This last October was—wait for it—the thirtieth anniversary of my first professional publication. Over the last three decades I’ve gotten a solid ten years of work done in my chosen profession. Here’s looking back at how it all started.
In October 1987, one year out of college, my story “The Mailbox” was published in Minnesota Monthly, the premiere artsy periodical in the state, as one of their Tamarack Award winners, their annual writing contest. It’s about an old farming couple, drawing on my childhood growing up in the country in northern Minnesota. I’ve made a slightly revised version available for Kindle. (On a related note, check out “My Big Fat Copyright Infringement Adventure” about how “The Mailbox” was reprinted for decades without my permission.)
I thought, “This is it, the first sale is the hardest, I’m on my way as a pro writer!” I even got invited to the magazine’s holiday party that fall at the fancy-schmancy University Club. During the festivities, one of the editors pulled me aside and told me my story had started a big argument that split the staff, men versus women. He wanted to know, straight from me, what the real answer was: Did the wife really still love her husband after what he had done, or not?
I was reluctant to answer. Yes, I had intended one of those meanings, and thought it was clear in the story. But hearing that it was perhaps not clear, and it had people debating, that was pretty cool. That’s part of the fun of reading isn’t it, to wonder about the characters and their motivations, to try to understand them? It shouldn’t all be spelled out. To tell you the truth, I can’t remember what I told him. And I’m not going to tell you. You tell me.
Long story short, within a year or so there was a shakeup at the magazine, a Three Days of the Condor bloodbath, and every contact I had made was out the door, reduced to working as organ-grinder monkeys (or maybe it was grinding monkey organs), and my big break had gone south before I knew what hit me.
Now that I’m a bitter writer in his fifties instead of a naive writer in his twenties, I know that pursuing a career in writing is generally a series of breaks and setbacks, and you either lean into it or give up. I’m still leaning.