New England Review publishes work from writers at all stages of their writing lives—some just starting out, and others who’ve been at it for decades. In the past year, we published new stories by Mary Clark (“Many of the Men,” 38.1) and Merrie Snell (“Shipwreck Stories,” 39.1), two writers who’d published in NER in the nineties and whom we hadn’t heard from since. What were they up to during those years between publications? Were they still writing? Why the long gap? With just a few basic questions to get them started, they entered into a conversation about persistence and self-reliance, strategies for overcoming rejection, and the many ways of being a writer in the world.
Were you writing during those “gap years”? If you were, what form did your writing take?
MERRIE: Creative writing? Little to none. But in the interim I did write an MA and PhD in musicology, so I guess that counts. What’s funny is, I never considered myself an academic. Then, adrift in my forties, ten years out from my MFA and no longer writing, I decided to try my hand at musicological research and came to England to study, where I found myself drawing on my fiction-writing skills even within the rigors of academic writing. In fact, I still wonder how much of my PhD is based in fact or in fiction! The creative processes behind both endeavors intersect in interesting and fruitful ways. While writing the PhD I started working on stories again. I suspect initially this was one part renewed interest and four parts PhD avoidance. But, truly, I think I found my way back “in” through flexing my creative muscles in the process of taming that monster. Writing begets more writing. I love how obvious and simple that is!
MARY: I was a writer for software companies for nearly all those years, and I’m not counting that. Most mornings in my NER gap, I woke up at 5 AM to write fiction until I was late for work, and then rushed to my day job. Let’s put writing about how to configure your cloud infrastructure on the lowest end of the creative spectrum, and writing a musicology dissertation a few levels up from that, and in the far-off distance beyond, fiction writing, just before the cliff where writing poems lives. In the time between my NER poems and my first NER story, I was breaking up with poetry and falling in love with writing novels. During my bona fide 25-year NER gap, I wrote three novels. I started my fourth since then. I once heard Eugene Mirabelli—who I discovered through reading NER—say, I learned how to write novels by writing novels. That’s what I was doing in my gap years.
MERRIE: That’s impressive, Mary. I’m assuming the fourth novel is the one from which “Many of the Men” was taken? Please finish and publish! That story was so rich, I could have stayed in that world for many, many more pages.
MARY: Thank you! Actually “Many of the Men” is practically identical to the first chapter of the third novel. The story NER took last spring was the first published story that came from that novel. And here’s something crazy, the story NER took in the nineties, at it turns out, was the first chapter of my first novel.
MERRIE: I’ve got a number of ideas for novels on the go with some chapters already written, scattered here and there amongst them, but I am—or have been—a sort of microcosm writer. The macro still intimidates a bit, though the PhD has helped in that regard. I can say at the very least that I’ve hermeneuted the heck out of Singing in the Rain. As for day jobs, I’ve had many but only one or two that inspired creativity. Material, yes.
MARY: Definitely the injustices and convoluted drama that go on in workplaces can be the stuff of novels. I don’t want to write about that directly, but it gets in the writing. For scenes from “Many of the Men” where a black man, a city resident works a construction project with out-of-state white guys, I draw on my own upsetness from job mess. Jackson, who has it worse, handles conflict better than I do, and that brought me closer to him. We all have these massive commitments in our outside-of-writing life that help us care for our characters. Same with getting a PhD, or being a parent, I imagine. Is there a line or phrase from your creative-writing gap work that made it into your recent story?
MERRIE: Well, seeing as “Shipwreck Stories” is semi-autobiographical and taken from the deep heart of the “NER gap,” I’ll say yes to that. It is explicitly about marriage, a then-and-now and now-plus-then. Quite confessional, which is evident. It was simply the story I needed to tell. (Actually, I was hesitant about sending it out for publication. So close to the bone.)
MARY: One thing I’ll say about the day job, and maybe this goes more for PhD dissertations, is that writing forty hours a week gets you in shape for writing, like doing sprint intervals—wait, not sprints, it’s more like endurance, like distance practice. At my day job, I did a lot of exacting writing about abstractions. I’ve been able to use that exercise in writing novels—Oh wow, I do have sprints! For decades I’ve had this go-to exercise when I need to crank my practice, these 1,000-words-a-day journal assignments. I still do them. Late at night if I haven’t done my word count, I knock it out with dialogue. Dialogue goes fast, especially talk between lovers, rewrites on some real-life conversation I want to keep going, or to go better. I have a lot that in my fiction. I’m gonna say, I’m fluent in dreamy, yummy dialog.
What else happened in the twenty-year interim?
MARY: Big colossal life events. But those years were not a “life got in the way” kind of situation. They were more a “life got in the writing” situation. I’m someone who gets over tragedy and sadness, loss and loneliness, by writing a mix of widening scenes in memory with translations of consequences from tragic and joyful times to make story. Living like that is kind of like living in a novel. We all have moments when we’re living in a novel, right? We look up and we know we’re close to the bone of story, in the act of writing our lives.
MERRIE: I’ll echo Mary: “Big colossal life events.” But more than that, fear. Fear starring a cast of garden-variety but potent demons: perfectionism, self-doubt, fraud-syndrome, second-guessing, self-reproach, self-consciousness, avoidance, loss of heart, and a host of little tricksters dancing to the tune of “Who the Heck Do You Think You’re Foolin’?” Perched on my shoulders, the demons watched every mark on the page, heckled every word. They made it impossible even to sit down and contemplate the process. Not “they”: I. The demons were me. They were created, fed, and nurtured by me. I wrote their slogans and their songs and animated them.
I still strugglewith them. I’m a slow writer. I am seldom one for journal writing because I’m too embarrassed and it is hard for me to let go and let it flow. I aspire to follow Anne Lamott’s advice and write “shitty first drafts,” but my approach is still too painstaking and stilted. Of course the drafts are shitty—they’re simply peppered with pretty sentences that may or may not serve the story, and too much time and toil spent squeezing them out. It can be frustrating, and road blocks and dead ends are common (especially with my poor sense of direction!). But I’m getting there slowly. Here’s to shitty first drafts! They are what I want for Christmas, always.
Did you come up against rejection from journals and publishers during those years?
MERRIE: Yes and no. I was not writing during most of the gap, therefore rejection wasn’t an issue until the last few years when I returned to it. Since then, I’ve accumulated a guess-how-many-beans-jar filled with rejections. It’s a good jar. Each bean represents a commitment to both writing and risk-taking. My plan is to collect shelves of these jars before I’m done. Hence, I’ve also started submitting poems.
MARY: My little trick to deal with rejection is similar to how I handle rejection in dating: have another iron in the fire, so if an agent rejects your novel you’re like, That’s okay I’m seeing my new novel now anyway.
MERRIE: I’m trying out the ego-healing It’s your loss/other fish in the sea tack too. Actually, that’s a lie. I do feel the sting of rejection when collecting yet another bean for the jar. But then the jar transforms rejection into a special project rather than a failure. But I’m talking stories and poems, not novels. I suppose that’s a whole other kettle of beans!
MARY: I didn’t take a break from writing during those years so much as I took a break from sending work out. I couldn’t get over that so many of my poems were taken by really great journals, like NER, but that I couldn’t get the book published. Then poetry rejection turned me to writing stories, and after that I was writing novels. The thing is that the rejection got to me and it snuck up without notice. I started out with this whole positive approach to rejection. I was taping rejections to the wall above my desk, I was cherishing form rejections that came with a special note or a handwritten Sorry. And after a while it all cracked. I didn’t want to want anything from publishers anymore. I had set some kind of timer. One of my teachers when I was in grad school said what matters is not the poems you’re writing now, but if you’ll be writing poems ten years from now. Somehow I had embellished that to include a clause saying that if I did write for ten years after my MFA I would have a book published. At ten years, I had held up my side of the promise but the publishing world didn’t hold up its side, the side I had assigned to it. Pride had me step off. I told myself writing is what matters, not publishing
The journals that published my work–New England Review, Black Warrior Review, Ploughshares—I was grateful to those readers and editors. I still am. I saved long typewritten—this was back in typewriter time—rejection letters from editors. The first letter I ever got on my poetry was from NER, David Huddle rejected my work but wrote me a full-page letter! I have a letter from Alice Quinn, the poetry editor of the New Yorker, telling me she thought I would be a good fiction writer. How could I not turn to fiction after that? I still have these and other treasures of generosity, and I’m glad I do because they temper my memory of how I left trying to get published, walking, not running, out of the building (a publishing house) that explodes behind me.
MERRIE: I have a confession. I date the start of my writing gap to the publication of my story, “Prosthetic Life,” in NER in 1997. I had the same reaction to success at Iowa (like, even getting in). Rather than spurring me on, success brought on the demons, especially the one that crowed, “It’s a fluke! You’re a fraud! Quit now before you embarrass yourself!”
I was absolutely chuffed to see my work in NER; when I got the phone call from editor Stephen Donadio, I danced. But then came the audible gulp. I did dribs and drabs afterwards, but the pain so outweighed the pleasure that I fled. I look back now and I try not to regret those years. They must have been useful to the writer I am now. This is why I love to see that jar accumulating rejections. It means I haven’t fled this time. I’m bloody doing this thing for real. So, fear was the reason I stopped. But then the PhD created another impediment, until avoiding the PhD got me going again. Who knows? “On the sly” may be how I manage to get things done.
A question that emerges whilst doing scholarship, creative writing, and life is: “So what? Who cares?” Back in the early eighties I attended a week-long poetry workshop at Indiana University with the great Denise Levertov. She was candid. She didn’t suffer fools. She could be brutal. It was like having your work critiqued by Bette Davis. On one of my poems she wrote something to the effect of, “Who cares? Why would anyone else be interested in this?” During our one-on-one she advised me to travel to Europe for at least a year. I was gutted; I felt my hoped-for talent was being dismissed and that she thought I might as well give up and do something else with my time. Much later, I realized that she’d actually been trying to encourage me. In life and art, she inferred, one must take the trouble to seek meaning and then question conclusions.
I’ve still got a demon who visits now and then and hectors me with the negative inflection of “who cares,” but I’ve learned to apply the question responsibly, productively. A demon thwarted can be a valuable thing.
Why did you send your work to New England Review then, and why did you send it again more recently?
MARY: The poems, stories and essays in NER are truthful, that is artistically authentic. NER seems to encourage accessible and inviting, and, yes, some pieces, in particular the nonfiction, require concentration when an idea gets complex, but they’re rich. I never feel like the writing over-reaches or tries too hard. There seems to be an editorial effort to keep to an earnestness of craft, I guess is what I’m saying.
When I came back to sending out my work, I sent to NER because they were so encouraging to me when I was starting out. My impression is that NER works hard at boosting emerging writers. I notice when an organization works hard, and I understand readers and editors of literary magazines are all overworked. When I decided to give sending out my work a go after a twenty-five year break I sent a story to NER and again I got a personal rejection. Carolyn rejected that story but said, “welcome back.” Come on, how great is that!
MERRIE: I had a similar experience to yours. In my case, NER rejected three stories before taking “Shipwreck Stories,” but Carolyn sent personal responses to each. She said the first two were near misses, which in itself was encouraging, but she also offered helpful critiques of each, identifying what, for her and the rest of the staff, were their strengths and weaknesses. Her comments made me feel like I was being taken seriously as a writer. When I finally placed the fourth one it was a real triumph.
But the reason I chose NER in the first place is I admired the editorial ethos that seemed to eschew cynicism for something more genuine, if you will. There were, of course, experimental, boundary-invasive pieces, but I felt the stories were human-sized, unselfconscious. They favored simplicity of language over pyrotechnics. At the time (in the ’90s) I was reading James Baldwin, Alice Munro, John Cheever, Joy Williams—writers who could pull the extraordinary out of the small, often mundane, particularities of the characters and settings. Such stories often feature on the pages of NER.
How was the experience of publishing in NER different this time?
MARY: I have to say being an older—yet still an emerging—writer makes me more appreciative of working with editors. Lots of taking things personally slips away freeing up my concentration to consider the reasoning behind cuts and rephrasing.
MERRIE: In each case—with Stephen Donadio in 1997 and Carolyn Kuebler in 2018—my stories were handled with such care and generosity. SD asked for major changes—no less than the title and the final paragraph!—changes without which the story would have lacked a through-focus, among other things. He was wonderful in that he saw the story’s potential and then helped me realize it. With Carolyn, the requested changes were smaller: grammar or punctuation in a couple of places; a great catch in spotting a stupendously misbegotten word. Changes I welcomed. However, we did wrangle over one. She suggested I delete the word “groovy.” For the record, groovy is a fine word, one which I’m currently trying to resurrect. I mean “groovy” as originally defined, like record grooves, like river eddies. It is a great word. Try and use it in a sentence. You’ll feel better!
MARY: Carolyn changed my title, too—like Stephen did yours. That’s her thing! One of her things. Just this fall, at a celebration of forty years of NER, Steve Almond said NER changed all his titles. We both agreed the magazine’s were way better.
MERRIE: I agree with Mary’s observation about aging. One becomes less precious with age. And more cognizant of the gift of an editor’s attention. I also think that when you’ve been writing for many years without publishing you forget that a story isn’t finished until a last, expert look from a gifted editor. It is comforting to remember that. I also want to say how great it was to work with managing editor, Marcy Pomerance. She offered so many encouraging and entertaining words.
MARY: Me too. Carolyn and Marcy knew my story better than I did. I have writer friends who were jealous about the attention I got from NER. It’s rare. Maybe editors think it’s kind not to ask for changes.
When Carolyn sent her first round of suggestions on my after-the-gap story, I sneak-read them at my job, and driving my commute home, I had my back up about some of them. Now Carolyn did extensive work on the story, she made many edits and some suggestions. In particular, she suggested having the children in the story call the passenger in their father’s cab by his last name, “Mr. Greene,” instead of how I had it, “Mr. Darius.” I grew up in a Mr. or Miss First Name neighborhood. I used my certainty about this point to distance myself from her mindset and dismiss her other suggestions until, for some reason, a friend’s Ted Talk that she had done recently about personal bias came to mind. This friend said how flying once, she was happy to hear that the pilot of her plane was a woman, but she noticed herself wishing for a man pilot when the flight got turbulent. Everything came together so clearly on that drive home. I realized that before my twent-five-year gap, all my editors were men; Carolyn was my first female editor. I’m not proud of this but I knew then and there that if Carolyn was a man, I would take all her suggestions without question. Ultimately we stetted “Mr. Darius,” and I looked harder at the intention of Carolyn’s suggestions and was grateful for her work on my story. Like I said, she knew it better than I did.
MERRIE: I think it very courageous to make such an admission, Mary. Of course, we are all subjects of our patriarchal hegemony. We are born to it; we internalize its messages as we grow. It’s tough to admit to our predilections and knee-jerk assumptions that (still) align with those messages, even when intellectually we know better. And I suppose the folks who don’t see their own complicity in upholding these deeply embedded cultural biases are the ones who deny they even exist (and therefore learn nothing/change nothing).
Do you have any advice or just thoughts for writers who are taking a circuitous path to the writing life?
MERRIE: I’m not sure “circuitous” matters in any grand sense. Unless you are impatient or well positioned (whatever that means) to “make it” as soon as possible, you will likely take a circuitous path to one degree or another. It can even be beneficial: the things one learns along the way, the surprising turns. It’s what Denise Levertov was advocating to my young self. Of course there are always some people who are great writers and recognized as such at a young age, much to our benefit. Many of them have long careers in which their writing abilities grow and mature, and about which academics talk of early, mature, and late phases. I think many of us start off dreaming of being one of these people because that is how literature is taught. But I think most of us either build our careers slowly or start-stop-dodge-return-retreat-repeat. People tend to think of the latter folks (e.g., myself) as dilettantes. But I prefer the word amateur: not in the negative sense of being amateurish, but in the sense of one who does something for love. It is a helpful word, and true. What except love can pull us back again and again? The dilettante flirts; the true lover commits.
I’m not sure I’m in a position to offer advice to other writers, but since you asked, here are a few thoughts:
One, beware of internet writing forums. When I started writing again it seemed a good idea. It was not. In one I was introduced to the now-ubiquitous invective form of “snowflake” (a horrible usage). People were horrible to each other. I never posted my work, but I saw others being savaged. There was a macho sensibility. You know, a kind of “It’s cutthroat, baby! Swim with the sharks or get off the beach!” bullshit. I thought, what’s the point of that? What’s that got to do with the fragile process of making something new? And why am I making room in my life for such voices?
Two: People commonly say to write with an audience in mind. I would change that to revise with an audience in mind. Write with yourself in mind. I know it goes against conventional wisdom—and nothing I say here is absolute, mind!—but you know the kind of story you want to read, the one that is missing from the conversation. I like to think of George Harrison’s words when asked why he funded the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian. He said, “Because I wanted to see the movie.” You can’t read the story unless you write it.
Finally, do not—emphatically, do NOT—put off the other things you wish to do in order to “make writing time.” The busiest people I know are also the most productive. So for heaven’s sake, have that baby! Sing in that Carpenters tribute band! Join that political movement! Get that PhD! Whatever. Allow yourself to become the full person you are. You may use me as a cautionary tale.
MARY: I had an experience that helped me deal with not having any of the manuscripts I’ve written become published books. In 2004 I had a consulting job in Texas. Every Friday I and my pack of big-haired girlfriends I worked with, went to hear Mel Davis’s band play at the Continental Club. That’s Mel Davis, Miles Davis’s cousin, something I didn’t know at the time. I loved his music. I kind of loved him. He’s a blues singer but he wasn’t singing about his relative obscurity, he sang about heartache, duh. The whole thing amplified what I already know, brought it home: there are talented artists everywhere who we have never heard of, more than those who become known or have books out, and many who are even more talented. That’s the world. Now I see them everywhere. They’re my people. We’re ubiquitous. That sense of community shifts me to the writing, not the publishing. I’m working on my fourth novel manuscript now, and ever since I was writing my third novel, I’ve known–I really feel it–that no matter how wildly successful my novels become, their biggest awards can never touch the richness of writing them. Spending time in the company of my characters, in their world, the surprises that come from having something happen that you had no idea was going to happen when you got up that morning: there’s not much better than that.
Should we go ahead and post your writing from our past issues up on our website? That format didn’t even exist when you signed the contracts for that writing, so . . .
MARY: I think it would be great. Thank you for asking.
MERRIE: I’d be very pleased for it to get out and go for a little spin.
Merrie Snell: A story, “Prosthetic Life,” 18.4 (Fall 1997)