There is maybe nothing harder or more thankless than being an aspiring writer, unless it is being an aspiring writer who is having trouble holding down the job at which he or she has to thanklessly toil in order to preserve those precious hours during which he or she is eking out the stories that no one in the world seems to like or even read. Because then one returns home from the job where one is steadily sinking down the chain of command only to find a huge pile of letters containing oneís stories accompanied by little index cards saying things like, "Though the timeless literary merit of your work is uncontested, we are sending it back to you, along with this little card, on which each of our editors has scrupulously avoided leaving any trace of his or her identity, lest you should try to contact us again," or "We are most grateful to have had the chance to peruse your latest submissions and we cringe before you in our inability to accommodate you with our extremely limited space, which is not to imply that you are worthless or anything, it is just that you are not worth all that much to us, at present. But gosh, keep writing!"
So it was for me about ten years ago the day before, I had been chewed out by my boss for "using corporate resources to generate your literary thingies" when I took a call from someone our secretary identified on a Post-It as being from "Courterly West," and the message was, "we'd like to talk about publishing your priest, Downtrappen Murray?"
Many would have been confused by this message, but I was used to this secretary, who would soon leave us for a stint in the county jail for check fraud, who left messages like "Some dude? A real ass? Said Kodak is either pissed at you or really glad, I was on my way to lunch, did not really get his deal." But in this case I could read between the lines, or at least I hoped I could: someone from Quarterly West wanted to publish my piece, "Downtrodden Mary's Failed Campaign of Terror."
There followed several hours of tortuous phone tag, during which I neglected my duties even more than usual which, considering how neglectful I was on even my best day, was really an accomplishment. Then finally, on the corporate phone in the corporate conference room where I had spent so many purgatorial hours taking notes at "kickoff meetings" for the "project team" of which I was always the most ignored and extraneous member heard those amazing words of acceptance I had been waiting many years to hear, which translated, roughly, to my ear, as: You are not a piece of crap after all, possibly.
The literary magazine in America does awesome and vital work: in a culture dedicated to sweeping any trace of virtue up into the smokestack of big media, the literary magazine makes a home for the Good but Offbeat. Or the Wonderful, Present in Nascent Form. Not to mention the Wild But Undisciplined. Or, most importantly: That Which is Coming From Somewhere Previously Underrepresented. In short, it allows for those products of our culture that have not put on the garb of the mainstream but are nevertheless vital. So as the garb of the mainstream becomes dumber and tighter and more dedicated to serving the status quo, the literary magazine protects the democracy, by protecting diversity. It does so by listening, and listening well, to the odd and unknown voices that come through its doors, which most often arrive without agents or industry contacts or lengthy impressive vitas. There are many truths, and a democracy had better hear them all, whereas our democracy, more and more, seems dedicated to hearing the same two or three over and over, especially if these two or three help the powers that be to move product. But a good literary magazine and Quarterly West is one of our best has no agenda but joyfulness and, as such, is a hedge against stupidity and boneheadedness.
Publication in Quarterly West was a huge and defining moment for me because it meant that, to somebody out there, I was making sense. I was not making sense to my boss, or to the co-worker who came in every day at precisely 5 p.m., when I was trying to get in my half hour of writing before the bus came, to tell me, again and again, in agonizing detail, the life story of Louis L'Amour, and I was starting to not even make sense to myself. And then, from Utah, a place where I had once been back when I did make sense to myself a hitchhiking young moron a` la Kerouac came this reassuring and sane voice, speaking to me as if I had not only made sense, but a unique kind of sense, the kind of sense they were looking for, a kind of sense they hadn't heard before but liked.
Did I take the rest of the day off? Did I tell my boss off and walk through the corporate parking lot barefoot shouting "Song of Myself" at the top of my lungs? Not exactly. I still had kids and a mortgage and was still a corporate nobody with extremely limited prospects, still was considered too odd to send to client meetings, still had to pretend to be interested while my boss requested that I put more "flow" into his proposals. Probably I just went back to work proofreading "Results of Subsurface Soil Sampling at Former Alleged Coal Tar Site Adjacent to Abandoned Military Complex," maybe. But the thing is, I went back with renewed vigor. Maybe I was a writer after all, maybe I would finish a book someday, maybe I would not forever be known merely as the go-to guy when you needed a corporate-sanctioned cover for your Quality Assurance Project Plan.
The thing was, I had gone deep into my mind
to get the story, and someone out in the world got it, which meant that
I wasn't a crank, wasn't insane, was, in fact, in a small way, a Success.
So thank you Quarterly West, and congratulations I hope you're around
for many more years, and bring that feeling to many more writers.
-- George Saunders
| ©2002 Quarterly West
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Salt Lake City, Utah 84112-9109
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