Publication is an end goal for many writers. But every published writer was a beginner once. Even Denis Johnson and Stephen King and Alice Munro had to learn their craft. Even Shakespeare. Even Writers’ Program teachers.
Each June we celebrate our instructors’ journeys to publication, hosting a gathering where they read their recently published work to the Los Angeles literary community: join us this Thursday, June 11 for this year’s Writers’ Program Publication Party at the Skirball Cultural Center. Listen to instructors read their latest for five minutes each, then join us afterwards for a complimentary coffee and dessert reception under the stars.
In light of the big event, we asked a couple of the featured readers for their insights on navigating and negotiating the publishing world. Poet Laurel Ann Bogen and fiction writer/playwright Christopher Meeks have many publications between them. Meeks’ book Months and Seasons was just nominated for the Frank O’Connor International Short Fiction Award. Bogen performs and publishes all over town. Both are seasoned pros.
Writers’ Program: What was the first piece of writing you ever published? Where?
BOGEN: I was the ‘Poet Laurelate’ at USC for the El Rodeo — the USC yearbook. And I wrote a poem which escapes me now (probably a good thing) back during my misspent youth.
MEEKS: As an undergraduate at the University of Denver, I had a poem published in a literary magazine in Colorado Springs. I’d been invited to a publication party, and that felt great, but at the same time I knew that maybe twenty people besides my mother saw the poem. Then came my first published fiction in 1997. My story “Divining” had been rejected forty times, but the Santa Barbara Review published it, and it felt like victory. It still does.
Writers’ Program: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in your experiences with publishing?
MEEKS: Be polite. Figure out what it’s like to receive a mountain of submissions every day, knowing you have to reject most if not all of the mail (and now email). Yet somewhere in the giant mail bags of submissions is gold. Be kind to those who reject you. Don’t send angry or threatening letters. Rather, write thank yous. Build a relationship. If you get any kind of hand-written note, such as “Please try again,” feel good. Few writers get such things because the editors worry about angry or threatening letters–that’s why few editors sign their names. Those who give you personal notes should be the first people you send your next submission to. Also, when you get a rejection, send out another story the same day (or the same story to a new place).
BOGEN: Do not take anything personally! I’ve been on both sides of the publishing game. I can tell you that editors/publishers have myriad of reasons why a piece gets accepted or rejected, most of which have nothing to do with you OR the quality of your work. Perhaps they have indigestion from a bad lunch, or your poem is too much like one they have already accepted, or they have run out of space, they woke up on the wrong side of the bed, etc.
Writers’ Program: Tell us about any memorable run-ins you’ve had with editors, agents, or publishers.
MEEKS: My short stories have often been compared to Raymond Carver. We’re very different writers, but I’ve always admired Carver’s “ordinary” people and his endings that sometimes require a rereading to get it. Literary magazines often have interns or undergrads who are the initial readers. One time I received a rejection from the Clackamas Literary Review, a gorgeously produced journal, that said, “I really liked your story but it needs an ending. Write an ending.” That frustrated me because it had an ending–just not an obvious one. Months later at the AWP Convention’s Book Fair, I ran into the two faculty who oversaw the CLR, and one of them brought up his love of the short stories by Raymond Carver. I said something like, “Oh, yeah? If Carver were alive and sent a submission into CLR, his rejection would probably say, “I really liked your story but it needs an ending. Write an ending.” I told him of my experience. He said to send him the same story. I did and two days later I received a call that the story, “Academy Award Afternoon and Evening” would be published. Sometimes you just have to get beyond the initial readers.
BOGEN: One experience I had back in the Stone Age, a poem of mine, Live Steam at 8:45 was rejected by a magazine, I had forgotten this and resubmitted it with NO changes at all 6 months later and it was accepted. So go figure.
Writers’ Program: If you could go back to your early days of sending out work, what would you do differently? What would you tell your younger self?
MEEKS: Nothing. I was polite and it paid off. If anything, I’d send more work out.
Catch both Laurel Ann Bogen and Chris Meeks, plus 17 other teachers, at the Publication Party on June 11. To RSVP, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Corey Campbell is the Program Representative for Creative Writing Online courses.