Publishing in Print and in Pixels
I published my first short story in 1995. Twenty years ago. How can this be?
I was a graduate student at the University of Alabama. I’d been sending out my stories for two years without much luck. Then, over Christmas Break 1994, I went with my mother, a hospice nurse, on a “death call” in suburb of Cincinnati. The experience stuck with me, and when I got back to Tuscaloosa, I tried my hand at writing a “short short story,” or what we might call now “flash fiction.” 742 words. I sent it to Quarterly West. and they accepted it immediately.
When I got the magazine in the mail, I marveled at it for awhile, and then I put it on my shelf. My poet friend Tim kept the journals in which he’d been published in a place of honor on his desk, like a trophy case, and so I did the same.
I also added a line to my very brief curriculum vitae.
“Hospice.” Quarterly West. 41 (Autumn/Winter 1995): 6-7.
A year later, I published a story in The Florida Review about a man raising his daughter alone. Another magazine on the shelf. Another line on the vita.
“Leon’s Daughter.” Florida Review 21:2 (1996): 88-98.
Slowly, I kept adding more journals to that shelf. More lines to the vita.
Out of Print
In twenty years, I’ve published 14 short stories, which seems so paltry compared to some writers I know and admire, who seem to publish 14 stories a year.
Five of those stories ended up in The Circus in Winter, and as long as that book is in print, those stories live on. Note: All of them were published initially in print-only magazines.
- “The King and His Court.” River Styx Vol. 66 (2003): 85-104.
- “The Last Member of the Boela Tribe.” Antioch Review 61.4 (Fall 2003): 598-619.
- “Jennie Dixianna and the Spin of Death.” Shenandoah 52:1 (Spring 2002): 98-111.
- “Wallace Porter Sees the Elephant.” Southern Review 37:1 (Winter 2001): 107-120.
- “The Circus House.” Story (Winter 1999): 21-31.
I highlighted #4 because that is the story that an agent happened to read and like. That story was the 10th story I’d submitted to that magazine over a six-year period. If you have read The Circus in Winter, it’s because of that story, that agent, and my determination to be published in that magazine, come hell or high water.
Eight stories were published in print magazines, which means that unless you subscribe to those magazines, you’ve probably never read them.
- “Mr. Jenny Perdido.” PANK Magazine. Vol. 9 (2013): pp. 34-39
- “The Jersey Devil.” North American Review 295:4 (Fall 2010): 7-12.
- “YOUR BOOK: A Novel in Stories.” Ninth Letter 6:2 (Winter 2010): 129-139.
- “Boats.” The Distillery: Artistic Spirits of the South. 7:1 (Winter 2000): 45-48.
- “Strike Stew.” Cream City Review 23.2 (Spring 1999): 70-73.
- “The Girl with Big Hair.” Gettysburg Review 12:2 (Summer 1999): 251-261.
- “Leon’s Daughter.” Florida Review 21:2 (1996): 88-98.
- “Hospice.” Quarterly West. 41 (Autumn/Winter 1995): 6-7.
One story was published online. Most people assume they can read my work online. They’ll say, “Hey, send me some links so I can read your stuff.” This was the only link I could send.
“Genesis.” Freight Stories 3:3 (September 2008): online.
A few months ago, a former student of mine who is the fiction editor for Burrow Press Review (which I’ll admit I’d never heard of) asked me if I had any stories that might fit their “Rust Belt Reprint” series. He said they would be reprinting stories by Dan Chaon and Sherrie Flick, two writers I know and admire.
Okay. I sent him a story called “Boats.” Go ahead–read it. It’s pretty short.
I wrote “Boats” in 1998 in Mankato, MN so that I’d have something to read at their monthly reading series. You had 10 minutes to read, and then you got yanked. So I learned to write stories you could read in 9 minutes and 55 seconds.
“Boats was published a few years later in a magazine published at a community college funded by Jack Daniels.
“Boats.” The Distillery: Artistic Spirits of the South. 7:1 (Winter 2000): 45-48.
A grad school friend of mine was teaching there at the time and asked me to send something. “Don’t you have a story that’s not about booze?” he said. “I mean, we’re called The Distillery?”
Sorry, I said. That’s all I’ve got right now.
He took it. Hurray!
Another line on my vita. Another journal on that shelf.
I don’t know if a single soul read “Boats” in The Distillery except for me and the editorial staff. And my mom, of course.
Print vs. Pixels
In those days, I never wondered who was reading my work. You published something. That was “sharing.” You put it into the world. You put the magazine on the shelf. You updated your cv. You went to the bar. Maybe–if you were lucky– it got mentioned in Best American Short Stories or New Stories from the South.
You expected no response whatsoever. There were no analytics to check. No “likes” to count.
Honestly, I miss those days sometimes.
But it also felt like writing into a void. There was no such thing as “online community.” You had to find IRL community, people to read your work.
Anything more than a form rejection letter felt like a small achievement; someone had actually read your story! They signed their initials! They wrote “Send more”!
We called that “getting ink.”
When I try to explain this to my students now they look at me curiously. They don’t understand a writer’s life before Submittable and email and urls and sharing.
It all seems so dim and far away now, but it was only 15 or 20 years ago.
I’ve been thinking about this all day–about time and the internet and publishing–ever since “Boats” went live at Burrow Press Review and I shared it lickity split on social media.
Why did I spend so many years trying to publish in magazines with 1% acceptance rates?
What did I want back then? Why did I want to publish at all?
To find readers? Never entered my mind.
To find an agent? Never entered my mind until I actually heard from one.
To be published in magazines I respected? Yes.
To build my credentials so I could apply for and then keep my academic teaching position? Yes.
To feel the joy and vindication that came with an acceptance in the mail? Yes.
What kind of “body of work” did I want to leave behind? Please. I was in my twenties. A bit of a mess. That wasn’t the body I was working on.
I had a fire in my belly back then. I still do, but the flame doesn’t burn as hot.
I wanted to publish back then so that I could “be somebody.” These days, I want to publish so that I don’t embarrass myself.
The Story Behind the Story
“Boats” is set in Dearborn County, Indiana, where my family moved when we left Peru in 1986. “Laurel” is a composite of two Ohio River towns: Lawrenceburg (home of riverboat casinos and Seagrams) and Aurora (home of caskets).
The mansion I describe is Hillforest Mansion in Aurora.
The people in the story are not my people (which is maybe why there are no distinct characters), but my family has lived longer in Dearborn County than they lived in Miami County–which seems an incredible thing.
I certainly don’t think this story is going to change the world, but I’m proud of it. And I’m glad that maybe a few more people will get to read it.
Thanks for reading. And thanks to Burrow Press Review for giving the story another chance.