An Installment in the Saga of DRAWER NO MORE!
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The fiction bug bit hard, back when I was employed as a foreign-language teacher and should have been working on my dissertation on Tolstoy. Call it procrastination, but nothing brought me so much delight as a couple of stolen hours with a legal pad and row of needle-sharp pencils.
The short stories and novellas I produced in those early years were mostly unreadable. Surely, the way to prove that one is a writer is to use lots of long and difficult words! Or so I opined at the time. Steeped in academic language, I struggled to keep my sentences down to half a dozen dependent clauses, max.
Once I finally climbed down from the ivory tower, it was time to improve my style. I read Alice Munro and began to grasp how to shape a sentence, read Carolyn Chute and sensed the chemistry between characters, read Marquez and grappled with the dream that is an enthralling narrative. Small vignettes and short-shorts proved a good place to hone my craft. Several of those found homes in literary magazines—a thrill for the starry-eyed novice.
The short story form remained my nemesis. To this day, I consider it a lofty pinnacle of prose artistry, and have often said I hope to never write another.
But while ideas continued to swarm, and before I worked up the nerve to tackle a larger project, I labored in the fields of short fiction. I longed make readers pause and see fellow humans in a new way. Don’t people drive us crazy with anger, love, hysteria, amazement, and every possible emotion! I struggled to present characters that would help readers recognize their fellows—our fellows—with a bit more compassion than before.
One of my short stories at this time went by the cumbersome name “Gravitation of the Spheres.” Please be kind and consider it a throwback to my academic career. Other titles came and went, all equally bad. Despite the abstractly philosophical name, the tale was a simple one: a nine-year-old girl loses her parents and is thrust into foster care. A kind family takes her into their home. Connection ensues along with various conflicts. Crisis, resolution, THE END.
But this story gave me no rest. In one draft, I expanded the plot with new episodes. Then cut every expendable word to tighten things up. “Leaner and meaner” was supposed to be better and better, or so minimalists would have us believe. I revised that story so many times, my head began to spin. I had no idea which version might be better than another.
Realizing I needed professional help, I applied to The Kenyon Review Writer’s Workshop for my first class in creative writing.
Kenyon College had the advantage of being within a 3-hour drive of my town. More importantly, this is the home of the prestigious literary magazine that launched work by such luminaries as Alan Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Robert Lowell, and many others. If Ohio has a literary Mecca, I reasoned, this must be it!
All a-tremble with excitement, I joined a group of 12 acolytes studying with Nancy Zafris, a winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for short fiction and a formidable presence. She forced us to realize the power of each word while becoming attached to none (Kill those darlin’s). Awed by Nancy’s skill with tone and structure, I felt no one could better advise me how to transform my troublesome story into the brilliant narrative it was meant to be.
Nancy graciously agreed to read “Gravitation of the Spheres.” She convinced me to reconsider the title and gave some pointers on focusing the plot. But it was her parting remark that helped me keep faith with the story for years to come: “Brush it up and send it out.”
So my strange little tale was in the ballpark of publishable material!
This 4800-word opus acquired the name “Our Orbit.” Not sure why I was determined to stick with cosmic imagery when this theme is not essential to the plot. I’ve gotten a bit of criticism despite the great improvement over previous titles. One widely published author told me that first person (“Our…”) was inappropriate, given that the story is written in third. And a couple of readers said they were misled to expect a sci-fi tale.
I hoped my eventual readers would accept the metaphorical sense of an “orbit.” Then I stumbled upon this same small phrase in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. There it’s used to describe Scout and Jem’s daily routine of play and exploration. This is not a major passage in the classic book, but it seemed so resonant with my story, I wasn’t about to give up the title from then on.
As for sending it out—first, I tried journals at the top of my wish list: Pleiades, Five Points, Prairie Schooner, Agni. Guess what happened! Soon moved on to a slightly humbler tier: Ascent, Spindrift, The Green Hills Literary Lantern. Eventually, I was scraping the bottom of the litmag barrel: Dodohebdo, DoTell Motel, Tales from the Hip, and FicLines. (Not their real names!) As discouragement set in, it was back to the legal pad many times over. For the next eight years, I sent the story to at least 50 different magazines, several of them more than once.
Luckily for my flagging spirits, I succeeded in publishing other stories during this time—even one at The Kenyon Review. So what was the problem with “Our Orbit”?
No other story of mine garnered so many comments from editors scribbled at the bottom of rejection slips. One apologized for keeping “Our Orbit” on his desk for 8 months. He felt it wasn’t “ripe for acceptance” but couldn’t quite bear to reject it either. He found his mind “cycling back to it.”
At least half a dozen editors wrote that the story needed further development. Independently, several agreed that it could—even should—be expanded.
It had the makings of a fine novel.
This was not something I wanted to hear. Already at work on a novel, I had gained insight on the time and effort required for such a project. “Our Orbit,” by contrast, was just a practice piece. Not bad, but no major opus. Something to get off my desk and onto my publication list—not a sinkhole for endless tinkering, a baby bird demanding food to grow.
But art is like a higher power. Not unlike God, it “disposes,” regardless of what we humans propose.
Soon enough, I had finished two other novels. With no agent or publisher in sight, discouragement set in hard this time. Fiction was a cruel master. I tried writing essays and poetry: anything to keep up my skill with words. Then, my husband was invited to apply for a job in the Pacific Northwest, 2000 miles from our home. This opened an opportunity for me to enter an MFA program in creative writing.
One more way to keep working, to stop myself from giving up.
So in August 2005, we were preparing to relocate across country. In our Ohio backyard one warm night, I wondered how I would get along without my garden. I looked up at the sky, but didn’t focus on the stars until I realized that they were falling. It was the Perseiad meteor shower that comes every year in late summer.
Beautiful lines of light streaked the sky. And with them, a thought popped into my head. A perfect scene for “Our Orbit”: My fictional family hurries outside to see the meteors. The children ask questions…parents try to explain so the little ones can understand.
So many falling stars—is it an omen, or a mere fact of nature?
This unfolded into a scene for Our Orbit the novel. Same plot as the story, but with more people, more fully fleshed characters interacting in more complex ways. It became my thesis in the MFA program at the University of Idaho. It took 5 years to create a complete draft. I was convinced it would become my first mainstream, publishable novel. For 2 more years, I would search for an agent—would give up, try again, and give up again.
All the while, Miriam, Rachelle, and Josh kept speaking in my ears, like living people, with an urgent message for the world.
Now, Our Orbit will be re-issued by Booktrope Publishing on June 23, 2015.
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