Writers on Writing #37: Jacob M. Appel

by JHow on April 22, 2013

in Announcements, Writers on Writing

Telephone

The Long Hello

By any literary standard, I am having a good year. Ten months ago, despite two decades of trying, I had not managed to sell a full-length manuscript of prose. Today, I have four books under contract with four different, well-regarded independent publishers: My novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, won the Dundee International Book Award and was published by Cargo in October 2012. A short story collection, Scouting for the Reaper, won Black Lawrence Press’s Hudson Prize and will be published in November. Also forthcoming in November is a second novel, The Biology of Luck, from Elephant Rock Books. And then, next year, my essay collection, Phoning Home, will be published by the University of South Carolina. Yet among all of these triumphs, rendered the more savory after years of famine, one victory stands out. Last week, I placed a short story with the literary journal Nimrod, based at the University of Tulsa.

My answering machine logged the call as coming from the 918 area code. Even before I played the message, I suspected someone trying to help me improve my credit score by investing in Nigerian bonds. The voice on the machine, distant and wobbly, sounded as though it arose from inside the body of a submerged fish. After three attempts, I finally deciphered the name as belonging to Francine Ringold. To her, I was a stranger. To me, Dr. Ringold, the longtime editor of Nimrod, was a minor celebrity. Unfortunately, the hour had passed midnight when I deciphered her name—I had worked the late shift at the hospital where I am a psychiatrist—and it was not until the following afternoon, between psychotic patients, than I returned her call. By then, my fingers trembled as I punched in each digit. To my amazement, Ringold herself answered the phone, and promptly offered to accept my short story, “Paracosmos,” for publication. That proved the unexpected capstone to my year of literary success.

Why was the author of over two hundred published short stories—and soon four books—so overjoyed to place a work of short fiction in a journal that, while both prestigious and exquisitely compiled, is not particularly more prestigious or more exquisitely compiled than other lovely venues, such as the Virginia Quarterly Review and Southwest Review, where he has published in the past? The answer is simple: Because, twenty-four years earlier, his first effort to publish a short story had been targeted at Nimrod. In fact, according to that author’s painstakingly-maintained records, he had submitted eighty-four other works of short fiction to the journal in the interim. On average, more than three each year. What had set “Paracosmos” apart from these others, many of which appeared in equally respectable venues, remains one of those mysteries of taste and fortune that justify, in this age of publishing conglomerates, the ongoing existence of so many independent presses and small journals.

The story that I submitted to Nimrod at the age of fifteen, “Solemn Troops and Sweet Societies,” can only be described as indescribably awful—the sort of treacle capable of bringing centuries of literary innovation to a grinding halt (although I am pleased that the title referenced Milton’s Lycidas). The girl I wrote the story to impress has since married, and divorced, as is now raising a child of her own; I can only hope this young man never writes a tale of military love as tedious as mine. The teacher who urged me to revise the story, and later to submit it for publication, died fifteen years ago of a stroke. My mother, whom I had call Nimrod in 1989, posing as my secretary, to inquire after the progress of that original story trough the slush pile—no successful writer, after all, would dare be caught making his own telephone calls—has no memory of the episode. On the phone, Dr. Ringold conceded that my name sounded “vaguely familiar,” but she had obviously not been rejecting my submissions with as much devotion as I had been submitting them. In short, my quarter-century struggle to earn the approval of the editors at Nimrod has been performed entirely for an audience of one.

If I am lucky, many readers will enjoy my forthcoming story as much as the Nimrod editors did. If I am very lucky, the piece will be reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 2015, and will win an O. Henry Award or a Pushcart Prize, and when I ultimately fly to Stockholm someday, to accept my well-earned accolade, the selection committee will cite this particular story as the pinnacle of my epic literary achievement. But until those victories earn my airfare to Scandinavia, nobody cares about my eighty-four earlier attempts—not Dr. Ringold, not my mother, not even you.

***
Perseverance is a peculiar attribute, its value only apparent in hindsight. The man who attempts “the impossible” ninety-nine times and succeeds on the hundredth effort finds himself a testament to hard work and resolve—but had he quit after ninety-nine tries, his efforts would have been dismissed by many as foolhardy. A suitor who asks a woman on a date ten times before she goes out with him, and ultimately marries her, is a hopeless romantic; if she turns him down on the eleventh attempt, he is merely annoying. The same can be said of literary efforts: Until a writer first sells a novel, all of his drawers of manuscript are so much squandered time. Giving up early may reflect a lack of character, but it also reflects good sense—or, at least, better sense than countless efforts that never pan out. As a psychiatrist, I have discovered that the man looking for the perfect mate will never marry, that the jobseeker searching for the perfect placement will never find a post. In his essay “Heroism,” Emerson reminds readers that, “The great majority of men are bundles of beginnings.” Whether those are the same chaps and the fellows Thoreau warns “lead lives of quiet desperation” and “go to the grave with the song still in them” is uncertain—but I am betting they are not. Rather, it is the fools who strive to see matters through to the end—yet fail—who die quietly desperate.

One prominent novelist reportedly tells his students that, if a particular literary journal rejects them three times, they should cash in their chips and stop submitting to that venue—because the odds, and the editors’ tastes, stand against them. I can only imagine what he would have advised Jesus after Peter’s third denial. In contrast, I have always subscribed to the theory that relentless pigheadedness was the talisman to literary accomplishment. That may explain why I have acquired, in addition to my more than two hundred acceptances, over 20,000 rejections during the course of my literary career from countless publishers, editors, magazines, agents and artistic directors. That is roughly eight hundred each year, or two every day. In one case, an editor warned me never to submit to his journal again—and I managed to place a piece in that same journal a decade later, when I attempted again after reading of his death. In another case, I accidentally submitted a story to a journal that had previously rejected the same piece, and they accepted it on the second try, admittedly several years and editors later. For the records, nearly all of my published stories appeared in journals that had previously rejected me on more than three occasions.

Rather than a tale to be emulated, however, my Nimrod saga should stand as a warning to those who place too much hope in perseverance. A quotation widely, and probably apocryphally, attributed to Albert Einstein, describes “insanity” as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” One does not need to be a psychiatrist to recognize the wisdom in his counsel—although I do happen to be a psychiatrist. The key to my tale of victory is that I mailed a different story to Nimrod each time—and that, presumably, my eighty-fifth submission reflected far more skill than my first. Here lies the crucial lesson that seems to be lost on many of my patients, many of my writing students, many of the hapless souls polishing the same novel for thirty years until it appears as smooth and soulless as a stone. The key to perseverance is figuring out how to obtain the original goal through a different means: a different story, a revised resume, getting down on the other knee. And sometimes the target itself must be moved, if ever so slightly: once the goal becomes “romantic happiness,” rather than “romantic happiness with Ethel,” then Fred Mertz poses less of an obstacle.

All of which is a roundabout way of gloating that I am soon going to be published in Nimrod. Please purchase the journal—please tuck it under your pillow and treasure it, as I will. You can buy my four books too….or you can wait to hear which ones they recommend in Stockholm. The Swedish word for hello, by the way, is apparently Hallå, and I’ve already started to practice. Hallå….Hallå…Hallå…. If I do get that invitation someday, my efforts will seem prescient. Oh, and if you read my books now, instead of waiting until I astonish the Nobel crowd by delivering my acceptance speech in the native idiom, you will be able to say you were a fan before I even knew two words of Swedish.

Jacob M. Appel is the author of the novel The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up and the forthcoming short story collection Scouting for the Reaper. Jacob is a graduate of the MFA program in fiction at NYU. He teaches fiction at the Gotham Writers Workshop and practices medicine at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

former editor April 22, 2013 at 4:45 pm

I used to work for a literary magazine where I quickly learned Jacob Appel’s name. Why? Because he submitted a story that had many good qualities, but needed a few more revisions to be publishable. I wrote him a very nice letter, and he immediately submitted another story that wasn’t quite finished. Every time we rejected him, another half-finished story immediately appeared. He was not popular with us. A year later, he resubmitted the first story we’d rejected with no revisions at all. This is not good practice.

This is not an example I’d want for any of my students. This is exactly the sort of behavior I wish to discourage. Certainly perseverance is a huge part of being a writer, but a 999:1 rejection rate speaks to the fact that Mr. Appel doesn’t make sure his stories are worth reading before he sends them out.

I hope he’s become a better writer since I last read something by him, but I wish even more that he’d taken the time to write good stories to begin with. Certainly there is a model at play where if you just keep spamming every lit mag you can find, eventually you’ll get hits. Over time, people will recognize your name and read your work more graciously (or ungraciously, as the case may be), so you can rack up more hits.

But time is always the true test, and not only does a Nobel sound improbable, it’s even more improbable that anyone will want to read these half-finished stories as time goes on.

A better lesson is to write stories worth reading before you begin to submit. Then you’ll have a quality body of work that doesn’t stink of desperation.

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NotaHater May 14, 2013 at 10:49 am

I am certainly glad that this ‘FORMER editor’ is no longer the sole decision-maker for what is ‘good practice’. If all short story writers used this advice, I think we would have a severe shortage of wonderful literature and far fewer published writers. I understand that this individual prefers quality over quantity, as do we all, but if publishers don’t believe certain pieces to be good enough, than they’re encouraged to use their right to reject. This is the beauty of the selection process. I don’t believe it to be Dr. Appel’s responsibility to appease anyone or his/her magazine based on subjective opinions. You like it or you don’t.

I would rather someone continue churning out decent work and creativity before producing a masterpiece than waste valuable time and age toiling over one project that does not guarantee success.

Thank you ‘Editor/Professor’ for your valuable insight. You eloquently communicated my thoughts exactly. I simply wanted to address the stink of jealousy of the former editor.

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a hopeful April 22, 2013 at 10:20 pm

I believe the gist of Mr. Appel’s piece is more hope for the many, many untold thousands of us who pigheadedly attempt publication through the slush pile. I also worked as editor for a literary journal of esteem and repute, and I can’t count the number of times we ditched good writing – “stories worth reading” – in favor of names. I find this is true of nearly all literary journals; reputation trumps content. Such is the business of writing, the ugly, money-grubbing nastiness of the business, which, to me, “stinks of desperation.” Publishing a mediocre piece by a well-known author in order to move copies? Desperation. Relentlessly submitting even in the face of constant rejection? Optimism.

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Editor/Professor April 25, 2013 at 10:13 pm

This discussion addresses the fundamental struggle of the “career-artist.” I commend Dr. Appel and the commentators for engaging. I have served on literary editorial boards as well as new play development selection committees and I also teach writing to students of diverse demographics at both the undergraduate and graduate level.
As editor and educator of writing, what stimulates me most may be observing a writer’s process evolve over time. This highly subjective process changes constantly for writers who are “in it for the long haul.” Rarely does the perfect moment to submit a story present itself as an organic part of that process, and when it does, it certainly does not do so with any fanfare. In fact, many writers I know could edit their work forever and ever and ever and ever — even after the work has been published. (We all know stories of writers tinkering away at novels that have long since hit the bookstores.) In addition, many writers resort to remaining alone in the workspace with only the waxing and waning manuscript to keep them company. (– not unpleasant company, I might add, for the brooding, solitary types that writing often attracts.)
What a struggle… to engage in process that knows no boundaries while simultaneously offering work to the public — the latter prosaically “bound” by time and deadlines. Is it any wonder that so many wonderful writers — my students among them – rarely to never submit at all? Among those least likely to submit their work: women (apparently we can’t stand to reveal anything less that perfect to the world – always primping and preening and then deciding not to go to the party for we’ve simply nothing to wear! While men have little problem with this — they throw on their latest draft and go. Publishing mimics junior high school math or gym class, apparently. Funny thing since women seem to dominate the publishing field, but that is perhaps only heightens the junior high school analogy)
To counteract this tendency to imprison work in a lonely web of perfectionism, I teach the approach Appel describes here to inspire my students to “put their work out there.” There are days when I add: “ready or not” because life is short — shorter than editing, sometimes.
Then, I remind them of the subjectivity of editors and instructors –
oh yes — I include myself here. I can’t tell you how many times an editor or teacher or “expert” has given notes in a talk back session that, even couched in literary speak equal: “you know what would make this a better play/story? Make it about ME!” While a good editor or teacher may inspire a writer’s piece towards its destined evolution, ultimately only the writer will have his or her ear to the piece and know the truth of where it needs to go — where it needs to go not merely because that direction is esthetically convenient for a particular journal or assignment but because it is coming into its truth. We as editors and writing educators are charged with identifying and nurturing voices that must and will be heard. This strikes me as a humbling privilege rather than a tedious entitlement. Editors or educators who claim to know the ultimate best course of action for a story have, in their prideful identification with a particular journal or school, forgotten the subjective nature of their assessments. No institution, no matter how resonant within our little literary landscape, will or should ultimately determine a story’s – or for that matter a writer’s – creative path. Otherwise it becomes tempting to say (considering that the ranges and scope of Dr. Appel’s success and recognition has situated him squarely on the literary map) “I hope (anonymous) had become a better editor since then…”

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Francine Ringold November 11, 2013 at 4:07 pm

Dr. Appel, better known as David-the-Mighty (despite his size) to those of us who had the good fortune to meet him in Tulsa on October 19th 2013 at our Nimrod Awards ceremony, needs to update this article. His story “Paracosmos” was not only published in Nimrod, he went on to win the 2013 fiction award. Submissions numbered 600 or so, judged blind. Oh yes, he was a pain in the neck to the interns who checked in manuscripts: “Not him again!” they would scream! But perseverance AND A NEW AND BRILLIANTLY CRAFTED STORY does count. Moreover, David is a humble, very funny individual who charmed the audience of 500 both at the Awards Dinner and all-day writing workshop the following day. Please note that he is also a lawyer and guide to the NYC streets.

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