Sometimes, our choice of reading (or listening) material forces us down roads of memory that we never intended. Such was the case for me recently, and, like so many choices of a writer, this path resulted from rejection.
Before the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference began this past July (July 15-20 to be exact, and where I was lucky enough to be part of Robert Boswell’s Advanced Fiction Workshop), I’d received notification that Dani Shapiro would be the opening night keynote reader, and that she would hold a craft talk the following day. Over the past couple years I’ve seen Dani at various One-Story literary journal events in Brooklyn, but I’d never introduced myself. We are both supporters of One-Story and all their efforts to support literary fiction in the NYC area—and it doesn’t hurt that they throw great parties; yet I remained hesitant to say hello. That was because of rejection.
Two years ago, because my name was on the One-Story email list, I received notification of the Sirenland Literary Workshop, to be held in Positano, Italy during March 2010. Ron Carlson would be leading one workshop. And being one of my favorite writers, I sent in my application, along with my short story “The Main Line Maestro.” And then I began reading books by the other fiction workshop instructors: Dani Shapiro and Jim Shepard. Yes, I was excited.
The rejection email arrived a few weeks later.
This one stung more than your standard lit journal form note. I’d invested time into reading works by all the featured writers, Positano looked amazing, and my hope to learn something, anything, from Ron Carlson seemed derailed. But like any seasoned writer I shook off the disappointment and moved on. That’s when I saw an ad for the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference—with Ron Carlson on the list of instructors! I sent off another application, and this time sent my “No Problema” short story. Accepted, yes!
By now you might be wondering how all this relates to the title of this post…Bear with me.
It was at the annual One-Story gala that spring when Maribeth Batcha, One-Story’s co-founder and publisher, told me that Sirenland was (and is) Dani Shapiro’s own workshop conference—and—that she personally reads all application writing samples. Now, I’d recovered from her rejection (I thought), and I did have a secure spot in an upcoming Ron Carlson workshop, still, having read her novel, “Black & White,” I felt regret that I hadn’t submitted a different writing sample, one based more in New York, which I was certain would’ve better met Dani’s approval. And, of course, there was still a bit of lingering astonishment that she didn’t like my train story. Oh well.
This past winter, I received the Sirenland email again and noted that Ron Carlson was back on the schedule, along with Jim Shepard and Susan Orlean, writer of “The Orchid Thief” and her new book, “Rin Tin Tin.” Quite the lineup, but I passed. I’d already signed up for Taos, and soon would be accepted at the Yale Writers’ Conference, too.
At Taos, Dani’s reading was outstanding, as was her craft discussion, and I decided that, if nothing else, she might be amused by my story of Sirenland rejection. I saw her momentarily alone, scanning books on display at the conference center, and nervously approached.
Okay, she couldn’t have been nicer, and we talked about One-Story, her reading, and I finally told her my story. She didn’t hesitate to insist that I apply to Sirenland again and she hinted that this coming year’s lineup might be extraordinary. I felt like a fool for having avoided her at all the events where I’d let a simple rejection freeze my better instincts. I’m not sure if I will apply to Sirenland this year, but I feel certain that Dani Shapiro will remember me when I say hello at any upcoming events.
With Taos over, a tremendous experience by the way, I browsed through a local bookstore looking for an interesting audio book to hear while driving around during the summer. There sat Susan Orlean’s “Rin Tin Tin.” Before meeting Dani at Taos I might’ve skipped over this audio book, associating any Sirenland writer with my undeserved rejection, but instead, I grabbed it and thought about how wonderful it might be to study at a workshop some day with such a talented writer.
What I hadn’t expected, let alone remembered, was that one Herbert B. Leonard was a huge part of the Rin Tin Tin story. The opening chapter of Susan Orlean’s book detailed how important Bert would be to her story. A shudder went through me. I can say, without hesitation, that I would not be writing today had I not met Bert Leonard, one of the legendary characters of Hollywood, way back in 1987.
To be continued…