Like the First Time
The persistence of a midcareer writer.
IWAS driving home from a backpacking trip in the Cascade Mountains when I got the call that my collection of stories What We Do With the Wreckage had won the 2017 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and would be published by the University of Georgia Press. My family and I had retreated to the mountains that weekend seeking refuge from cell service and civilization. We hiked into a wilderness area, pitched our tent beside a lake so clear we could see the peat bottom through the tea-colored water, and in that forty-eight hours I quietly resolved to let go of the publishing worries that had been the deep center of my anxiety all summer. It was great.
And then, the next day, driving home in a wall of Seattle’s weekend-warrior traffic, I dug out my phone and turned it on again. In what is one of the more memorable moments of my life, a voice beamed through the Bluetooth system in my car, interrupting my children’s backseat chatter: “Hi. This is Lee K. Abbott.” I started crying. The manuscript he was calling about was my third collection of stories, and I’d begun to believe it would never find a home.
It’s no secret that securing a publisher is difficult and that it is especially so when what you’re hoping to publish is short fiction. Until this book, however, I’d been lucky. By some incredible magic—and with the help of a graduate adviser to whom I will always be indebted—an editor at a midsize press, Chronicle Books, read and bought my first collection just weeks after I’d turned it in as my master’s degree thesis at the University of California in Davis. None of the stories had been previously published in journals, and yet the collection did well, turning up on the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers list during its release month and eventually going to paperback. Building on its success, I was able to find an agent, who sold my second collection to the same editor. I was grateful for all of this—and I was also naive.
Maybe in part because of that naïveté—but more because of the changing demands of my life—I took my time finishing a third book. I took nearly twelve years, actually. In that period I became the mother of two children, built a teaching career, and moved from one coast to the other
and back again in service of prioritizing my family life over my writing (all decisions I do not regret). And when I finally had a third collection of stories finished, I realized that reentering publishing after such a long hiatus would not be as easy as I’d hoped. For me, in fact, it would effectively mean starting over.
Although this time around many of the stories in my collection had been published in great journals, and I was also sporting the strongest résumé of my career, again and again the manuscript was returned to me with a kindly worded rejection or, even more disheartening, a flat refusal to read a collection of stories that was unaccompanied by a finished novel manuscript.
“Publishing has changed,” friends kept reminding me.
“Don’t get discouraged,” one said. “Do you know how many writers didn’t publish until their forties?”
“But I’m not new to this,” I thought. “I’m supposed to know what I’m doing.”
One particularly honest friend pointed out that my experience might be part of the problem. “You’re new without being new,” she said. “That’s the worst thing to be.”
WAS that true? Was I the worst thing to be? And, if so, should I just stop trying? It wasn’t the question I expected to be asking myself at this point in my career—a career in which for so long I’d felt settled and maybe even accepted.
It was at this point that I stepped back. If I had to start over, I needed to really start over. I needed to reassess what I wanted from the next stretch of my career and also learn how to achieve those goals, whatever they might be.
In a practical sense, I went about this as I’ve always gone about solving problems: I read. What made the best collections the best? How were they organized? What had their writers done to lift the stories from the page, to stitch one story to the next? I reread collections I’d long loved, and I read collections new to me. And the more I read, the more clearly I saw my own way forward.
The next step was research. I looked for contests and small presses that accepted full-length story manuscripts, and I started with presses at which I already had a contact. If a press had a journal that had previously published me, or if I’d met the editor at a conference or class, I put it on my list. I asked friends published by small presses what they recommended.
After that, I used the resources available to everyone—like this magazine’s annual Writing Contests Issue—to both expand and refine my list. This meant reading the work the press had already published and looking for alignment with my collection. If I personally knew a writer on a press’s list, I contacted that person and asked questions. What was the publication process like with that press? Was the writer happy with the finished book? Would the writer recommend submitting, or not? If judges were listed, I read their work too.
ONCE my list of submissions was established, I set deadlines and went to work on revising my collection, reorganizing the stories to create a clearer sense of narrative movement, a variation in tone, an intentional pace.
Although I’d written the stories over the span of many years, I knew that a collection must not seem to be simply an assembly of available fiction but rather a well-woven and meaningfully arranged single body. In the past an editor had helped me do this work of polishing; this time, tending the collection so meticulously myself, I was able to see my stories’ weaknesses and rough spots more sharply and also to revise them yet again with the specific themes and uniting imagery in mind. In the end this demanding process of preparing the collection for independent submission made it much stronger.
The last step of the submission process is just that—to submit, but here I mean a submission of the emotional sort. Once I’d sent out the collection, all I could do was wait and surrender myself to the waiting. I remembered the impatience I’d felt during other periods of anxious uncertainty in my life—the long days after a job interview or a home loan application. The agonizing final weeks of my pregnancies, anticipating the happiness I’d feel at meeting my infant but also fretting the unknown ahead of me. Would it all turn out okay in the end? Would my hopes be fulfilled, or…not?
I’d spent months worrying about the fate of my collection, too. It was on that backpacking trip to the Cascades, however, that I let go. As I walked behind my kids along the muddy footpath, I realized how contented I felt with the work I’d done on the manuscript. In fact, I’d worked harder on this collection than I had on either of my others. This little book had been drafted sitting in my car outside my daughter’s preschool class, and hunched at a back carrel at the public library while a baby sitter played with my son in the children’s section. It had been revised and revised and revised—during piano lessons and between grading final exams and from behind the locked door of my bathroom, the only quiet room in the house. While I’d written my other collections (at least in part) with the hope of building myself the life I desired, this one had been written despite the very full life I was already living. This was the book I had wanted so much and had made my own way, and I was proud of that, no matter what became of its submission process. For the first time it occurred to me that it was possible to feel pride in the process even while yielding to the unknowable outcome. In retrospect this balance of perseverance and acceptance, more than anything else, defines what I’ve learned about navigating the midcareer stretch.
Now I’m in the final steps of this collection’s publication journey, and I know that when I hold the finished book in my hands, I’ll feel once more— just like the day I opened my first published book, thirteen years ago—the heart-skip of joy and swell of gratitude. In the meantime, I’ve begun slowly writing new stories, starting over, all over again.