You’ve been writing for only six years and you’re almost sixty. You’ve outlived your mother by five years; you’re feeling the press of time. It’s like the last stages of labor, you know you’ve got to push and birth something. Anything.
So what if one of your writing teachers says of your stories, “Two or three sentences, that’s all, and it’ll be perfect,” and the other teacher says, “But why does this story matter to me?” Maybe the editors won’t notice.
One day you make this notebook, see? It’s white with a printed piece of paper in the plastic holder that says, “What’s the point of writing if you’re not going to submit anything?” and now there’s this sense of urgency and responsibility about it.
You make a little chart that looks like this:
That takes a good two hours that you could be using to write stories that are making your brain feel like a plastic bottle of fermented orange juice. Like the story of the day that your dad beat your brother in the back yard or the time your aunt got raped by her fifteen-year-old cousin and his friend. She was eight and his dog stood guard at the door to the shed. She was a little big for her age she told you, and you thought what in the fuck does that have to do with anything?
You’re amazed that they all want something slightly different and they all want you to read their magazine, of course, so you know the kind of thing they like to publish.
But after you finish the chart, you take out the list of possible publications that your writing teacher gave you and begin looking them up on the internet, printing out their submission guidelines. You’re amazed that they all want something slightly different and they all want you to read their magazine, of course, so you know the kind of thing they like to publish. This takes all of one day and part of the next and half a pack of paper. When you have it all three-hole-punched and put in the notebook, you go through and highlight the important parts so you don’t get confused or mess anything up. (One magazine even says to put only one space, not two, between sentences. Do they count every line to see that you’ve followed their rule? And why on earth do they care?)
You think you would be doing your writing group a favor if you printed them out a copy of this valuable information on submitting so you stop by the office supply place on the way to work and buy a couple of packs of cheap paper. The copier jams at least ten times because of the paper. There’s a lot of cussing and you’re glad your boss is on vacation.
On Wednesday, your day off, you set a goal of submitting three stories. The one about September 11 that you’ve been working on since, well, September 12. The story about the prisoner that turns everyone’s stomach when they hear it. The story that you couldn’t publish until your dad died, and this year he died a terrible death that you’re still mourning; Sundays are almost unbearable.
You choose the magazine that’s published right in your backyard. The one that you sent a color picture of a sunset to the first time you ever submitted anything. You probably didn’t notice that every picture in the magazine is black and white, blurry and abstract, or of old people or children glancing askance at things just out of range of the camera. Hopefully they’ve forgotten your faux pas—the editor tells you on their web page that he gets nearly a thousand submissions a month and it may take a while for them to get to yours. It’s the longest shot you can think of, but it’s important to aim high, right? And if they reject you, you’re in the company of 990 or so writers that month.
You write the letter, using every tip your writing teacher gave you:
- Keep it simple.
- Include the title of your work.
- Tell them of all your previously published work. Make something up if necessary.
- Tell them in ten words or less everything they need to know about you.
- Spell-check, spell-check, spell-check. The letter, the manuscript, the envelopes.
- Get the editor’s name and the address right.
Every morning when you read the magazine in the bathroom—it’s not a bathroom kind of magazine, mind you, but that’s just when you read magazines—you picture him at his desk on his farm in the country; it’s early in the morning.
This magazine you’ve chosen. The Sun. It’s edited by a guy that comes across as hard to please. He writes inspiringly, disparagingly, nostalgically every month in his “Notebook” at the back of the magazine. Every morning when you read the magazine in the bathroom—it’s not a bathroom kind of magazine, mind you, but that’s just when you read magazines—you picture him at his desk on his farm in the country; it’s early in the morning. He hasn’t exercised yet because he’s putting it off until later. Maybe he won’t exercise at all today. Or tomorrow. He’s wondering what to write and just starts in with his pencil, his pen, his fingers on the keyboard. He somehow knows that his ramblings are good and reader-worthy. A guy with that kind of confidence? You want his approval.
Everything is finally ready to mail: the letter to the editor with its simple information, the manuscript that you’re sick of reading but needs two sentences, the envelope to the magazine and the one to send back to you. You’ve put it all on the postage scale and weighed it, checking it once, checking it twice, more earnest than Santa Claus the week before Christmas. You hope you’re not going to be disappointed like you were that Christmas you were seven when you wanted roller skates and got a doll family.
You go to the drive-up mailbox at the post office. Wait behind eleven or so cars until you get to the front of the line. Hold the envelope in your hands, reluctant to let go; the person in the car behind you honks at you to move on. He probably has a tax return to file; it’s April 15. You certainly didn’t want to wait in a long line of taxpayers but it’s your dad’s birthday, lucky day, and you need all the luck you can get right now.
The whole way back to the office something is niggling at your mind; you don’t have that wonderful feeling that you usually have when you’ve accomplished something big. You decide it’s beginner’s jitters and that after you’ve submitted a few times you won’t worry so much, you’ll just throw the package together and wait patiently for the response.
On your desk is the copy you made of the letter and the manuscript. You look at it, worried, knotty. You close your eyes and groan.
The editor of The Sun is unlike every other editor of every other magazine in the world, you’ve heard. He actually wants to see the letters that come with the submissions. Let’s name him: Sy Safransky. A funny name you always think and how could anyone forget that name in a million years? You’ve read it so many times in the bathroom, read the anecdotes about his wife and his daughter and just recently about the birth of his granddaughter, and that he gets up at the crack of dawn and how he feels about getting old. You’ve imagined him as a chubby Santa kind of man, white hair and white beard, but harder than Santa Claus to please. You saw a picture of him once, his thin face a shock. This editor, Sy Safransky. Sy Safransky.
You’ve addressed the letter, “Dear Mr. Syfransky.”
Still you wait at your mailbox each day with the hope that he has a sense of humor, that your story is so good he’ll overlook this little mistake, that the story fits the theme of the month in such an artful way that he has to have it, that those two sentences were just an unrealistic expectation from your writing teacher.
And when the envelope comes, your handwriting on the front, fat with your rejected manuscript, you open it up and see the same form letter that accompanied your reddish picture of sailboats in the sunset, the same letter that says it’s just not right for them, they can’t say why. “Dear Writer,” it starts, cold and impersonal. And at the end, “The Editors.”
You have to have thick skin, your writer friends tell you. You try not to take it personally though you’re in love with your flawed stories. You get down your notebook and write “No” on the right side of your chart by the name of the story doomed by a salutation. You sit at your computer, open your documents, and peruse the titles for another to send Mr. Sy Safransky.