At semi-regular intervals, she spoke to save her life, or something like it.
Sunday, June 09, 2002
Just woke from a strange stress dream about a note from Andrew Tonkovitch. So weird. I mean, I haven't thought about him in maybe a year. I dreamt I got this little memo from him in the mail, and it was actually written on one of those officious little "while you were away" notes, but it also looked like a prescription, which is more accurate to his last correspondence with me. But in the dream I couldn't make out the hand writing, and I was reading it to M. and it mentioned hiding behind Judith's signature (our old teacher) and that I must not want Die Cast Garden to be very well known.
It's funny, a few years ago he became the editor of the Santa Monica Review. While Lee Montgomery was editor they published me in this amazing anthology called Absolute Disaster-- actually the same book that launched Aimee Bender's career. Lee liked my work, and Andrew did, too. Or so I thought. Once when he saw me read at Beyond Baroque he said something about me being a "genius." So anyway, as soon as he becomes editor, I actually had some poems at the journal in submission limbo already. He sends them back saying he's decided not to publish poetry anymore, because he knows nothing about poetry. First warning sign. But he asks me for fiction, and I assume he's read my fiction in SMR before, and must like it. At the same time I was starting this reading group on Bloomsday to get through Ulyssess, since I was going to Dublin that fall and wanted to get through all of Joyce that I could before the trip to Ireland. So I invited him and he said something to the effect that he would rather die. This I didn't understand. Being a fiction editor and not wanting to read Joyce: OK, maybe slightly understandable. But being vehemently, proudly against it-- warning sign #2. So anyway, I send him this story which I think is one of my best and he rejects it, asking for another. OK, I have others, in fact I had one I had finished which I thought was really a breakthrough story, and may actually be the best I'd written. I send it and soon after I get this two page rejection letter from him where he basically makes an ass of himself, saying he doesn't know what these stories have to do with narrative, and they are sloppy and he's reluctant to ask for more. Nice. I mean, the story previously in the SMR anthology was much less linear, much less "realist" than what I sent him. I kind of feel like he never read my story his magazine had published before, because he would have known my stories are not linear (that's the only way I can read his definition of "narrative", because to me, narrative is anthing with a beginning and an end). A letter like that burns bridges, which is not a good idea in this business. He still sends me two copies of the SMR every time they come out. Like I want to read them after that. I mean, if they still published poetry, I might consider reading it, maybe. It's kind of like Ozzy Osbourne said (can't believe I'm quoting him!) in Decline of Western Civlization 2, you have to be nice to people on the way up, because you meet them on the way down, too. Of course, in the literary world, especiallly for us poets, the ups and downs are more like bumps in a long, long road. This sick kind of Faustian ambition belongs solely to fiction writers who think somewhere, somehow in their deepest, darkest shameful dreams, they will be an Oprah pick.
Speaking of Oprah pick, A few months after got the rejection from Andrew, I got a ten page letter from Alice Sebold, who had made an appearance on Oprah to discuss surviving her rape. When I would dish to her about writing workshops and conferences, etc. she'd always want names and under the pressure I sometimes couldn't come up with them. In a very Freudian way, I would just blank out while talking to her. She kept insisting I "didn't play this game very well" and if you are supposed to play by her rules then it's true, I just don't. And if these are the rules of the game-- that you select your friends based on some hollow definition of "success," then I really don't want to play. In the ten page letter she was telling me that my novel she just finished reading was abusive to the reader, basically, and that I needed to brush up on fiction techniques a la John Gardener. She took out quotes from my novel and afterward said things like "Do you actually expect people to keep reading after you write something like this?" After reading half of her letter, I actually didn't finish the whole thing. She kept punctuating her rant with things like "I am not an asshole." and "I just want to give you a good read." I asked M to read it in case there was something good at the end. There wasn't. I told him I just wanted to throw it away (why did I feel obligated to keep it?) and he said, yeah-- throw it away.
And of course she ended our brief but intense friendship in a silent fucked up way. I emailed her months later, politely asking for a reason why she was not even speaking to me, and that we were bound to see each other walking downt the street (we live a mile apart), or at a party here or there (I've since avoided any party she might attend, actually) and couldn't we at least talk a little, so when we do see each other it might be a mildly happy occasion rather than dreadfully awkward? And she emailed me back, basically saying something like now that she and Glen had made it, it was too painful to see me struggle, because I reminded her too much of herself when she was a failure. Nice. And she can't be friends with someone whose writing she doesn't like. Very Nice.
Even though this was two years ago, can you tell it's still traumatized me?
I haven't sent out my fiction since then. Can you believe it? I really need to get back on the horse. But to be honest, that was such a double whammy, I sort of gave up hope altogether of anyone really reading my fiction and liking it enough to publish it. I've kept writing, though-- but the whole business aspect, sending it out, finding sympathetic editors, or, harder-- interesting journals-- it just doesn't seem worth it.
One thing I've learned though, in the short time I've been an editor myself at DSR and DCG, is you can't really afford to alienate writers, and must always be as generous as you can while still being honest. Anything more than "no, thank you" is just ego-motivated, and, frankly, useless to the writer. I mean, it's important to have this humility in front of our aesthetic choices. That doesn't mean you'll take anything, or be bullied, but if you don't think it's right for your journal, etc. it might be right for someone else's, and that's just fine. I mean, in my editing work I've seen lots of insanely bad stuff, and you just want to say to the writer, "why not take up knitting instead?" but you don't-- that's not really your job as an editor. I feel like Alice & Andrew treated me like one of those mediocrities, and if there's one thing I am not, it's one of them.
There was one occasion for the recent issue of DCG where I tried to suggest revisions for a peice and the writer kind of flew off the handle & was pissed. I should have known, because he was already dictating to me where I should put this piece and what images should go with it, etc as soon as he submitted it. Total control freak. And his piece was vaguely sexist & homophobic, and I was really stressed about taking it, because the author was a friend of one of the other editors. I was so relieved when I actually regected it, but even though he was a complete asshole to me in his emails, making fun of the editing suggestions I'd made and saying how he was really unhappy about everything, I managed to reject him politely. I never, ever want to work with him again, but it's a kharmic thing, you know? The minute you do something like Alice & Andrew did to me, you create this evil worm thing that's going to come back some time and bite you in the ass. The ironic thing is I truly believe they think they've already been bitten, and like some sadistic coach, they'd patronized me, saying see this ugly thing that's bitten me in the ass? Well now it's time for it to bite you. God, I hope I am never that way. To anyone-- even if they deserve it.