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, writer Tara Campbell, author of the novel Treevolution and Barrelhouse Assistant Editor (yay for the home team!) shares her answers.
What was the title and genre of your first-ever published piece?
My first published fiction was a story called "The Great Purge," in which a fat cell chronicles her last days in an abdomen before fleeing impending liposuction. I'm fudging a bit on this question, though: a post I wrote for the Potomac Review blog about a Salman Rushdie lecture appeared two months before the short story. But I figure enough has been written about Salman Rushdie already. Not nearly enough has been written about the diaries of fat cells, so here we are.
Who published it? Are they still around?
The little fat cell found an online home at Hogglepot Journal. They stopped taking submissions a few years ago, but the archives are still up. And no, I didn't break them.
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.
Well, depending on the way you count it, my first story was published either six months, or thirty-odd years and six months, after I started writing. I loved to write stories and poems as a kid, but when I graduated from high school I decided I had to get practical, meaning college, then grad school, then job. I didn't write again until my husband and I took a course at the Writer's Center in spring 2012, as something new to do together. We were both pretty green, and that turned out working in our favor in a way, because we didn't self-censor. We both got acceptances within about six months of starting to write. "Purge" got accepted on the fourth try, and just a couple of months after I'd started submitting overall, so it was kind of one of those "first one's free" situations. Now the rejections come in vast waves of failure like for most people.
Did getting that acceptance feel as triumphant as you'd always hoped? Walk us through the moment when you found out.
I have to admit it was a bit of a relief. I'd submitted this story to a different magazine, and my husband had submitted a story to the same market at the same time. They accepted his story, but rejected mine--and here I, the "real" writer with my humanities background, was supposed to be introducing him, the engineer newbie, to the whole creative writing thing. So I felt a little embarrassed until two weeks later, when Hogglepot took "Purge." And after looking more closely at the first market, we both saw why his story was a better fit for it. It was a lesson in the importance of finding the right place for your work.
Are you still proud of that piece? Have you re-read it recently?
I have looked at it, and sure, there places I could tighten if I had it to do again. But it's nice to know that there are markets out there for something that wacky. When I start to wonder where some of my ideas are going to lead, I think that if the fat cell diary found a home, then any other silliness I come up with has a chance too.
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 think it's more a matter of giving my current self advice from my younger self: don't self-reject, just submit. Yes, get to know the markets better than I did back then, but don't take yourself out of contention before you even start. And yes, challenge yourself with new genres and ways of storytelling, but don't think you have to be more "serious" to write something worthwhile. That's a surefire way to stifle creativity and stop writing altogether.
Weirdos of the world, remember, there's a place for us too!
Tara Campbell [www.taracampbell.com] is a Washington, DC-based writer, assistant fiction editor at Barrelhouse, and volunteer with children's literacy organization 826DC. Prior publication credits include Barrelhouse, Booth, SmokeLong Quarterly, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The Establishment, Masters Review, and Queen Mob's Teahouse, among others. Her debut novel, TreeVolution, was released in November 2016, and her collection, Circe's Bicycle, with be published in fall 2017.