The Big Rush, or What I Learned from Sending a Story Out Too Soon
By Julie Wu
I stood outside Columbia’s main gate at 116th and Broadway with Professor K. It was evening, after his fiction workshop, and he smoked as always, squinting and throwing his cigarette butts after the receding tail lights of roaring buses and yellow cabs. He was, to me, the quintessential, old-fashioned writer–a Raymond Carver contemporary who had drunk and smoked away the decades, who lived by himself and told stories about his lady friend, a former escort. Sometimes we went, with or without a bunch of my classmates, to a café to schmooze, but I was in a rush to study for an exam. It was 1996, toward the end of my final semester of medical school–the only semester in which I’d been able to take a writing course.
“You should get published as soon as possible,” Professor K said in his ravaged voice. “Because then, when you see your name in print, you’ll feel obligated to write more. Now, as for the story of yours that’s most ready to go out as is—” He punched the air with his cigarette, and named one of my stories.
I moved to Boston for my medical residency. Between shifts, I researched literary magazines and sent out that story. Of course, Professor K and the rest of the class had given me critiques. Several people complained that the story’s ending—the protagonist’s final choice, wasn’t convincing. I changed a sentence here or there, and thought that should be enough. I liked my story and the man had said, “as is,” so I sent it out.
I got one rejection slip after another. Some of them had handwritten comments: Sorry. The story made it through several rounds, but . . . Sorry. We felt it missed a bit of this, a bit of that. Please keep us in mind for your next piece. Sorry.
During Professor K’s workshop I had dreamed up the stories whole. I had sat on my bed in the dark and drawn up the characters until I could see them there in my memory, hear their voices, know their fears. I knew I couldn’t write a word until they were real to me. I couldn’t rush to pin them down or they would dissolve into meaningless words, people with checklists for personalities. If I needed to look at notes to remember them and their struggles, how memorable would these characters be to someone else?
But once I had printed that story out, it fossilized in my mind. I didn’t want to mess with the images I had created, and so I revised it without reimagining it. After it was rejected, I continued, sporadically, blindly pushing words around. I changed the ending back and forth. The protagonist chose A. No, B. No, A. B. I sent it out, and again it was politely, but definitively, rejected. Again the handwritten notes told me I was close, but missing something. I started sending out my other stories, too, the ones Professor K had said weren’t ready. Not suprisingly, they were rejected, too.
I abandoned short stories and wrote a novel. Maybe short stories weren’t my thing. In a book, I had more elbow room.
It was in the process of writing and rewriting the book over many years that I learned something: when I revise, I have to put down my pen and shut down my computer. I have to sit in the quiet again and re-imagine the story, thinking it through until it feels real. I learned something else: a good ending doesn’t start at the end of the story. It starts at the beginning. The ending must be surprising, but inevitable. If the ending doesn’t make sense, tweaking the last page won’t fix it. It’s the setup that needs fixing, and in a short story, the setup is the story. I needed to revise my old story from the very beginning.
I finally sold a story in 2010, fourteen years after my workshop with Professor K, and it was not the story he had thought was ready. As soon as possible turned out to be, in my case, not very soon at all. But I’m glad my old story wasn’t published “as is,” because it simply didn’t make any sense. Now I believe I can write it properly. I can shut down my computer and dream, breaking the story down from the beginning and reassembling it by the light of experience on and off the page. I’ll write when the story feels real. I won’t rush. And when I send it out, this time it will be the best it can be.
Julie Wu’s novel, The Third Son, won a short-listing in the 2009 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Novel-in-Progress Competition and will be published by Algonquin Books in Spring, 2013. Her short fiction has won honorable mention in the 2010 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Contest and has been published in Columbia Magazine. Also a physician, she has published creative nonfiction in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). She earned a B.A. in Literature from Harvard and spent a year studying opera performance at Indiana University in Bloomington, many lifetimes ago. Her website is http://www.juliewuauthor.com/