In My Big Little Break, we ask authors to talk about the first piece they ever had published, how it felt to finally break through, and what they’ve learned since then. This week, Michelle Ross shares her answers.
What was the title and genre of your first-ever published piece?
"If My Mother Was the Final Girl," a short story
Who published it? Are they still around?
Gulf Coast. yes. The story was the winner of their annual fiction contest.
Give us some context: how old were you? How long had you been writing and submitting? How many times had the piece been rejected? Anything else we're missing.
I was about 25. This was when I was an MFA student. I have a terrible memory, so I don't recall whether I'd sent much out before this, but this was certainly one of the first stories I submitted to journals if not the first. Given that this was a contest, with an entry fee, I don't think I'd sent the story to many other journals while it was at Gulf Coast.
Did getting that acceptance feel as triumphant as you'd always hoped? Walk us through the moment when you found out.
It was a crazy first-publication experience. I don't think I really imagined I stood much of a chance of winning. The prize was publication and $1000, which to this day is still the most I've ever been paid for a single story. And because I was a graduate student living on a smallish stipend, $1000 seemed like kind of a windfall.
Also, as I recall, I learned I was the winner via a physical letter arriving in my physical mailbox. I’m pretty sure that would never happen today.
Are you still proud of that piece? Have you re-read it recently?
I still love that story. It's the second story in my story collection, which was published almost fifteen years later.
Now that you've been doing this for a while, collecting plenty of rejections and acceptances along the way, what advice do you wish you could give your younger self?
I wish I had been more hip to the wider world of literary journals when I was just starting to send my work out. For a while there, pretty much the only journals on my radar were the journals that are most competitive. Nothing wrong with aiming to get your work into those places, but it’s limiting to submit to only those journals and can be quite discouraging to someone just starting out. I recall feeling like giving up on stories simply because they had been rejected by the so-called top tier journals. That’s ridiculous. Also, this kind of narrow focus ensures that your sense of what your contemporaries are writing is limited and your knowledge of what journals are publishing is limited. Of course, the literary scene has changed a lot since I first started sending my work out. At the time, there was a sense that online journals weren’t to be taken very seriously, that the work they published was sub-par. These days, most writers I know tend to prefer publishing their work online because they get more readers that way.
I wish I had been in less of a hurry, more patient. I sent stories out before they were ready. I sent my book out before it was ready. Maybe I didn’t always know they weren’t ready, but most of the time I think I did know. I think I just wasn’t really listening to that voice, hoping that I was wrong.
I wish I’d trusted my own instincts and process earlier on. That one’s tricky because more novice writers may have a lot to learn and so can’t really rely on their instincts all the time. But that said, I think I wasted time trying to put together a certain kind of story collection that wasn’t really true to who I am as a writer. And I endured a lot of frustration in thinking that my writing process wasn’t efficient enough. There are so many people out there dispensing advice about how to be a writer and that shit can make you crazy if you pay too much attention to it. There is no right way to be writer.
Bio: Michelle Ross is the author of the story collection, There's So Much They Haven't Told You (Moon City Press 2017), winner of the 2016 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in the Forge, New World Writing, Passages North, Threadcount, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review and a consulting editor for the 2018 Best Small Fictions anthology. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.