What I Learned at The Missouri Review

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Today’s Blog Post comes from Michael Piafsky. 

I began working at The Missouri Review before I became a doctoral candidate at Mizzou.  And I began reading for The Missouri Review before I joined The Missouri Review.  It was June, and I had moved to Columbia a few weeks earlier.  I was bored of unpacking and had exchanged a few tentative emails with someone a year ahead of me in the program, in which he mentioned that the next day there would be the first meeting of the summer semester at The Review at 2:00.  I could come if I wanted to.  I did want to, so I showed up at 10:00.

Very quickly I learned that you are ALWAYS welcome to read slush, even if you haven’t enrolled in the university yet and even if no one knows who you are.

I also learned that reading slush is loads better than unloading the last of your dishes.

After that, I spent exactly five years at The Review, and I never stopped learning. I learned more about writing at The Review than I did in workshops.  After all, it’s one thing to know abstractly that your story needs to earn its keep immediately and doesn’t have three pages to allot to “generating the mood” and “doing foundational work” or the various other rationalizations for paragraphs we haven’t reconciled killing yet.  It’s quite another to watch that learning play out as you churn through the slush pile.  On my best days at The Review, when the Editors’ Prize was in high gear, I’d come in at 8 and leave at 3, and probably pass initial judgment over a hundred stories.  If that type of experience doesn’t hammer home the importance of a killer first page, nothing will.

I learned how incredible it was to find a great story in the slush pile and think about how I was the first person at The Review to read it.  We all read slush, whether we were editors or readers, and being first reader on a published story was something we celebrated at The Review.  It was a badge of honor, and it came with its own measure of street cred (if you’ll allow that calling it street cred requires a certain talent with linguistic elasticity). I can remember reading a story on a Saturday and thinking all weekend about how I was going to pitch it in the staff meetings —who I was going to pass it to and how I was going to make my case.  I can remember falling in love with one story so completely that I wanted to email the author just to let her know that I was going to fight for it and not to give it away to another journal before I had my chance.

I learned that most meetings are better with cake.

I learned that you never get bored of reading new fiction, and you get much better at talking about it.  My first few months were a study in bimodal distribution; I either hated or loved every story with fierce intensity. That sensation ever entirely goes away; even a half-decade in, the great stories still generated an incredible emotional response, and the ones that just missed would generate enormous frustration as I’d turn to the last page and realize this was a relationship that wasn’t quite going to work out.

But I also learned how to marshal my forces, how to pitch a story in a meeting and how to save my bullets.  In the beginning, after three consecutive weeks of hearing me tout story after story as “amazing!”, people started tuning me out.  Meanwhile, my more tempered colleagues could, with a slight gesture of enthusiasm, work senior staff into a froth.

I learned how many people put more creativity into gussying themselves up in their cover letters than they did on their stories.

I learned that a creative cover letter, like a creative dialogue tag, is far more likely to do harm than good.

I learned how a great story introduces itself to you so perfectly that the cover letter becomes nothing more than contact info to tell the writer the great news.

I learned just how gratifying it was to track down our contest winner in Scotland to tell her that she’d won our Editor’s Prize.  We’d first called her parents’ home in the States and worried about the time change.  “Forget it,” her father assured us. “She’ll want to take this call.”

I learned what a strange double life it was to have my stories in slush piles across the country as I hoped for a sympathetic read, while I stared into The Review’s slush pile and willed my overworked self to sympathy in return.

I learned that it’s not as sweet to be integral in accepting someone else’s work for publication as it would be to have one of your stories accepted elsewhere, but that you sound like a better person if you pretend that it is.

I learned just how important the tech people were when the online contest submission site went down the night before the deadline.  I also learned that our server was in Israel, though, I never learned why.

One of the perks of my job at TMR was that I got to go to the Associate Writing Programs conference.  Since then I have learned that this is actually a punishment and a rather heinous one at that.

So, at AWP I learned just how frail we are as writers as I’d watch people steel themselves to approach our table to make tentative contact, thank us for a kind rejection, or berate us for our poor judgment in turning them away.

I also learned that people at AWP will always demand the most recent copy as their freebie.  Despite how there has been no great technological advance in the short story field since Flaubert.

I also learned that people will look furtive while stuffing copies of the magazine into their bag, and that no assurance you can give will mitigate this expression.

Also at AWP, I learned just how respected Speer Morgan and The Missouri Review are nationwide.  You learn this when the person who’s been peering over your shoulder for someone more important to talk to starts paying attention after learning you work at The Missouri Review.

I learned that Evelyn Somers is something of a national treasure when, year after year, grateful passersby would tell me how this woman had single-handedly saved their prose and how much they had learned just from watching her fix their sentences.

I also learned how easy it was to approach famous people to solicit them for interviews when you had the weight of The Review behind you.  Most of these people, it turned out, were quite glad to talk about their work.

I also learned that my best interview was one wherein the subject was not the least bit glad to talk to me.  This was something Gay Talese could have taught me had I known who he was at the time.

Then I learned that the absolute best way to prepare myself for competency as a creative nonfiction reader was to read every Best American ever published.  This introduced me to Gay Talese.  This was also a good way to learn just how far from competent I was as a creative nonfiction writer.

I learned how quickly a gimmick runs thin in a short story — no matter what the gimmick is.  And I learned how a story that can be described adequately by its gimmick will elicit a sort of facial gesture from experienced readers.  It’s the face of someone who knows that story will not find itself in our magazine, and that any good story cannot be described adequately at all and certainly not by its gimmick (unless the gimmick is a second-person novel about the Tarot deck.)  Then every word of it is sheer brilliance.

What I didn’t learn until after was just how special The Review was, and how lucky I was to be a part of it.  How the editors entrusted both undergraduates and graduate students with autonomy and responsibility and how all of us were encouraged to run with our ideas with confidence that we had the complete support of the letterhead staff to make The Review better.

And what I didn’t learn until later was how rare a gift that was.

Michael_Piafsky_cropMichael Piafsky is an associate professor and the director of creative writing at Spring Hill College in Alabama. The Montreal native earned an MA in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University and a PhD from the University of Missouri. A former editor of the Missouri Review, Piafsky has published fiction and nonfiction in journals such as Meridian, Epic, and Bar Stories, among others, and an excerpt from All the Happiness You Deserve, his first novel, was published by the Jabberwock Review and nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Watch Michael Piafsky read from All the Happiness You Deserve at the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance’s Parapalooza: http://bit.ly/1aJTyQy

Visit the author’s website: www.michaelpiafsky.com