My First Forays Into Fiction — A True Story

Other than a short story I wrote in fifth grade, which I recall as having a great debt to science fiction author Andre Norton, my first attempt at fiction came at the University of Iowa. Since the course was called Fiction Writing, I had little recourse. Sections of this class were taught by various graduate students from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and it’s possible that my first effort was under the direction of grad student Kent Haruf, whose novel Plainsong was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2000. I retook the course several times, not because I failed to pass, but because I needed the practice, and had excellent mentoring from John Dranow, who went on to co-found the New England Culinary School and David Allen, now a Dean in the business school at the University of Surrey in England.

Soon I was pumping out short stories on a regular basis, and trying to catch up with my peers, many of whom had read every novel of note published since Richardson’s Pamela. At some point I saw a call for manuscripts posted on the Writer’s Workshop bulletin board from MacMillan Publishing. They were looking for short stories for various anthologies and readers for teenagers. I went home, knocked out a story, something about a girl and tennis, and sent it off. A few months later I received an offer of purchase for seven cents a word, which struck me as the easiest money I had ever earned. I approved the deal only if they used a pseudonym, since I didn’t want to taint my literary reputation with such a low-brow credit. Little did I know that this initial effort at YA writing should have been taken as destiny and not an embarrassment.

Later in my undergraduate career I began sending what I thought were my best examples to the New Yorker. Thankfully, they rejected each of my efforts, for which I received nice critique letters from senior editor Roger Angell. It was decades before I discovered that the New Yorker didn’t handle every over-the-transom submission with similar personalization. I also had an eye-opening moment when, also decades later, I read in an introduction to a collection of stories from New Yorker regular Bobbie Ann Mason that the magazine had rejected her first fourteen efforts.The moral for budding writers: persistence may not always pay, but don’t underestimate its importance.

I let fiction writing lapse for some time as I found a willing audience for my journalistic efforts. As Clarence Andrews, one of the kindest and most supportive of my Iowa professors noted, there were hundreds of nonfiction articles being published for every short story and I was pleased to help fill the gap.


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