Writers on Writing #37: Jacob M. Appel
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.