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, editor, publisher, and Barrelhouse nemesis Aaron Burch answers.
What was the title and genre of your first-ever published piece?
“My Beautiful Son, ” fiction. To be honest, I had to Google it to remind myself the title. I’m pretty bad at titles, and that one’s pretty bad, pretty forgettable. A part of me seems to remember landing on that title because I couldn’t think of one and “Beautiful Son” is a Hole song, but… I don’t know. It’s been so long. I probably realized that connection (or, possibly even more likely, had someone point it out to me) later and remembering it at inspiration may be revisionist history.
Who published it? Are they still around?
Eyeshot. No. Although, unlike some web journals that have also passed, the archives are still there. (Also, like the above Googling to confirm title, I had to doublecheck to see if Eyeshot was still going or not. Seems like, for the last handful of years, Lee Klein went through a few phases of bringing it back, leaving it be, bringing it back different, killing it off, etc.
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. Did getting that acceptance feel as triumphant as you'd always hoped? Walk us through the moment when you found out.
I was… 24. I’d been writing and submitting for not that long. I’d started Hobart about a year before, and my connection to writing and online literary community, etc., was much more via that than my own writing. I think, somewhere around in here, I’d found this message board that had started as a kind of Dave Eggers fan thread but, by the time I found it, it was “online” writers and editors. At the time, Lee Klein was kind of known for writing these overlong, sometimes mean, oftentimes essays in and of themselves, rejection letters. (Which he occasionally collected into posts on the site, and which then turned into a really great book put out by Barrelhouse!) I’m not sure if I wrote the story in part to try to get a good rejection out of him or specifically submitted to Eyeshot for such but I remember kinda preparing for a “Lee Klein” rejection and being surprised when it was instead accepted. Actually, what I remember was Lee replying right away—same day or maybe a day later?, as he often did—but noncommittally. Saying something about how he liked it but also thought it might be too precious and he wasn’t sure what to do with it. I feel like I remember him saying that he never had that response and that he was going to sit with it a day or two but he just wanted to reply right away anyway. And then a day or two later, he accepted it.
Are you still proud of that piece?
I am, yeah. But… proud of it as a first published story, not as representative of me now.
Have you re-read it recently?
I read it a couple of years or so ago. I was playing with collecting some poems and old short-shorts into a chapbook or something, was curious if putting these newer poems and older flash fictions together might fit. I was like “My Beautiful Son” is really good, other old story this and that are still good, I should put those out there. I reread them and changed my mind.
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 don’t think anything. Something about how much rejection to expect, but I think I knew that at the time. I’d maybe urge myself to try to keep up that work ethic of what I was still a little younger and hungrier, to try to be better about building habits.
Aaron Burch is the Founding Editor of Hobart, and the author of the criticism-turned-memoir (?) Stephen King's The Body and the story collection Backswing.