August 3, 2017KR BlogBlogRemembrancesWriting

Literary Firsts & Worsts

A writer approached me after my workshop at Literary Cleveland’s Inkubator event to tell me this was the first writing conference she’d ever attended. Her comment got me thinking of my own “firsts” as a writer—first conference, first publication, first interview, and more. I’m detailing some of those experiences below. And just to spice it up, I’ll also include one of my worst experiences in each category.

First Writing Conference: Years ago, I attended the now-defunct Columbus Writers Conference in Columbus, Ohio. I was young and inexperienced, but I was operating under the delusion that I might connect with an agent at the event. The conference itself was fantastic. I had private sessions with an agent as well as an editor at a major house, and in the end, multiple agents requested my novel—including one who actually chased me down the hallway after overhearing my pitch. While none of this attention ultimately led anywhere, it was still nice to be (literally) pursued by an agent at such an early stage in my writing career. More than that, this was also the conference where I met a regional editor who would assign my first paid freelance articles. Those assignments led to additional freelance work elsewhere, and those clips eventually led to my job as a trade magazine editor. So all around, I’d say it was a success.

Worst Writing Conference: While no event jumps out at me as being disastrous on its own, I do recall one AWP where I just wasn’t feeling it. My accommodations were terrible (it was a youth hostel that I chose for my group of friends, which meant that bad decision was my fault), the weather was dreary, I was tired and cranky the entire weekend, etc. The event came to an abrupt halt when my friends and I made a frantic midnight escape after a contentious run-in with a hostel staff member. But AWP, it wasn’t you. It was me.

First Publication: I was sixteen, clueless, and exceedingly lucky when the first story I sent into the world was met with not only an acceptance but a check for $90. I wrote about this experience for the “My First Time” series on David Abrams’s blog, The Quivering Pen. In that blog post, I also shared how my first acceptance was quickly followed by a wake-up call that came in the form of my first real rejection. Read all about it here.

Worst Publication: It technically never resulted in publication, but my worst acceptance came from a literary magazine that demanded all rights to my story in perpetuity—definitely not the standard for literary publication. (And no, they didn’t offer any payment for that massive rights-grab.) When I politely raised questions about the contract terms, the editors refused to enter into a discussion about the contract and ultimately withdrew my acceptance. How did they withdraw it, you ask? They mailed the hard copy of the story back to me, with no note or anything. Just the story appearing in my mailbox. Fine by me—I was never going to sign that exploitative contract anyway, and in the end, I turned the experience into a Poets & Writers essay advising writers on lit mag contracts and rights.

First Interview I Conducted: I was about thirteen years old and tasked with interviewing someone for a school writing project. I settled on a woman who worked as a horse trainer but who had once been a jockey. As a painfully shy kid, I was terrified when I showed up in the dusty stable lounge to conduct the interview. But she was kind and encouraging, and I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the practice of interviewing. She also gave me a new perspective on horse racing by painting it as the dangerous, sometimes cruel sport it can be. One detail I never forgot: she told me (at least during her racing days) that an ambulance follows the horses around the track so as to be immediately on hand when an accident occurs. If I were able to somehow find this woman, I’d love to interview her again today.

Worst Interview I Conducted: Based on a range of reasons out of my control, I was compelled to conduct a phone interview with a new freelance client’s resident expert without knowing the topic beforehand, thus making it impossible to prepare. As I stumbled through the interview, my phone’s audio inexplicably cut out in the middle of my source’s long, complicated answer. A Bluetooth speaker elsewhere in the house had picked up my phone’s signal—meaning the audio from my interview was playing in a completely separate part of the house rather than through my phone. By the time I found and fixed that glitch, I had to ask my source to repeat his entire answer. It didn’t much matter that I’d later go on to redeem myself with this client and source in other projects—that interview was humiliating.

First Writing Group: I was a new college graduate working my first job in Washington, DC, where I knew next to no one. One day, I stepped onto a public bus and came face to face with a woman from my hometown; we’d attended the same high school and she’d been close with my older brother. She invited me to her writing group, which provided a necessary literary outlet during my brief time in that city. Fun fact: after not seeing this writer for about thirteen years, I ran into her again by pure chance this summer at the Chautauqua Institution.

Worst Writing Group: I’ve been in more writing groups than I can count. I learned something from them all, they pushed me to keep writing, and they were where I met my closest writing friends. For those reasons, I don’t think I can categorize any group as the “worst.” But some of my worst writing group experiences include: being told in a dismissive tone my work was too “domestic,” watching one writer try to tear down another’s work for personal reasons, being propositioned via a graphic email late at night after workshop, and, worst of all, having to uninvite a writer from a group based on complex social/personal dynamics that were not her fault in the slightest and that I surely could have handled better on all fronts—a memory that still makes me cringe.

First Editing Role: Throughout high school, I was on the staff of the school literary magazine, Whispering Minds, eventually serving as the editor-in-chief. Fun fact: when I was a freshman, this school-sanctioned literary magazine had a secret underground counterpart—Screaming Minds—which featured edgy (read: sexually explicit) writing and art. Screaming Minds fell by the wayside, unfortunately, but I’m happy to know it existed at all.

Worst Editing Role: As a sophomore in college, I edited a campus broadside series. Students submitted poems to me in all sorts of ways, including the time a poet slipped her work under the door of my dorm suite around midnight. (I wish I realized back then how amazing that time in my life was—to get unexpected poems under your door late at night!) I’m listing this as a “worst” because I did not handle the notification process well at all. The first time I was ready to reject a piece, I drafted a sterile, wooden rejection letter. When I showed this rejection to a friend for her opinion, she stared at silently for a while before saying, “You know what I’d do if I got this?” And then she mimed cutting her wrists. I was so horrified that I not only never sent that rejection, but I never sent any rejections. I just published the poems I selected and pretended the others didn’t exist. It’s a mistake I now know better than to repeat.

I think I’ve revealed enough of the skeletons in my literary closet, so I’ll stop there. And for the record, the writer who approached me at the Inkubator had glowing reviews about the event, so it sounds like her first conference will thankfully never align with her worst.

If you want more literary firsts, head on over to The Quivering Pen’s “My First Time” series.