What I’ve written, what I’m writing, the tribulations of getting published.
I called William Cotter Murray, my University of Iowa writing professor, late on a Friday night with the letter in hand. The course I was taking from him was called New Journalism.
While still in high school in Dubuque, Iowa, I had discovered a cover story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine on Moo U, Iowa State University. Something about that story captured me and I read it numerous times and hung onto that issue for years. One day Murray mentioned it in class, and only then did I realize I had found that story’s author.
My main project in the course was a profile of the University’s iconic retired tennis coach, Don Klotz. The embossed letterhead in my hand read World Tennis Magazine, and the letter was an offer of the princely sum of $250.00 for my profile. It was my first sale. (Just to keep this in context, this was close to two months rent — magazine rates have not kept up with inflation.) Murray, a two-time published novelist, seemed excited as well, if somewhat inebriated, and suggested I consider a fifth of Irish whiskey an appropiate token of thanks for all his help on the story. I had never purchased a fifth of whiskey (and it remains my sole such purchase to this day), but the drinking age was still nineteen back then and I had no problem procurring the liquor. When I brought it to his office on Monday he blanched and took a moment to recall the occasion. Then he seemed sheepish and mumbled that he should have never made such a request. Still, he took the bottle.
Getting paid for words. It was a heady experience. Of course, getting published would be even a greater thrill. Each month I eagerly awaited my copy of World Tennis, and each month I was disappointed. After about six months my eagerness dwindled. They never got around to my story. Years later I sent it to a tennis trade magazine and got to finally see it in print, but it wasn’t quite the same.
Such was my introduction to the business of writing. At low moments I’ve been know to describe writing for publication as “deferred disappointment.” But the lows are often countered by highs. I once wrote a feature story on zookeepers, with mini-profiles of an ape keeper at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, a rhinocerous man at the Bronx Zoo and an elephant specialist at the Philadelphia Zoo. I got to feed carrots to chimps (after my TB test came back negative) and as I walked among the elephants in Philadelphia asked the keeper what would happen if I attempted to do so without his company. “Oh, they’d kill you,” he replied, casually.
I thought it was a good story and it was all laid out for print, laden with my own photos, when the magazine folded. On the up side, I immediately sent it back out again and it was picked up by the America Airlines in-flight, where it would reach 1,000 times the audience. So there’s one with a happy ending.
Now that I’ve devoted the past five or six years to writing fiction aimed at younger readers, I’ve know the excitement of signing with an agent (twice), and the delicious anticipation as a manuscript circulates among publishers. Also the slow pain of one “not for us” after another, and to cap it all, the heart-rending letter in which my trusted partner in composition, the agent who fell in love with my book, cancels our contract to invest her time in authors whose books pay the rent. The whole cycle measured not in weeks, as it had in the magazine world, but in years. Hence deferred disappointment.
I launched this site as a place where I could share these kinds of war stories and perhaps hear back from other writers who must experience similar ups and downs. Writing can be a lonely business. Perhaps these posts will make it less so.