Like the First Time

Poets and Writers - - Contents - By kirsten sund­berg lun­strum

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.

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