2006-03-30 - 10:50 a.m.
This is kind of an experiment. I took the entry about trying to get published and turned it into this little thing. I'm not sure about the tone of it. I don't usually try funny, but I did here. At the least, it's a draft I can come back to.
In news not about me, I sneezed ten times in the span of two minutes yesterday morning. That's about me, actually. There's this: I've been at my office desk for two hours and ten minutes and I haven't contributed to this company's gross net revenue in any way. I've drank some of its coffee, though.
How to Get Your Personal Essay Published
1. Go ahead and write the essay. Start with “I” and see what happens. Popular topics for writing about yourself include Authority Figures Who Harmed Me, When I Was Bummed Out, or When I Was Bummed Out Because An Authority Figure Harmed Me. But, really, any topic is fine. Something I’ve Been Thinking About A Lot Lately, for example, is good because you’re bound to have something to say about it, whatever it is. Another surefire topic is A Girl I Once Cared About. Try to avoid writing about girls on whom you only had crushes, however, as when it comes to personal essays, actual sex is best.
2. Print copies. Since you want to reach as many editors as possible, really go for it. Print, like, sixty. Blanket the market. Unless you’re actually a writer, because then you can’t afford that kind of paper. In that case, just one is fine until you get that check from your mom you’ve been waiting on. Run down to the mailbox real fast. It may have come today.
3. Staple the essay. Keep in mind that some places want only paper clips. A few don’t want anything at all: no staples, no paper clips, nothing. These are the journals that, as a rejection letter, have been known to circle a misspelled word on page four, for example, of a twelve-page essay, and send this one sheet back to you as a rejection, with nothing else in your self-addressed stamped envelope. This misspelled word may be, say, “camouflaged,” and it may have been just one word out of 8,000 very difficult words to write because it’s about your grandfather’s funeral on a cold and rainy October afternoon, but underneath it all an essay about how you feel guilty for not spending more time with him while he was alive. But these places that have such a distaste for staples are also the ones that pay you something when they take your work, so don’t do anything to upset them or in any way get yourself on their dark, mysterious side from whence you won’t emerge. Still, it’d be nice if they were just like everybody else and didn’t mind the staples. Hemingway probably stapled his stories, and other than the ending in Idaho, he did all right. Plus, that essay about your grandfather is really one of the best things you’ve ever written and it eventually got published in a good journal, so they can circle that in green felt marker if they want to.
4. Pick a place. Unless you’re already a big deal, they’re not going to come looking for you. Since you’ve taken that office job with its pristine, humming computer and its fast internet connection, you should make the most of it and so after you’ve got your coffee tomorrow morning, go hunting for a mailing address. Pick a place that accepts “unsolicited manuscripts.” If necessary, go to Merriam-Webster’s website and look up the word “unsolicited.” While you’re on the internet, fight the urge to put the little headphones in your ears so that you can spend an hour looking at funny videos. Also, stay away from the online news sites because it’s endlessly fascinating to read about bad guys in power who are facing scandal. Or, go ahead and watch the videos and read the news since you can always send your essay out tomorrow. After an hour or so, drive your little pickup to an abandoned parking lot for a nap. Ball up a pair of jeans for a pillow. Stop by the coffee shop on the way back to the office. Think about how good that nap was. When you get home for the day, watch the director’s commentary track from your favorite movie. Think about your writing and how good, how funny and moving and revealing of humanity it will be when it’s done. Turn in for the night.
5. Write a cover letter. Italicize the names of the places you’ve been published. That feels good. If you haven’t been published, talk about your graduate work and which writers and scholars taught you what you know. If you’re light on formal education, tell them about your influences, such as Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, or Joan Didion’s short memoirs so pure they scare you or Brian Doyle’s stuff about tiny, magical moments, or about Tobias Wolff’s time in Vietnam that made you burn because even though you’ve never been in the army, you’ve also had girlfriends and asshole bosses and you’d like to take a crack at truth, too. If you’re not a big reader, talk about baseball. Lots of writers seem to like baseball. But stay away from football. Football’s too fast and exciting.
6. Print the cover letter. But before you sign it, put “Blood on the Tracks” on the stereo. Sign the cover letter with the kind of love and passion that you feel every time you stay up late reading your favorite passage from The Sun Also Rises, for example, or think about the time you went for weeks listening exclusively to “Hey Jude” in the car because it made you excited to be a breathing human being with thousands of possible futures ahead of you. An editor can feel all of this. Really get into it. Lean on the pen. Cross the fuck out of that “t” in your first name.
7. Go ahead and print your own address on the return envelope and stamp it because you’ve just now finished reading the Ian McEwan novel and, man, that guy’s made of the bones of the earth and the clearest winter sky, and so it turns out the editor will need to send you a rejection slip after all. Open up the essay on your computer and run the spell check again, just to be sure you aren’t disqualified on a technicality.
8. You may as well send it off, now that you’ve gone to all this trouble. With haste now, without thinking it over too much, slide everything into the big manila mailing envelope. Fffft, it goes. Affix postage and address the envelope. Do this really fast, as if you couldn’t care less if the editor at, say, New Letters or The Washington Post Magazine can read it or not. Even better: write it left-handed. Spill some coffee on it. Seal the envelope. Use a combination of saliva, simple tape, and dreams.
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9. Walk to the box down the street. Notice your neighbors’ faces when they see you carrying at your side, like a book, that envelope. Take note of their puzzlement as they try to figure out what it is you’ve got in there, their wonder as they try to understand just what it is that you’ve got all figured out. Revel in it. Because you, yourself, have indeed got something in that envelope, that slim, brown package as crisp as the pop in your step. Walk with purpose and with your nose turned toward the sky. When you get to the box, take a breath, a deep one that’s got room for the lilacs if it’s spring or the first snow of the season if it’s winter or the smell of your grandfather’s plaid hunting coat if he’s just left you forever. With your left hand, open the door to the blue mailbox. With your right, insert a cracked, shining piece of yourself.
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