Wednesday, August 15, 2007

I'll Show You Mine if You Show Me Yours: Rejection Slips in the Free Market Economy

You began getting these as an undergraduate, when journalism and nonfiction seemed the proverbial piece of cake, and cake began to be boring. Facts had to be looked up and the people you interviewed often didn't say things that interested you.

You'd pretty well set your sights on fiction early on, and were impatient to crack some of the markets, which was about the time you ran into two widely diverse classmates, who set you off on what at times seemed a task fit for Sisyphus, an analogy you particularly like because of the essay about Sisyphus in which Camus among other things argued that Sisyphus was a happy man, a man who enjoyed his work.

Ed Hunter seemed able to crank out pulp adventure stories between classes, sometimes relying o his sales for such necessities as rent, food, and dates. After reading Ed's work on a regular basis, you began to consider the science fiction pulps as splendid targets. Those were good years for a number of magazines such as and Amazing, Galaxy, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Thrilling Wonder Stories, all of which you knew from the intimacy of being a subscriber. Ed was also that most romantic of all majors, theater arts.

On the staff of the literary magazine, Scop, you met and admired Lou Bartfield, a man who had returned to the university after a long stint in the army, during which tenure he had acquired a wife and a persistent admiration for Nelson Algren. You didn't realize it at the time, but Lou wanted to be as legendary as Algren. You were not sure exactly who you wanted to be as legendary as. Possibly Fitzgerald, but Twain played a part in there, too; you did, after all go to Virginia City and you did contribute to The Territorial-Enterprise.

Lou Bartfield wanted to make enough money to be able to afford to be legendary. The plan you both devised was to pick the highest paying pulp markets you could find, which happened to be the so-called confessions or true romances. Twice a week, you met, hashing out enough plots for the rest of the week. You took half the plots, write a draft; Lou took the other half, wrote a draft. The real fiction was that these stories were supposed to seem true, hence true confessions, hence no bylines to worry about. We wrote and submitted.

The first thing I did with my share of the rejection slips was to paper a waste paper basket. After a time, I had enough to do the shade of a desk lap, then I began the north wall of my bedroom. At about this time, Lou decided we were not getting rich enough to be legendary, and you got a letter from an editor that saved me a good deal of time. We'd picked the romances because they paid a nickel a word. That worked out to two hundred fifty dollars per story, split in half. Still not bad for a day's work.

The editor reminded you that she only bought about one in three or four stories from you, which averaged out to considerably less than five cents a word while most of her regulars placed most of their stories. You could go on being a regular if you wanted in effect to risk the low acceptance rate. She even told you why so many of your stories were returned. They were too funny. Romance readers don't think romance is funny.

Lou decided to stop, as he put it, screwing around with romance, which you thought was pretty funny at the time and still do. You can't screw around with romance. He tried to be serious for another six months then got a high-salaried job with an insurance company. The last time you saw him, he was wearing a suit. You got any more rejections slips before you began wearing suits, and there was the magical time when Clarence, the mailman, brought you a special delivery letter every day with a check for a short story, sometimes a western, sometimes science fiction, sometimes suspense or mystery. Thinking back on those times, you realize that most of those stories were funny in one way or another, and now, although there is some seriousness in your stories, you suppose the funny stuff is something you have learned to live with.

Interestingly enough, you began wearing suits when a part of your job was to reject the works of other writers, sending many of them form letters, which is certainly the equivalent of a rejection slip.

But that is a part of another story.


Anonymous said...

I noticed how you used the second person althroughout the tale except one paragraph where you papered a waste paper basket with rejection slips. It made that moment seem more personal, like a glimpse inside a more hidden you. The man today wears a suit and rejects the newbie writers, the kind you once were. Or maybe I'm just reading too much into it.

It seemed like such a journey, Shelly. I've yet to start mine. I'm 34 years old. Am I too old to do so? The truth is, if I had a choice between teaching (which I love) music (which I've practiced all my life) and sitting all day with my laptop in front of me, writing, I would easily choose the latter. I do want to share my work but for now, I write with no thought or hope of getting published -- I think this is the best reason to write.

lowenkopf said...

Way back when I was in the ninth grade, a teacher told me that it was unseemly and not conventional to write in the second person; it was all right to talk in the second person, but it bordered on being too colloquial and, thus, uncouth,to write in such fashion. Look what happened to Latin, she said. Yeah, I said, it became Italian and it became a primary medium for opera. Well, she said. And I went home to write my next essay in second person, and to her credit, she said it worked and I'm still getting learning experience from that.

My long-time fried, the late John Sanford, wrote one novel in conventional third-person then found second person and went on to produce literature, book after book of it, even to the point of doing an autobiography in it.

I haven't worn a suit for a long time. In fact, I'm thinking I'm going to have to if I'm to attend the ceremony connected with my friend Michael and his formally becoming president of a university. I wonder if the suits hanging about will fit.

No time is too late to start. In many humbling ways, I don't know if I've actually begun. I can best speak to a habit of having put words down somewhere for a long time. The lovely irony that links me to you is the fact that, love writing as I do, devoted to it as I am, having infused much of it into muscle memory as I have, sitting all day with a piano or perhaps a soprano saxophone seem as fond a choice as you with your laptop. I often have music in the background as I write, but cannot abide J.S. Bach at those times because he still distracts and pulls me into those beckoning chords and progressions to the point where I can do nothing but listen.

The best reason to write is because it feels so good.