Marjorie Sandor once wrote the following quote for me into my notebook:
I took this quote as an implication at the quality of my manuscript. Her assessment of my overall skill level at the time.
We had been discussing one of my short stories I wrote for her writing workshop at Oregon State. A failed short story. First, she said thank you for the opportunity to read the story. I am so happy you wrote it, she said. No joke, that is what she said. And then she handed me a book to borrow that I still have on my bookshelf to this day because I never returned it—sorry, Marjorie.
And I have heard many versions of Marjorie’s message over the years. Lee Abbott told me a version of this as he pulled a pack of smokes from inside his tube sock while teaching at the New York State Writer’s Seminar—I wrote a story about a garbage collector who falls off the back of his truck. Will Hochman at the University of Southern Colorado and his entire room of young writers told me this after reading my first person present tense horror story about a woman who is killed by a bear while camping. And Tracy Daugherty told me this in his office after he read my first story about Elvis’ personal photographer—a failure but I still like that story. I remember he held it out in front of him like it was a turd. It’s funny because I remember that moment so vividly but not the successful thesis defense.
And the message always means to me the same negative it meant for me in Marjorie’s office. It means you failed, kid. Nice try but keep revising. Keep working on it. It’s not good enough. You have to keep at it.
I would eventually receive my MFA but at that moment while sitting in Marjorie’s office she taught me a lesson in writing. They all taught me. Perhaps the only true lesson past workshop a writer can give you. The lesson was about perseverance.
I learned this lesson years before while growing up in Huerfano and Pueblo County, Colorado and on Spruce Street in the old neighborhood. I learned the same lesson in the backyard of the Abuelito’s old house when I took a lecture over my grades or over a lost job. When I was sent to the vice principal’s office and the old man had to drive out to school or if I came home late or drunk or disappointed the old man in anyway. You failed, kid. Work harder.
Of course I could never criticize the old man in the same way but I learned the lesson. I think I learned the lesson.
It is the same lesson I try and teach my students. I try and teach them that writing is about genesis—creation of character and place. Writing is about bringing our own lives into fictive spaces. And it is also about the failure to create those places. The failure to bring the material together with the spiritual as Immanuel Kant defines the artist’s aesthetics.
The reward being in the try.
I also often tell my students—as Hugo writes in Triggering Town—I assume my skill level is only a touch better than my students’ skill. I assume I have the same rhetorical questions and concerns as my students. And perhaps I have only learned a bit more about my own failed writing. And that is only because I have been alive longer or because I have known a touch more writers than they have. And perhaps I have learned more about failed writing than I have learned about successful writing. Since I have seen so much more of failure than the succesful.
At least according to my lack of publications. The lack of validation in print.
I got 9 more of these reminders this summer. I put them on my wall above my desk in my office to remind me—the way I have Sandor’s note on the blog to always remind me. Here are some of my favorites:
We appreciate the opportunity to consider your work. We regret having to return it, but thank you for sending it to us.
This year we received approximately 400 entries. We regret that your entry is not among the finalists and that we must decline without editorial comment.
Although we are unable to publish your work, we thank you for considering us and wish you success. Please keep us in mind in the future.
Thank you for your interest. After careful consideration, we have decided we are unable to use your manuscript. We wish you the best in finding a home for it elsewhere.
The poet John Knoepfle and his wife Peg Knoepfle told me the same this fall. Par for the course, they said. Get used to it, they said. You’ll have plenty more, they joked. And because they are both the most experienced writers I know, I believe them.
More on this to come . . .