YEARS AGO I volunteered at a nationally distributed literary journal. My job was to read through blind submissions, a pile of unsolicited writing known as “the slush.” The volume of slush at this particular journal was staggering. Un-read stories were strewn throughout the offices. They teetered on shelves, distended sofa cushions and lay moldering beneath spilled Kung Pao. It wasn’t that no one cared. In fact, the staff was resolutely earnest. It was because no matter how many envelopes we waded through, they continued to arrive–sack after sack, crate after crate, box after box, manila cattle thundering across the dusty plain. They came unceasingly, like cannibal hordes, like Stalinist decrees, like tortured metaphors.
Desperate to be published. Begging to be admired.
And they never, ever stopped.
Except on Sundays.
Hey, let’s face it, everyone hates short stories. The quickest route to social leprosy at any kegger not thrown by Alice Munro is to mention you’re “working on a collection.” And while it’s possible George Plimpton was the coolest man on the planet in 1962, at this point The Paris Review might as well be an Amway catalog. Our entertainment delivery systems have either improved or devolved, depending on your taste, but at the Dawn of Kindle the short form belongs to true believers: black-clad girls who wish they’d been named Zelda and virginal boys with Raymond Carver posters above their fish tanks.
Not a subscription base coveted over at Maxim.
Around this time, a pretty big-name agent cold called to tell me he’d read one of my stories. And actually liked it.
“That’s great,” I said, excited. “I’m working on a collection.”
He laughed. “Don’t bother. I’d have better luck selling ironic beards in Brooklyn.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means no one gives a fuck. It means the only people who read lit journals are menopausal woman, vegan poets, and morons who still wear Arafat neck scarves. It means get to work on a novel already.”
“Preferably about lesbian vampires.”
“A-B-C. Always Be Closing. That’s what winners do. Losers write stories about their cancer grandma.”
“As a matter of fact, my grandmother does figure heavily in many of my–”
I was not dissuaded. I continued to read the slush and turn out stories with admirable industry, if not the requisite cynicism or accretion of skill. I suppose I presumed this volunteerism was the first step toward an industry-wide recognition of my talent. Or at least a recognition of my desire for recognition. Either way, it represented movement. And a sense of movement, whether real or imagined, is essential to sharks and writers in equal measure.
I initially found the piles of submission envelopes exciting. Each one, unopened, seemed like a gift, almost as if it contained the potential for greatness. I would grab a stack and cross my legs, like Maxwell Perkins ready to discover the next Big, Two-Hearted River. Or at least Alice Krige ready to buy a whiskey for the next Mickey Rourke, sure I’d soon be parsing the truly amazing from the merely great. And then I read a dozen stories. Not a stunner amongst them. It was mostly early workshop stuff, begging for the heavy red marker of a competent adjunct. So I cranked through three dozen more. They were strikingly similar. Clotted. Unleavened. Overwrought. At the one hundred mark I began to doubt myself. Maybe I was being way too critical. Of course there were a few good pieces, which I passed up to the editors, but the good were statistically insignificant. The bad were an omniverse, almost always falling into the gray area between hopelessly self-conscious and hopelessly not self-conscious enough. More than anything, there just wasn’t enough sweat on the page. No awareness of the many authors who’d already said the same thing, but with greater elan, a blindness to those who’d persuasively trod the same ground. Not to mention a principled rejection of spell check.
By the time I read my five hundredth story, I’d begun to sense a trend. It turns out the dirty little secret of the lit world (not unlike the notion that there are only twelve songs in rock-and-roll that continually cannibalize one another) is that there are only eight submission topics which endlessly repeat, a Mobius strip of futility. And repeat they did. So frequently, in fact, that I could practically tell what a story was going to be about by the handwriting on the envelope, could spool out the plot before I’d finished the first paragraph. I started calling in sick so I could lay in bed all day watching the Sammy Hagar episode of Behind The Music instead. The dirty secret of Sammy Hagar is, although he Can’t Drive Fifty-Five, he can certainly drive fifty-four.
The Eight (8) Universal Unpublished Story Submission Plots:
1. Mom’s Very Sick-Maybe her type of sickness is spelled out, maybe not. Whatever it is, Mom’s leaving this coil soon. But not before a few childhood flashbacks. In the meantime, we find out what the ward smells like (bleach, vomit), what the nurse acts like (brusque, efficient), what the doctor looks like (toothy, golfer), what’s floating in shafts of sunlight (dust motes, hope) and what the Jamaican orderly does (spew accented wisdom, answer random questions about dreadlocks). Hey, is mom breathing? No? Hey, what’s that noise? Quick, get the doctor! Beep…beep….beep...flatline. slight variant: Mom’s gonna make it, but for a while it was touch-and-go. When she comes to, she immediately confesses The Very Bad Thing. It’s typically some brand of uncle groping or Nazi gold or separated twins. The family is stunned. Someone delivers flowers, but no one takes a sniff. Moral: Do any of us really know our moms? Apparently not. Conclusion: Whoever this lady is, she sure as fuck better not need any bone marrow. authorial theft guide: Amy Hempel, Mary Gaitskill, Anne Beattie.
2. Bar Fight-A Reasonable Dude who’s had a very bad day is just minding his own business (over bourbon, always bourbon) when he starts being hassled by A Real Tool with stubble and bad breath. The old school bartender is sympathetic but says nothing–he’s got sleeves to roll up and mahogany to wipe. Just when things get way too tense, a woman blows through the saloon doors. She’s rocking bee-stung lips, a blouse full of D-cups, and legs that (like the Sicarii at Masada) just won’t quit. Auburn hair spills down her back. In glistening curls. In silken waves. The Real Tool insults the lady. The Reasonable Dude slowly finishes his bourbon, chews a piece of ice, and then roundhouses the Tool out cold. slight variant: The Tool wins the fight, in the way all Tools do: by cheating. The last thing Reasonable Dude sees before unconsciousness, which will fall like a veil, curtain, or casket door, is the torn nylon stretched metaphorically over the The Lady’s sculpted thigh. authorial theft guide: Bukowski, Hemingway, Thom Jones, John O’Hara.
3. Social Outcast Imparts Jesus-y Lesson to The Immoral- A guy falls in love with a prostitute, who is actually pretty nice and seems to really like him. After their first hour is over, he whispers, “I would turn water into wine for you” (preferably a mid-range Cabernet with hints of raspberry, moss, and oak). She smiles, kisses his neck, and then gets up and puts her leather mini back on. He feels a loving light shine down from above. It enters him, and he knows for the first time in his life what he must do. The story ends, as she clacks back down the long, lonely hallway, with a sentence that somehow combines judder, rapture, and roil. slight variant: the same guy sees J.C.’s face in a burnt tortilla and then after a valiant but suitably martyred attempt to coax The Nice Prostitute into his escape-Camry, gets beaten up by the Camaro-pimp. In the last paragraph the girls surround the Social Outcast and laugh with all the combined un-feeling of contemporary society woven through their rayon souls. Then they lob used condoms at him. authorial theft guide: those guys who wrote Left Behind, that guy who wrote The Shack, the collected works of Kirk Cameron.
4. The Affair-Usually set in the Midwest, although sometimes Florida, and almost always at an overly described shit+hole motel. Hey, let’s be honest here: illicit, sweaty congress does sometimes occur between good people struggling with difficult situations at home. And then it’s over. Cue Marlboro softpack. Water drips in the sink. The AC clangs. There’s a knock on the door. Is it her husband? His wife? The police? An entire final page describes the agonizing uncertainty, never revealing who’s there being more a deliberate artistic choice than an inability to come up with a good answer. slight variant: wealthy Manhattan-ites bone away the idle hours on 1000 thread count sheets, each privileged, cold-blooded stroke an attempt to erase their moneyed self-loathing. authorial theft guide: Tom Perotta, John Updike, Charles Willeford.
5. Vampire, Alien, Cannibal, Were-trout, Ghost-Eternal longing. Flesh Rending. Probing the duodenum. Agonized reorganization of the physiognomy due to lunar cycles. Repeated use of the words slake, sepulchral, and ravish. Asian girl emerges from television screen, eats face. Murdered wife returns to vacation cabin to re-arrange furniture. Captain Whoever barks commands through intercom while orbiting Alpha Prime. Screwdriver in ear. Incisors in thigh. Ancient-race egg buried in chest cavity. Decadent Berliners with unusual knowledge of 1880’s mores and customs lure nubile tourists deep into the night. slight variant: a wooded adventure, hunting or fishing along a lonely ridge, a crisis involving a lack of water or fire. There’s no hope of rescue. There’s existentialism in a dying realization, last breaths amongst the hooting of owls. Or wait, was that a bat? Now, hold on a minute, did that bat just turn into a pale young boy in a leather trench coat with unsheathed orthodontics and a five o’clock shadow that just upgraded to midnight? authorial theft guide: Mary Shelly, Poe, Gilgamesh, El Ron Hubbard.
6. What Wise Elderly Dude Thinks About His Grandchildren, Politics, And Baseball, Mostly After Naps-An old man looks back over his life with a mix of pleasure, regret, and Jello. slight variant: The Ten People You Meet in Purgatory and the nine reasons they deserve to be there–eight of which are cynically cashing in on a demographic’s need to be comforted with visions of the afterlife as seen through Eisenhower-colored glasses. authorial theft guide: Mitch Albom, Nicholas Sparks, Sinclair Lewis.
7. Dad Felt Suzie Up-Yeah, he did. That time in the basement, and also once after class. Suzie started to wear all black and cut herself for a while, before deciding to major in performance art. Years later, she comes back for a big family Thanksgiving and, oh boy, you could cut the tension with Mack the knife. Suzie makes a few veiled comments. Dad chokes on his Miller Lite. Someone’s sweater gets torn, Billy admits he’s gay, grandma snores through it all, and Mom goes into the darkened kitchen to gorge on a tray of stuffing. slight variant: Suzie admits she’s now a junkie, grandma weeps through it all, and Mom goes into the darkened kitchen to gorge on a tray of kugel. authorial theft guide: Mary Karr, Augusten Burroughs, Elizabeth Wurtzel, The Frey.
8. The Spoonful Of Dada-Is it a dream? Is it experimental verse? Is it an abstract tone poem? If you get the story, you just don’t get it. “Hey, conservative automaton, haven’t you ever heard of pushing the envelope? It’s post-modern. It’s semiotic. It’s deconstructive. It’s what Foster Wallace was trying to do, man, but going way further.” slight variant: “So what if every single plot point not only seems totally unlikely, but completely preposterous? It really happened! The whole thing! The talking cow and the maple syrup and the chick hit by the Ferrari! When? Um, well, last summer at my cousin’s. Who lives in Canada, which is why you never met her. Plus, we made out once.” authorial theft guide: Ram Das, Thomas De Quincey, William Burroughs, Robert Coover.
So, yeah, I quit. It wasn’t just that a vast majority of the submissions were incremental versions of one another, or that most were basically first drafts. It was because no matter its relative merits, each envelope throbbed with a sincere and palpable belief in its own worth. It was all too easy to envision the authors in cafes and workshops, hunkered at kitchen tables, leaning over keyboards with the surety of their right to be heard. Their need to express themselves. And then the long wait by the mail slot for an answer. That palpable sense of expectation was what I found so emotionally exhausting.
At first, I wrote rejection notices all more or less the same way, something like this one’s not quite right for us, but good luck! After a while they began to expand. With each rejection I became more maudlin. Every slip was an albatross, a reminder that I’d become a crusher of hopes. Soon I was sending back stuff like God, it’s hard, you know? This whole writing deal? I mean, what can any of us really expect to come of it? The form is dying, after all, is it not? So, I am sorry, my friend, I cannot accept this work. But I ask you, please, not to give up! Continue to forge ahead! Hone your skills! Remember the example of Pushkin! Of course, perhaps some of us were not meant to write. In the end our elemental natures remain unchanged by a cursory perusal of Strunk and White’s Style Guide. Be that as it may, these days I mostly feel like lying down on the carpet here in our tiny sixth-floor office and never getting up again. But, hey, I won’t bore you with that. You’ve got paragraphs to render. Narratives to arc. Denouements to denouemo. So, let us make a fraternal toast! To literature! And with that, I say, thank you and good luck placing this elsewhere!
How is it that the faults in other people’s fiction are so abundantly clear to us as readers, while as writers we tend to be so myopic about our own? The thing is, while in the totally arbitrary position of judging other people’s work, the pieces I was submitting back then were sheer crap too. And deep down I knew it. But for some reason I kept sending them out. Who picks up the saxophone, learns a few notes, and then books a gig? Aspiring writers do. And I was bleating B-flats along with everyone else. It took me a long time to realize that a truly exceptional story is a result of either rarified talent or the long and arduous absorption of craft. How do you learn to write? You sit your ass down in a chair, in front of a laptop, for ten years. Period. But for some reason writing lends itself to the romanticism of the random genius, like standing around the roulette table thinking that just by the force of will or a benevolent god your 27 red is going to hit. There’s a cinematic ideal that good writing is often the result of a fissile brilliance that need not be sullied with years of discipline and practice. The sudden Fitzgerald. The Joyce-ian savant. Waking up with your hand on the next Da Vinci Choad.
But once I’d been away from The Slush for a while, I realized the experience had been incredibly beneficial. For one thing, it helped me start to get a grip on what I was doing wrong. How clearly misshapen, ill-formed, and lacking in subtlety my pieces tended to be. There were maybe a few good ideas in them, but none existed for a specific reason. I’d taken funny lines and tried to graft a larger story onto their backs, like a mouse with a human ear for a spine.
A six-month immersion in the slush of your local journal is likely a more valuable teaching tool than sixty-thousand dollars worth of MFA workshops, if only to highlight the pure and dangerous arrogance of declaring this is done! It’s ready to be in print! Almost no short story is ready to be in print. Almost every one could use another run-through. A Truly Exceptional Story is a rare bird precisely because it’s so exacting to produce. A friend once told me he assumed any given piece of his would go through at least forty drafts. Another, after I asked him how long he’d worked on a story I particularly liked, frowned and said “oh, I dunno. I guess since 1977?”
In the end, every art form has at one time or another had its death declared. Yet almost all of them persist, and even thrive, in leaner, more intentional states. I love short stories, and continue to read them regularly. I also buy lit journals all the time, as a matter of course, whether I really want them or not. I admire the true believers who helm what’s left of the journal world, not only for the impossibility of their task, but for the denial of cynicism their continued existence implies. And when you do crack a random chapbook, coming across an unknown story, one without artifice, that imparts pages of material in a single sentence, that takes you somewhere you might otherwise never go, and manages to resolve itself with originality, it’s a genuinely remarkable thing that can be achieved in no other format.