I’ve been happy to say I had a short story accepted for publication, coming out later this month. Not only was it accepted, but it was accepted by an editor whose accomplishments and taste I admire. Short of quoting his actual email, I can say I could not have asked for higher praise in the words he used to express pride in publishing the story.
You must understand the relative isolation and uncertainty in which most writers work. The accepted story was written in parts over a period of nearly ten years. It is a story of singular intensity — a story I initially wrote in response to the challenge: “Write something that scares you to put on paper. Write something one would not say out loud.” I did. I wrote something that scared me. And I did it in a way that was unapologetic in not hiding behind any narrative artifice — no gentle introductions, no fluffy segues. (Inspiration for story mentioned here.) It came together as an act of artistry and bravery, but also as a piece that would not fit the needs of all editors as they allocated the limited space in their literary journals. In its first forays out for publication, it drew praise and near misses, but also confusion over a hurdle I could not at that time see the solution to.
I was a young parent by then. My husband spent three years slashing his way into a higher paying job in order to support our little family so I could stay home most hours with our son. Babies take more hours than one might think. By the second son, I’d given up a freelance gig because of its unpredictable demands.
After years of telling myself that being a professional writer required my willingness to make sacrifices to dedicate myself to my work, I was suddenly feeling guilty over the time and expense the writing had cost — and still no bestseller on the shelf. This fierce story brought home a near miss from Paris Review and The Sun, praise from Esquire. But most readers have no idea the number of submissions a work might take to find the right editor, the right publication, at the right time. The numbers game can become wearying.
At a point, I chastised myself over the near misses. I assumed those close to me were wearying as well, and began to say: “If I were a football player, no matter how close I’d gotten to the end zone, at a certain point, if I’d never crossed the goal line, it was just a lot of running around on grass.”
Sharing this the other day, a writing colleague said that if they’d had near misses at publications like Paris Review, they couldn’t imagine doubting their abilities. But it felt like time for some professional humility. If I sold TVs, my shop would not be in business if sets never left the store with paying customers. I was willing to consider maybe I was more suited to novel length, and just not a short story writer. No question, it was a little personal trash talk. The Army goads, “Go big or go home.” I goaded myself to either be a writer who crosses that endzone, or own up that I might be just running on grass.
My aunt had a national champion quarter horse when I was young. Gorgeous, gorgeous mare. As her trophies mounted, they chose to breed her with an equally gorgeous and accomplished stallion, named Robert Redford. The filly born was a spectacular, glowing chestnut with a perfect star on her forehead. Next to her chocolate bay mother, she drew gasps. She would be a star. Yet, as time came for her to be saddle-trained, turned out there was something off in her fore-cannons (shins, for non-horsefolk). They’d work her and fail, and have to take a break, a few months off, then try again. Try and try again. My aunt stood beside her, this gorgeous horse she couldn’t ride, and struggled with frustration.
Solution? Turn the filly to pasture, let her legs strengthen. Turn her out to run on the grass.
In writing communities, how often we run into young writers seeking advice because they are so desperate to have success now – today, on the day and time they scheduled it, within a framework their questioning families can accept.
But it’s sometimes like that filly.
I was thrilled the day it clicked in my head: the ironic parallel between the football metaphor I used to insult my efforts and the memory of that filly out kicking her heels in the thick grass of a Michigan hillside.
Sometimes writing is all about running on the grass.
We schedule our hours to work. We hone our skills. We read and write with professional determination. We push ourselves to reach that completed draft, then whip ourselves all over again through the real work of revision. We force ourselves to be humble and brave, at once. But, in the end, as with life itself, a-ha’s and true insight and seeing the forest despite the trees don’t always arrive on a schedule.
I ran on the grass for three or four years while raising tiny babies, steeping in the mortal life’s experience that parenthood is, without scheduling time to write about it. And one morning woke up with a full novel spilling out so voraciously that I could type fourteen hours a day and still take months to get it down. A second novel came nearly as easily. And one day, a short story.
It reminded me I like writing short stories and I went back to them — no longer with the drudgery of one fatigued by unmet expectations, but with the liveliness of one fresh from a wild gallop in the grass.
I understood clear as day, for the first time, why I had named a character Nixon and how a certain meaning I’d always felt about this one story had never made it onto the page. I rewrote it. I sent it out. Acceptance came in a phone message I received while standing in a circle of my writing students, unable at first to explain my sudden emotion.
So publication this month comes with its own double reward. This story crossed the end zone, but with the refreshed appreciation that there is something to be said for running on the grass. There would be no game without it and – whether a running back, a red filly or a writer – that time on the grass is when so much of the thrill and accomplishment take place.