The worst advice I ever received about writing came from a very prolific National Book Award winner who was teaching a creative writing class I took as an undergrad. I don’t want to be unkind. Some people are teachers and some people took Dead Poets Society a little too seriously and that’s all I’ll say about that. She was a nice enough lady and a talented writer who’d hit it big with her first short story collection decades before. During the term, a classmate had a story accepted by the university’s literary journal. We were all happy for him, except for her. She told him, “If it isn’t in The New Yorker, nobody will read it, because nobody reads anything but The New Yorker.” Now, I could criticize her for pissing on my classmate’s parade, or generally being an ass, but that’s not what concerns me, at least to start with. Take into account that this was actually the most successful, most famous author I’ve ever studied under. We were all a little star-struck with her. Her word was sacrosanct. (She’s met Oprah.) So, now, each of us would only send work to The New Yorker. If it’s rejected from there, she later clarified, then send it to Atlantic or Harper’s and work your way down to the university journals.
This is awful advice for a couple reasons. The first is that The New Yorker isn’t going to take anything from a nobody. Statistically, this just doesn’t happen. In fact, the vast majority of creative work TNY publishes is by either name or up-and-coming writers, not undergrads in the midst of their first workshop. Furthermore – and I’m really trying not to hint too much about who I’m actually talking about, just in case anyone from the class reads this–but this was a pseudo-surreal story about a young boy who befriends a stolen statue of Jesus after his father dies (I’m probably making it sound precious, which it wasn’t). Have you ever read anything like that in TNY? Let me clarify: the story wasn’t about an immigrant or some outsider who didn’t fit in with a certain culture and preferred his/her own ways. There was no cooking in the story. It wasn’t even set in a city, much less New York. It might sound like I’m being flippant, but the vast majority of stories I’ve ever read in TNY included one or all of these elements, so clearly, they like these things. Sending a story to them that doesn’t include these elements, therefore, would be a waste of time for everyone involved.
See, I’ve actually read TNY. This is called researching a market. Sending work to a market you aren’t familiar with wastes everyone’s time–yours and the editors of that market. So this fairly famous writer/instructor just taught us all to be lazy and to piss people off (and it does, believe me, as a writer who’s done this and as an editor it’s been done to. It pissed them off, and sometimes, they remember). Going back to what I said earlier–perhaps you think “Hey, maybe the reason TNY hasn’t published any pseudo-surreal stories . . . is because no one is sending them any! When they see mine, they’ll think, ‘Thank God it’s not another story about cooking! Publish that shit, stat!’” But this isn’t how it works in the real world. They like what they publish. That’s why they publish it. (I’m being kind, here.) So better advice to my classmate would’ve been to research his markets, see that TNY wasn’t a good one for this particular piece, and move on, probably to one of those university journals the famous writer saw as a last resort.
This brings me to another reason why “send it to TNY!” was terrible advice: imagine going through the steps she’s laid out. The young writer (who was probably given an A, just like I was, pretty much for showing up and therefore has no real basis for judging his own work, but I digress) sends his work to TNY. They reject it (and rightfully so, since he didn’t research his market!). Then he sends it to Atlantic, Harper’s, etc. They all reject it, even Atlantic, which, at the time, had a reputation for publishing unknowns (but how many? One per year? Out of how many submissions?). Thoroughly dejected, our intrepid hero somehow perseveres and sends his work out to a university journal, and by God one of them takes it! How does he feel? Completely disheartened. I wouldn’t be surprised if he quit sending out work before he even got to this point, because this success has now been turned into a failure, by our esteemed famous writer/instructor.
The thing is, he’s right back where he started. The piece belonged in this university journal. It was a genuinely interesting, well-written, somewhat groundbreaking piece, i.e. not the kind of stuff glossy magazines publish.
But maybe she wanted to squash him, you might be thinking, so he would feel dejected and give up. (Maybe that sounds crazy, but it happens in writing programs a lot.) Well this is a strange way of doing that. Because she implied that he could place the story in TNY. She didn’t say, “TNY is all anybody reads, so give it up because you’ll never be good enough for them and your face is ugly and smells like bacon fat.” She said “Send it to TNY.” So now he feels entitled to be published by TNY without paying his dues by publishing in crap journals and working his way up, like the rest of us. I’m sure this wasn’t her intention, but it’s what she did.
Better advice, to be perfectly honest, probably would’ve been, “Don’t send work out just yet, because you’re a baby! And that shit will be embarrassing in five years!” But maybe that’s just me. It was a good story, though. I still remember it after all these years. I doubt I could tell you the plot of anything I wrote for that class.
CL Bledsoe is the author of the young adult novel Sunlight; three poetry collections, _____(Want/Need), Anthem, and Leap Year; and a short story collection called Naming the Animals. A poetry chapbook, Goodbye to Noise, is available online at www.righthandpointing.com/bledsoe. Another, The Man Who Killed Himself in My Bathroom, is available at here. His story, “Leaving the Garden,” was selected as a Notable Story of 2008 for story South‘s Million Writer’s Award. His story “The Scream” was selected as a Notable Story of 2011. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize 5 times. He blogs at Murder Your Darlings. Bledsoe has written reviews for The Hollins Critic, The Arkansas Review, American Book Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Pedestal Magazine, and elsewhere. Bledsoe lives with his wife and daughter in Maryland.