In 1999, I left Washington, DC, to attend the University of Montana’s MFA program in fiction. I had been working in the U.S. Senate for the previous four years, making my way up from front desk phone-answering guy, to letter-writing guy, to press release-writing guy, to speech-writing guy. And while I had been learning the intricacies of a well-honed hedge or the siren-song lyricism of a political cliché, I had harbored the secret belief that I was destined to be a great writer, that I was perhaps in my chrysalis phase, preparing myself for a meteoric rise through the ranks of whatever you’re supposed to rise through in order to become a big-shot writer.

When I got my acceptance letter to UM, I figured I was ready to take flight.

For my first workshop class I chose one of the more notoriously salty professors in the program because I figured it would mean a lot more when someone like that pronounced me the next big thing, as opposed to one of the more traditionally supportive faculty members. That first class period I volunteered to submit a story to be workshopped because I didn’t see any reason to delay my rise to the top any longer.

Most people, by now, are familiar with the concept of workshopping. You submit copies of a story to the class. They read it and come back the next class period to offer advice and critique.

After class, I made a pot of coffee and stayed up late into the night, tapping out a brand new story that I was convinced would cement my status as someone to keep an eye on.

I wrote a loosely fictionalized story about a relationship where a girlfriend wanted to get married to a guy who was, for no particular reason, noncommittal. (Before you read any further, let me be clear that I’m in on the joke now. I know how awful that story sounds, but I was convinced at the time that this was literary gold.) To top it off, I decided to write the story in second person. Yes! Of course! Second person! How brilliant! How original!

That next morning, confident that I held the future of American literature in my hands, I delivered the story to my classmates’ mailboxes in the English Department. I then had to wait an entire week before the class met again.

When the day finally came, my story was the first one discussed in class. The teacher pulled a copy out of his satchel and set it on the table before him. “Well, what did we think?” he asked. I sensed a note of resignation in his voice which was the first hint that this workshop session might not go the way I’d anticipated.

At first, there was silence.

Finally, one of the second-year students spoke up, “I didn’t get it. I mean, what’s he trying to do here?”

And then came the flood. All at once, the room burst into a cacophony of students speaking at once, all with something negative to share about the story.

To say they didn’t like it would be an understatement. To say they hated it might be an understatement as well. More accurate would be to say they felt transitive hatred, the kind of hatred that makes you angry at the person who created it. The clichés, the smugness of the narrator, the snarky tone. They despised everything about it.

I think I must have been in shock. I didn’t cry, which was my first instinct. I also didn’t say anything in my defense, which would have been considered very poor form in that program. So at least I was able to maintain my dignity. Up to a point.

“What about the use of second person?” my teacher finally asked once the group seemed to have spent itself. “What did we think about that?”

There was a chorus of negative comments. Then he cleared his throat and answered his own question, “Reading this story in second person was like being trapped at a party by a drunk guy who won’t stop talking right in your face.”

The room erupted into laughter.

And that was it. The lowest point I could remember ever feeling as a writer.

After class, I gathered my things and slunk out of the classroom. I did a lot of soul searching those first few weeks of the program. Was I really that bad of a writer? Was the thing I thought I’d been put on this earth to do actually something I was terrible at? Should I have been applying to law schools instead of creative writing programs? I decided to stick it out in the MFA program. And slowly, gradually, I began to write stories that got a better reception. More importantly, I started reading a lot. Everything I could get my hands on. And I started to pay more attention to what was happening in the things I read. I started learning.

To be sure, the low moment I felt that day of my first workshop would be felt again later, multiple times, in different and similar ways. The time an agent called to say she loved my first novel, then inexplicably cut off communication with me a few weeks later, never to be heard from again. The time a trusted friend read the first draft of a novel I’d spent years on and said, I’m not really sure why you wrote this or what you could ever do to fix it. The time I got my first one-star review on Goodreads. Those low moments rival that first workshop experience.

And it goes to the single truest thing I’ve learned about writing: You need to have thick skin. You need to know when to shut out the voices that are calling for your head. You need to know when to block out the world, sit your ass down at a desk, and start pushing the pen across that blank white page.


  1. Your description reminded me of how they laughed at my melodramatic story in tenth grade of a poor girl in the Swiss mountains whose family had barely enough to eat. I'm still laughing at that and realizing the perspicacity of my then classmates. I believe I've improved, BTW.