The First

Your first publication – be it short story or a novel – sets the standard for all those that will follow; you learn things with your first in that same way first love marks you for life.
Of all places, I was on the crapper when I learned I’d sold my first short story. That was where I was in the spring of 1987 opening the mail. TMI perhaps, but I’m just trying to keep it real. Back then writers had their work photocopied from its original typewritten pages, and the work was sent in an envelope, along wtih a cover letter (your pitch, your plea) and a SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope). The SASE was an industry standard and was very important if the writer wanted to ever hear back from the publisher. The thrill was getting an envelop, anywhere from three to six months, in the mail with your own handwriting or typescript on its face. I was on the crapper opening the mail one spring day when a SASE emerged from the pile of bills and direct marketing. I ripped the envelop open.
My story “Stain,” had been accepted by a journal in Saskatchewan called Grain. Yes: Stain in Grain. Included in the envelope was a conditional acceptance letter, stating that the editors loved the story, but had wanted to publish it with edits. This was not unheard of back then, it seems less so a condition today for reasons beyond my understanding. The acceptance letter contained a copy of what edits the editor was seeking. This is where the story gets interesting.
“Stain,” is a first-person story about a man who returns to his hometown for the funeral of a dear friend. The story is mostly a flashback to a time when the main characters uses a racial slur to demean his friend. It was a story I’d written for a creative writing course I was taking at a local college. We were to write a story fictionalizing a personal experience. I wrote the piece in under thirty minutes because the episode was a deep shame I carried since the day I uttered such a dreadful name for my then bestfriend. The story caused a bit of a stir in class, for all the good reasons. Based on it and other work I had submitted for class, I was allowed to skip the class entirely, receive an automatic “A” letter grade and work independently with an instructor on writing short stories. I wanted to be a writer so bad, so this was good news; it confirmed my greatest wish. “Stain” was a very short story but in consultation with the creative writing instructor it grew and grew with each suggestion. A now much longer story from the original I’d submitted in school was sent to the journal for publication. The story was accepted, with the conditional edits, and the edits were – placing my hand on my heart – almost exactly to excise from the story all the material I’d added onto my original as per instruction and suggestion by my creative writing instructor. If I’d placed my original story alongside the one that was eventually published they would almost completely match. I’d learned then that not all critcism is of equal value or that not all feedback need be implimented. It’s always up to the writer to decided ultimately what stays in and what stays out. That wasn’t the only thing I learned from my first sale.
“Stain,” was a story based on a real experience. Maybe that’s the reason I could write it so efficiently and consisely. It was written in under half an hour and was probably less than 800 words. I wrote it because I felt so ashamed of calling my best childhood friend the n-word. It matters not the reason. I had done it, that was all. When the story was published I was no longer in regular contact with Kenny and only years later when we found ourselves living in the same large city I gave him a copy to read. We were in his apartment, heading out to a house party, when I gave it to him to read. He read it and said it was well done. He hadn’t really remembered the incident, he said, undoubtedly lying on my behalf. The story seemed like no big deal, so we went to the party and got drunk together and to this day we remain good friends over the miles and the years. For writers, certain things stick that to others slips out of mind shortly after they occur. Writers are haunted by these things and the stew on them, write them out and sometimes writers get these compositions published. Or maybe it’s that writers want the world to stand up and take notice, to remember, and others would soon not to, or if they do recall, place a lesser degree of importance on what the story was attempting to say. Greater still is the myth the writer hopes to propel into action that words can somehow change the very world. Well, they can and stories can’t. The writer once the words have been comitted has little say in the matter as to which way the story goes once out there on its own. That’s just the way it is. And that’s the way it was with my first publication. It marked me and shadows every other publication success that proceeds it.
And I still read the mail on the crapper.

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