Don’t Talk To Me About the Flapping of A Butterfly’s Wings
Today’s blog post is written by TMR contributor Jeffrey Condran
There are many ways to define “success” as a writer. Writing teachers always focus on craft, and I think they’re right. What really is better than the satisfaction of knowing you got it right—the true dialogue, the description that operates on multiple levels, the existential moment well rendered as all the pieces of the writerly puzzle are drawn, nearly perfectly, to their center of gravity? Truly, these are the reasons to write and to keep writing. And yet, there’s always this other moment when you “have written,” when the craft of writing is temporarily put to bed and you have to think of yourself as a writer in the world, a person who must find readers for this book you’ve made. It’s a daunting moment.
The story of finding my way in the literary world is intimately connected to The Missouri Review. In 2009, my story, “Praha” was accepted for publication. It was a wonderful experience to work with the fiction editor, Evelyn Somers. I think every fiction writer has an editor fantasy. This idea that there’s a person out there who loves your work, and because they get it, are in a position to make it better. This, for me, was Evelyn. It felt, for the first time as a writer, that I was in it together with someone. Sometimes her questions were line item things: Is Beton (a Czech drink of Becharovka and tonic) a proper noun? Sometimes it was a deeper question. Would the character say this just here? What if he never said it at all? What might that silence mean? In any case, this editorial process made a story I was already excited about into something special. I’ll be forever grateful.
The fact that it was beautifully published almost goes without saying. The images that accompanied the text and the quotes they pulled out to give special attention to were perfect. I could have died with happiness right then.
And yet, there was more. The TMR publication was like magic. Suddenly, like wind created from the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, the literary doors blew open: The Blue Earth Review, The Red Rock Review, Pinyon, and then The Kenyon Review, and Epoch. I’m joking a little bit. How does one gauge the influence of a strong publication? It is impossible to know.
However, when Steve Yarbrough selected “Praha” for TMR’s William Peden Prize, I was stupefied. TMR’s best story for 2009? What does that mean? For a little while it meant that I’d visit Columbia, MO, give a reading, and be interviewed by the local NPR affiliate. It meant, for a day at least, that I’d be wined and dined like a literary celebrity. Picked up at the airport, put up in a hotel, and entertained like something that I’d written or said actually mattered to somebody who didn’t already love me anyway. To drink martinis with Speer Morgan and Kris Somerville and Michael Nye—it was a wonderful night.
But how did it happen? If you ask Steve Yarbrough, who was the judge for the Peden Prize, he’d probably say that here was good writing. However, it can’t be denied that there’s a lot of good writing out there. What did he see? Why at that moment, did he see it? The idiosyncrasy of the moment is undeniable. A connection was made. Yarbrough was a reader with an interest in Central Europe. He’s a realist writer and “Praha” was a realist fiction. Call it whatever you wish. Serendipity. Fate. Luck. Okay. Sign me up.
What I can tell you is that the Peden Prize helped me get into the Sewanee Writer’s conference, and in three days in July 2012, upon arriving at the conference, I had a story accepted for publication, Press 53 agreed to publish my story collection, A Fingerprint Repeated, and I found an agent: the Georges Borchardt Agency. Within another six months, my novel Prague Summer had been accepted for publication by Counterpoint, and, frankly, nearly all of my literary dreams come true.
The truth is that I’m living a completely literary life these days. I’m writing, I’m teaching, and I’m publishing books as the co-founder of Braddock Avenue Books. Under these many hats, I often speak to young writers—most recently at the Yale Writer’s Conference—writers who want to know how to make their way in the literary world. Mostly I fall back on the truest thing I know—craft. But what I really want to say, what I should say and often do, is publish a story in The Missouri Review.
Jeffrey Condran is the author of the story collection, A Fingerprint Repeated. His debut novel, Prague Summer, will be published by Counterpoint in August 2014. His fiction has appeared in journals such as The Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review, and Epoch, and has been awarded the 2010 William Peden Prize and Pushcart Prize nominations. He is an Assistant Professor of English at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and the Co-founder of Braddock Avenue Books.