by Laura Munson
Mostly, Iíve been a back
door sort of submitter. I didnít used to be. I used to march
straight through the front door and send my stuff out shotgun. In
fact, the very first story I wrote, I sent, wait for itÖto the
New Yorker. And when I got that first form rejection, I was
stunned. I was twenty. I was a dreamer, not really a writer. And
dreamers are a bit delusional. So I kept sending out that short
storyóHarpers, Esquire, every magazine I could think
of, every literary review I found in the Harvard Square kiosk (we
didnít have the internet yet). Still rejection after rejection.
After rejection. I had a bulletin board over my desk with a chart
full of all my submissions written on butcher block paper. In the
section which Iíd entitled Y/N, there were so many Nís that I did
that N some courtesy and elongated it to Nope. To this day itís
still Nope, only now I know how to make a spreadsheet on my
computer. I sort of miss that bulletin board. It was so visceral,
writing Nope in Sharpie on butcherís block paper pinned up with
Then I read
somewhereóHemingway On Writing or something like that, that
you just had to write and write and write and stop trying to get
published, and so I spent the next half of my life writing. I
recoiled from submitting. I wrote some essays and stories, cast
them off into the wind from time to time, and got down to work,
ignoring the rejections as they came inówell, KIND of ignoring
them. I stopped talking about being a writer. And I began living
the writing life. I wrote so much that I used to imagine myself
putting on a seatbelt at the beginning of my writing day. Iíd feel
that ghost seatbelt like amputees claim they feel their lost limb.
I was obsessed. Novel after novel. Every so often Iíd get my nerve
up and query an agent but not really give it the old college try.
Not if you want a lettermanís sweater, and I did. Not if youíre
playing to win. If youíre any good. And I even doubted that.
Then a successful
published writer friend told me to look at it like a pie chart.
Writing was the dream slice. But the rest was necessary if I ever
wanted anybody to read what I spent all that time alone in a
dark room tapping away about on my keyboard. And especially, if I
ever wanted to get paid for it. ďYouíre getting a flat ass for
nothing,Ē he said. And he was right. My ass was flattening and no
one was reading my stuff and I wasnít getting paid a dime. (And
they wonder why writers drink.)
I didnít think of the
writing life as a pie chart. I wanted to write like I wanted to
canter on a horse. In other words, I didnít want to deal with the
saddle soap and the de-wormer. Or the training. Or the walking and
stopping and doing circles if things got hairy. And then I was in a
hot tub in LA one day and itís a long story but it lead to an agent
who signed me on as a client but with one question: Why arenít
you published? I gave her the writerís answer: I used to
write out of anger, but now I write out of gratitude. But that
wasnít the whole story.
It had more to do with
pride. Shame. Guilt, even. How could I have worked so hard and
not gotten published to wide acclaim? That was my prayer, after
all. Please let me be published to wide acclaim. Spoken to
so many horizons on so many beaches. I wish a pelican had flown by
or a humpback whale would have flapped a fin in my face and said,
ďYou ainít gonna git published if you donít send your work out,
sister.Ē And maybe they did. I was too busy begging and crying and
kicking sand around to notice.
Oh how we get in our own
way. Oh the fences we build. So here I am, with that flotsam-flung
prayer answered, trying to imagine my writing life as the pie chart
I guess itís been after all, trying not just to think of the pie.
It would be blackberry, by the way. Or maybe strawberry rhubarb.
If you asked me what Iím supposed to be doing right now, Iíd tell
you about the three files that are open in the tool bar below this
sentence: Submissions winter 2010, submissions letters,
magazines. And what am I doing? Writing about it. I have a
huge body of work after all these years and Iím overwhelmed by it.
I feel like Old Mother Hubbard with a copy of the Fiske Guide to
Colleges in her already full lap. Iíve made six cups of tea
this morning. Iíve checked my email approximatelyówell, a LOT,
thatís how much. Iíve researched Italian Rosetta Stone language
dvds. Iíve bought a pair of boots.
Jonathan Franzen said at
the recent Miami Book Fair where I had the honor of reading, that no
good novel comes out of a computer attached to the internet. People
smugly laughed, outing themselves. I smugly crossed my legs and
arms: I donít
have this problem. I have trained myself in discipline. I can
write under any conditions. I have never made excuses. Iíve
completed 14 frigging novels, two memoirs, and I donít know how many
essays and short stories. Too many to count, though Iím considering
giving it a whirl right now just to put off having to submit my
work. I ABHOR submitting my work.
Even now, why? Itís not
the probable rejection. Itís not the actual writing of the query
lettersóitís writing after all and we all know how I feel
about writing by now. It has something to do with why I never got
above a B+ in math. I donít like numbers. I donít like pie
charts. I donít like doing what Iím supposed to be doing. I donít
want to BE a business person. In other words, Iím completely
immature. And I still believe that the rebel is free. Iím here to
tell you, itís not.
The artist can be and even
must be, a business-person too. And that doesnít mean youíre
selling out. Youíre creating the possibility of having your work be
received by people. And thatís part of it. StillÖitís a pill I
havenít quite swallowed. I donít have any problem submitting my
books to my agent. But my little babies to glossy magazine editors
and terrifying places like Granta or the Paris Review
orÖuck. Iíd rather get a cavity filled. Iím not kidding. I want
to get on my cow pony and canter. No, gallop. Instead, Dear
editor. I have a few essays which I feel to be a match for your
And those old questions
clamor in my mind: why would they want to publish MY work in the
first place? Havenít I had enough therapy to know that I have
self-worth issues? Doesnít a New York Times bestselling book make
me immune to these inner saboteur-esque questions? Apparently not.
Two cups of tea later: an
I find myself chortling.
Fully entranced in my essay file on my computer, playing a game of
cat and mouse. Or curser and mouse, if you will. (Arenít I
hysterical?) Asking a different kind of questionóas if to a palm
reader: where should this one go, oh wise curser? And then
I start talking to my actual Word document files. Tell me where
you want to go. Tell me where home is, little girl. Iíll give you
a ride and a sandwich. Fly. Be free.
And shit starts
happening. I start making a list. A fast one. The one about
dog-sleddingóOutside magazine of course. AndÖthe one about
the funeral in the forest, how Ďbout Tin House. And the one
about the firefighter and the grizzly bear, what about Orion?
And the one about my first child and the day she wanted to move her
dollhouse out of her roomÖwhy not Parenting magazine? Or
Ladies Home Journal. Or Womanís Day? Or Redbook?
Suddenly, no glossy mag seems too grandiose. Whatís a magazine
without its writers? As my literary hero once told me, ďSomeone has
to get published and why canít it be you?Ē Yeah. Like Harrison
said. Why not me?
So after seven hours of
diddling around like a child doing chores, in a half an hour, Iíd
submitted eleven pieces. All by listening to my work and its
voiceópicturing the blow of its cannon and watching its trajectory
in the sky, falling as it might.
And truth told, I want
more. I think Iíll dedicate the whole week to this game, in fact.
To this slice of pie. And when Iím through, Iíll have irons in the
fire, while I tuck into the winter of 2010, and get back to work on
the reason for the slices in the first place: the writing.
is something of a publishing phenomenon. After writing fourteen
novels for which she could not find a publisher, she wrote an
article that crashed the New York Timesí s website.
Forty-eight hours later she had a publishing contract for her memoir,
This Is Not The Story You Think It Is.