The Best American Short Stories 2016 came out last week. One of those best American short stories is mine.
When I first got out of college, I used to buy the annual BASS anthology every fall. I’d read every story closely, as if they contained the secret to greatness, and if I learned that secret, I could be a great writer, too. I took notes. I marked those books up. After I read each story, I’d immediately read the author’s bio and the accompanying short essay in the back, about the story’s inspiration and process. Some stories took years to write. Years? I’d think. I don’t have years to spend on a story!
Fast forward two decades. My story in BASS, like my novel, ended up taking years to write. Years, years, years, years, years, years. Although I wrote the first draft of the story in less than a week in 2010, I revised it, on and off, for four years after that. What I didn’t mention in my short essay was that the story had been rejected more than 25 times before it was finally published in the literary journal which made it eligible for consideration in BASS. I didn’t mention that I was that close to throwing the story out forever. Or how I had workshopped it in my MFA program and my professor said it was all wrong, and the story should be written completely over, told from the point of view of a character who was not even in there. I didn’t agree. Yet every time I revised and resubmitted, I’d always remember his words and I would doubt myself. Huge, enormous gobs of doubt.
How can you trust your own mind? that doubt said. What makes you think you know what you’re doing?
I’ve reached a point in my life that I never actually believed would happen. I’m 40 years old. I’m a bonafide adult grown-up. I have a story in the same anthology I once considered a template on how to write. I never thought that I would have this writing career, this surprise success, my community and my relationships. For so long, having any one those things seemed impossible.
But despite this—or because of this—there’s a part of me that is still afraid.
That I have no right to be writing or publishing.
That I am a fraud.
That I won’t be able to write and finish and publish another novel—not only was this my lucky break, it was my only break.
That people will realize I don’t belong here: in this anthology, on those bookshelves.
These voices are so old, telling me I’m not enough. I know their origins and their reasons and why they linger. I even know what to do with them and how to fight them, or listen to them.
In a way, rejection is easy for me—25 rejections for one story? Why not 26?—because I’ve been so accustomed to it. But what about acceptance?
My copy of Best American Short Stories arrived at my artist’s residency in New Mexico yesterday, more than a week after the book’s publication date, forwarded from my apartment in New York.
I tore the envelope open and the first thing I felt was trepidation. Fear of embarrassment. (What if the story sucks? Maybe I had forgotten.)
There was my name on the back cover as one of the contributors.
Yet I couldn’t bring myself to open the book. Instead I put it down, put on my shoes, and went out for a walk. (You wouldn’t believe how gorgeous the skies are here in New Mexico, and the mountains…)
I came back, made a cup of tea, washed the dishes, checked my email, sent out a text, wiped down the kitchen counters. I sat down again.
I opened the book. And I saw my name there—in the table of contents, my short essay, my story. My name, my story. I closed my eyes and opened them again, and there it was. Still there. Really there. Then, I started to read.