LitMag: The first publication is a special moment for all fiction writers. Tell us what you did in the 72 hours after you got that first acceptance.
JSW: After about fifteen to twenty minutes of open-mouthed staring, I took screenshots of the email and of the “Accepted” tab on Submittable and proceeded to forward them to everyone I’d ever met in my entire life. Then I blasted Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” and had myself a solo dance party! Everything after that is a euphoric blur. My very sweet, very proud mother ordered a cake; friends and former professors offered I-told-you-so’s; I used the “I’m getting published!” excuse to treat myself to far too much (no regrets). And my best friend, Tatyana Sundeyeva and I had a frantic, all-caps, day-long text message exchange during which we symbolically rubbed this acceptance in the faces of all my rejections and planned a celebratory dinner of gloriously fat burgers. She’s also a writer so not only has she read every draft of “Reprise” and almost everything I’ve ever written, but she also has a unique understanding of just how big a deal this was for me. I’ve been writing and calling myself a writer since I first learned that books didn’t just materialize out of thin air, that someone had to write them. Getting that first acceptance felt amazing, vindicating – proof from outside myself that I was right to think I’m good at this.
LitMag: We noticed that you were trying to chronicle your tribulations as you collected rejections prior to your first acceptance. Tell us — or rather all of those yet to be published writers out there — what you did to keep going, and what if anything has changed since your publication of “Reprise” in LitMag Online.
JSW: Honestly, the act of chronicling my rejections was itself a huge help in keeping me motivated. I did this both publicly on social media, and privately using a giant excel spreadsheet. I know that the latter seems particularly counter-productive – a document covered in the word “Declined” in bold red letters sounds like every writer’s recipe for depression. But I tend to take a “tough love” stance toward myself, and having that spreadsheet was a way for me to hold myself accountable to my goals. More importantly, it gave me tangible proof that I was trying. Talking about my rejections on social media platforms like Twitter, where I am most active, achieved those things too, while also giving me a space to validate both the sting that would come with a rejection, as well as the joy that would come when I got close to an acceptance. There is a big, vibrant, supportive community of writers on Twitter, and being a part of it makes transparency about the ups and downs of the publishing process very easy and very therapeutic. I’m big on being as open and transparent about publishing as possible because I feel there’s a lot of unnecessary mystery surrounding even little things like where to submit, how to format a manuscript, the reasons behind rejections, how many rejections is a “normal” amount to receive (any amount – seriously, any amount; I have a short story floating around right now that I whole-heartedly believe in that’s been rejected 39 times at the point of writing this, and I have no intention of ever giving up on it) – and it’s a disservice both to publishing and to emerging writers. So I like to be shameless and authentic about it all – on the publications page of my website you’ll find the exact number of rejections “Reprise” received before LitMag gave it a home, and I intend to do the same for future publications. I guess the short of it is: Treat every rejection like a badge of honor; you’re earning your first pub.
As for what’s changed since the publication of “Reprise”: my confidence. I feel a satisfying combination of validation and experience-strengthened optimism that I can achieve this again. To be clear, I’ll always be a little bit insecure (I think all writers at every level will always be a bit insecure, and I believe it keeps us hungry), but I can shut that voice up more easily now. And it doesn’t hurt that I now have a response whenever someone says, “Oh, you’re a writer – where have you been published?”
LitMag: What are you working on now? What’s going well? What has been hardest with this project?
JSW: I’m slowly but steadfastly compiling short stories for what I hope will be my future collection. Some of these are stories that I’ve already written that just need a bit of tweaking and fine-tuning, but the majority are new and as yet unwritten. The good news is, the ideas are coming. This year, for some reason, the floodgates have been blasted off and I have an abundance of things to say. The challenge is getting it all down on paper and to a point where it feels complete. I’m not a “notes and timelines and character sketches” kind of writer; I guess doing all that makes me feel too rigidly committed to how I think the story should go, and I’d rather give the story room to have its say. I’m a, “jump off the cliff and worry about the landing when I land” writer – which means right now I have a lot of first lines, last lines, homeless paragraphs, and stories that are barely skeletal. But I’m not worried – the rest of it always comes. I trust my process and I have a bit of a penchant for controlled chaos anyway.
Tatyana and I are also putting the finishing touches on what we hope is the final draft of our co-authored novel, as well as planning a few writing-adjacent projects. But I won’t say much about those for the time being – we like a bit of mystery.
LitMag: Aside from LitMag, what have you been reading? What’s on your list to read next?
JSW: I’ve been revisiting my favorite short story collections: Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help, Peter Orner’s Esther Stories, and Hannah Tinti’s Animal Crackers to name a few. Now that I’m actively constructing one of my own, I find I’m reading these collections in a different way – I’m being especially attentive to how these writers have built and maintained a cohesive rhythm from story to story, and how the ordering of each piece contributes to the collection’s overall emotional arc. Mary Gaitskill’s Because They Wanted To is next to me right now and I’ll be diving into that for the first time momentarily. After this short story binge (or perhaps in between it, who knows), I’ll be immersing myself in Westerns. I read Ron Hansen’s new novel about Billy the Kid recently and I’ve been itching to reread The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford for the fifth or sixth time.