The urge to write is what got me into writing fiction, or trying to write fiction. And by “urge” I mean a feeling that I want to write. This was what motivated me and what continues to motivate me. I don’t think this is unusual—the urge to write. A lot of people have it. But of course those numbers diminish considerably when it comes to picking up a pen or sitting down at a keyboard.
It wasn’t until well into middle age, forty-five years old, that I sat down at a keyboard with the intent of writing fiction. Of course in college (community college and then university) I wrote papers (essays and book reports) like everyone else. But that’s different than composing fiction with the intent of submitting to publications. Of course all writing counts. I’m not belittling college. I’m simply distinguishing between college papers, with the exception of creative writing classes, and fiction for publication. I think anyone who has done both understands the distinction.
Also, in college I majored in U.S. History, which is now call American Studies. So my only background and my only qualification for writing fiction was, and is, reading books, fiction mostly. But there, too, I got a late start, for I didn’t begin to read until I was in my last semester of high school (Industrial Arts major). I could hardly read. This might strike some people as strange. But it’s not strange. A lot of people coming out of high school are poor readers.
An odd set of circumstances prompted me to pick up a book. I was dating a girl from another high school, which made our dating possible because we were of very different social circles, for if we had been going to the same school we wouldn’t have gotten together. But by going to different schools neither one of us, her in particular, suffered any social embarrassment, for high school life is all about cliques. She was a half a year ahead of me, which meant she would be graduating in June, whereas I wouldn’t be graduating until the following year at the end of January.
When summer rolled around, the summer of her graduation, university life about to begin for her in September, she jilted me, which, even though I expected it, sent me into a mental tailspin. Strangely, on the afternoon of that devastating phone call I started driving and wound up in front of a bookstore. She had mentioned the titles of books during our time together and I, for whatever reason, had remembered two—The Stranger by Albert Camus and Another Country by James Baldwin. Still dizzy with confusion, I went into that bookstore and asked for those two books.
What a way to begin reading, not to mention having to look up words on nearly every page. Fortunately, as if it were a minor miracle, I was able to follow the stories, and a window flew open and there I was, looking out at a new world.
- “I carried a dictionary and a novel everywhere I went”
I carried a dictionary and a novel everywhere I went for eight years, and when loading up a backpack every bit of weight counts. I’m still a poor speller. I still consult a dictionary often for spelling and definitions and word usage. I wouldn’t recommend getting a late start on reading, just as I wouldn’t recommend getting a late start on serious writing. Six years after I started writing and submitting, a small literary journal (Words of Wisdom, North Carolina, a publication that has since ceased publishing) accepted one of my stories.
Six years—that’s a lot of rejection. And I still get a lot of rejection. My writing is not consistent, and I don’t think it ever will be, just as I will never be a good speller nor will my vocabulary have the natural range that it might have had if I had started reading at an early age. Okay, so that’s the way it is. A lot of other people have it worse. Imagine trying to write in Aleppo, Syria.
Writing will probably never be more than a hobby for me, and by hobby I mean an activity that doesn’t generate enough money for me to live on. I wish there was another word besides “hobby.” “Pastime” maybe? But that’s even more nonchalant than hobby. If I were teaching at a college or university, I could say that publishing stories, while getting little in the way of remuneration, was worthwhile because it adds to my curriculum vitae (CV), which might serve to boost my position and income. But I don’t teach at a college or a university.
In addition to not making millions there is rejection, which is always painful. In dealing with rejection, stoicism would be a nice rejoinder. After all, rejection is part of the weather. Even the most renowned writers have had work rejected, primarily before they became famous. There are only two choices when faced with rejection: feel the pain and move on, or feel the pain and give up. This isn’t about heroics. This is pragmatism. Most stories that are submitted to a publication are going to be turned down.
I’m hardly different from anyone else. I like acceptance. I write, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, and submit. Rejection, rejection, rejection. After six months or so, another look, another rewrite. Revising has become fun. I don’t know why. Maybe because it presents an opportunity to play with words and sentences, as well as ideas and point of view. I do give up on stories, but I keep them on file. Now and then an idea will occur that pertains to a story I’ve given up on. I’ll draw the story up and try the idea. And then I’ll submit. Hey, all they can do is turn it down. Now and then one of those formerly dead stories will get accepted.
Also in the hash are different publications with different editors who have different tastes. Usually a rejection carries no real comment, perfunctory comments yes, but no real comments. Every once in a while, though, there is a genuine comment. Some are encouraging. But some . . . On a couple of occasions an editor has given me a totally pissed off lambasting, boredom and tedious detail cited. I guess they had had it up to their necks with that stuff, dull writing and details, and took it out on me. Or maybe they had a hangover, or maybe they couldn’t meet a mortgage payment, or maybe they were in the middle of a divorce. Yet, within that same week that same story (respective stories, but at different times) got accepted by a publication which I had deemed more reputable than the one(s) the tongue-lashing(s) came from. Highs and lows—the landscape.
“Highs and lows—the landscape.”
At other times, I had given up on a story only to have it accepted after a whole lot of time by the last publication where the story was still (as it turned out) under consideration. Recently a story of mine was accepted and published by a university journal after the story went through two years of rejection and rewrites—forty-seven rejections. Why did I keep at that story? Because I believed in it. Giving up on a story or continuing with rewrites and submissions is a tricky thing, a case-by-case thing. But—I keep all my stories on file.
Favorite authors—here’s the link to my listing on Poets & Writers where I’ve listed my favorite writers: http://www.pw.org/content/michael_onofrey
About books concerning reading and writing—I return again and again to How Fiction Works by James Wood and Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (P.S.) by Francine Prose.
MICHAEL ONOFREY was born and raised in Los Angeles. Currently he lives in Japan. Over seventy of his short stories have been published in literary journals and magazines, in print and online, in such places as Cottonwood, The Evansville Review, Natural Bridge, Snowy Egret, Terrain.org, Weber–The Contemporary West, and The William and Mary Review. Among anthologized work, his stories have appeared in Creativity & Constraint (Wising Up Press, 2014), In New Light (Northern Initiative for Social Action, 2013), Road to Nowhere and Other New Stories from the Southwest (University of New Mexico Press, 2013), and Imagination & Place: An Anthology (Imagination & Place Press, 2009). He can be found online at Directory of Writers, Poets and Writers, and on Facebook.