The Story Behind the Story
I was a University of Montana student. I was a senior. I was depressed.
On the day I decided not to skip Debra Earling’s creative writing class, a friend texted the prompt for the story due in an hour: childhood tragedy. I put Tom Petty’s “Swingin'” on repeat, pictured the Arizona desert, and Go Down Swinging spilled across my screen. I checked the clock. I rushed to the end. I wrote an apology at the top and explained I’d slow down in the rewrite. I handed it over to Debra after walking in late. It was utter garbage. I was ashamed.
The day was March 16, 2010.
Two days later, Debra walked through the door of our small classroom holding a stack of stories. She stood before us and read, “you wake up in that roadside motel.” My heart jolted; my stomach went sour. She was reading my story. Aloud. In its entirety. I felt small and red-faced in my plastic chair. This is it, I thought. My garbage story is the new classic example of what happens when you rush.
No one stirred when she reached page three. It’s too shocking, I thought. Way too dark. It’s also too short, unfinished. I’m in trouble.
I was terrified.
Everyone asked, “who wrote that?”
The cutest guy in the room looked at me when Debra revealed that I had written it. “Damn, Kathleen. Where have you been?”
Everyone sat in awe that I had written such a story. I sat in shock at my unexpected success.
Debra, filled with pride and excitement, invited me and two peers to stay after class for a private workshop. If we had time.
Of course we had time. I’d skip another class if I had to.
Later, when discussing my rewrite with Debra in her office, I finally admitted I had written a fine story. I finally recognized it was not garbage, but I still felt shame.
For three years, I had judged my peers, free of high school censorship, who wrote stories filled with nudity, booze, and foul language. To me, it was added as a novelty, not necessity. It was disgusting, like unwelcome graffiti on a wall you can’t avoid. I was determined to gain attention and respect without it. Suddenly, I had the same kind of story. It wasn’t explicit, but indeed nudity and booze were present.
When Debra pointed out that the mere mention of sin does not promote it, I relaxed a bit. She was right. God uses the safe stories as well as the stories that refuse to flinch at ugliness. She encouraged me to pursue publication. I tried a few regional contests and received rejection emails.
For fear of failure; at times, a lack of funding; and, more commonly, the busyness of life, I did not submit Go Down Swinging as often as I might have. But really, any reason is a mere excuse.
Last summer, in the throes of self-doubt, my stepdad challenged me to submit to three publications by the end of the year. Now, if I was to submit three different pieces to three different places, I do not recall. In the eleventh hour, I was ready to submit only one story to three literary magazines. I awaited my rejection emails, which, by now, are a small badge of honor.
They are proof someone is reading your work, proof you’re trying.
My favorite rejection email of all time is from The Whitefish Review, a literary magazine just up the road from my second hometown. I had submitted a story called The Lookout the year Zach and I married. It’s the tale of a Bob Marshall fire lookout; if anyone would accept such a story it would be The Whitefish Review.
The story fell short, but my rejection email came with a special note. I had made it to the top ten percent of considerations for the Montana Prize for Fiction. It bolstered my courage, but The Lookout fell by the wayside along with Go Down Swinging.
Still, for all the years of discouragement, I knew deep down these stories would live lives beyond my computer screen.
One evening this spring, I glanced at my email account and saw The Whitefish Review had contacted me. (If you’re related to me, or have ever emailed me, you know it’s a miracle I even checked my email that evening.) Here’s that third rejection email, I thought. Glimmer Train and Nowhere Magazine had already sent theirs.
I had to read it three times.
No, I had not won the Montana Prize for Fiction.
Yes, I had another special note.
I was runner-up!
It was a no-cash situation, but it was publication, which was the dream. I was on cloud nine; Go Down Swinging had found a home.
The day was March 12, 2019. Four days short of Go Down Swinging’s ninth birthday.
If you’re related to me, or a friend of mine, who’s had to listen to all my talk of dreams and fears and all the rest, thank you. And thank you for not only listening, but pushing me. Mom, Dad, Michael, and Zach: you always know just what to say, even if I buck-up against the honest truth the first five-hundred times you say it. Mick, thanks for the challenge. I needed another push!
It’s like Rick Bass said, “writing contests are a crapshoot.” It’s all subjective and, to me, it’s all God’s timing. So, thank you, Whitefish Review, for choosing me this time, and thank you God that, though it took nine years, my story was published. And perhaps for such a time as this. What a gift!
And thank you, Debra. I did it for you. And for Robert. You two kept believing in my stories even when my own belief wavered.