March 22, 2009

The Groucho Marx Principle


I still hold that back in 1987, I fell into the writing game completely by accident (and in no small part out of spite). I did not move to Philadelphia with the idea of becoming a writer. All I wanted to be was a lowlife and a bum. When I wrote the first story I had no idea or intention that it would go any farther than that. Then things got a little out of hand.

            That being said, though, I do confess that a couple of years earlier in Madison, Wisconsin—during those months after graduation and before leaving for grad school—I would come home from work at night and set myself up in front of the typewriter, where I would write until the wee hours. I think I thought it was all very “romantic” or something. It didn’t really mean anything to me—I had no big dreams. It just seemed the thing to do, considering my circumstances.

            With one exception, I never showed anyone the things I was writing in those days (most were later destroyed in a fit of rationality, thank god). And that one exception taught me a very important and valuable lesson that still holds true today.

            I remember very little about the story in question. I remember that it was only about eight or nine pages long, and that nothing much happened in it. (I was reading a lot of Beckett and Kafka in those days, so there you go.) There was a lot of ice imagery, and some guy who thinks about something or another. Being young and foolish at the time, I thought it “meant” something. Couldn’t for the life of me say what, but something.

            One afternoon around this time, I was wandering about the campus and saw a flier announcing some kind of writing contest. This wasn’t one of those rinky-dink, small potatoes, Xeroxed lit ‘zine contests, either—this was a big impressive job, with real cash prizes and an awards ceremony and everything.

            While I knew damn well I didn’t have a chance in hell, I shoved my little story about the ice in an envelope and sent it in for their consideration. I never told anybody that I’d done such a thing, too embarrassed as I was to admit I would enter something as stupid as a “writing contest.”

            Two week’s later, though I hadn’t heard anything—no acknowledgment, no nothing—I wandered over to the big auditorium in the student union for the awards ceremony. Something deep in my subconscious—some little whisper I tried hard to ignore—kept telling me I just might have a chance, even though I was pitted against hundreds of would-be professional writers from the English department and the writing program.

            I sat there in the auditorium looking around at all these people. They smiled and chatted in highfalutin terms and slapped each other on the back. Even though there were hundreds of people there, they all seemed to know each other. They were all so confident and smug.

            I felt the hatred start to rise in my guts.

            When the ceremony got underway, a few more smug people got on stage. They were all actual published authors, we were told, who had actually published short stories in literary magazines I had never heard of. Then each of them read one of their stories aloud.

            Oh, they were sensitive and gentle and smug little stories about sensitive people with nothing little crises.

            My loathing grew deeper and blacker as I looked around and saw how enraptured and moved all of these people were by the crap they were hearing. They tittered knowingly at the in-jokes and nodded their heads in silent acknowledgment.

            Then it hit me—it was a club. A very exclusive club of smug little bastards—and one in which I was most definitely not welcome.

            When the time came for the awards themselves, let’s just say I was not among the cash winners. I wasn’t even among the ten “Honorable Mentions.” I wasn’t anywhere, and left the auditorium not bitter—just accepting of the fact that it was a world in which I didn’t belong. But at least I’d given it a shot just to find out. I quickly forgot about writing completely and focused on being an angry bum instead.

            Now fast forward twenty-five years. I have no real complaints. I’d been pulling off quite a scam with this “writing” crap, I thought, even if it wasn’t what I had in mind all those years ago. It was a change of plans, but I think I rolled with it okay. Not much money, but again it beats working.

            There was, however, one thing I’d never done. Not that it was all that important to me—I just wanted to give it a shot. I’d never published a piece in some fancy-ass big-time magazine. If I could pull that off, the scam would be complete.

            I’d been contacted by folks from various fancy-ass magazines over the years, and they always said very nice things—but they also always ended by saying, “ . . . but we have absolutely no use for you here.”

            But why should that stop me?

            So I called my agent and suggested submitting something to the New Yorker, just for fun.

            “Oh, they have no use for you,” she said.

            “But—” I countered, “Steve Martin writes goofy shit for them all the time.”

            “Yes, because he’s Steve Martin.”

            “What about George Saunders? He writes weirdies and he’s a regular contributor.”

            “He also a professor. He’s establishment. You, on the other hand, are not. You’re not part of the club. You’re an outsider.”

            I knew I could easily translate “outsider” to mean “retarded caveman.” But you know, I took it as a compliment. In fact it was one of the nicest things she’d ever said to me.

            Regardless of her advice, and again without telling anyone, I went ahead and submitted a little something to the New Yorker. It only took three days for the response to come back. Not only did they reject my submission—they rejected it four different times over the course of a week, using four different form letters. Every time I checked my email, there was another rejection from the New Yorker waiting for me.

            It might seem odd, but I couldn’t have been happier. It just confirmed what I’d concluded back in that auditorium in Madison. And I wouldn’t want to be part of their stupid club, anyway.


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