Writers talk about the first hurdle -- getting published
Boston — Your friends enjoy your letters and keep encouraging you to do some ''serious'' writing. They don't know about all the stories you've written and rewritten and tucked away in your bureau drawer.
Maybe some newspaper or magazine would be interested in your work. But where would you start? And what if you were rejected?
''Everyone tells me you've just got to be tough-skinned and send your stories out,'' says Hilda Dooley, an as-yet-unpublished writer. ''So that's what I'm doing.''
Mrs. Dooley read some of her work at a recent gathering of new writers sponsored by P.E.N., an international association of poets, playwrights, essayists, editors, and novelists. At the urging of several editors and publishers who heard her that evening, she has now mailed one short story to a national magazine for consideration. ''I retyped it and checked for corrections, and I'm still nervous,'' she says; ''but at least it's done.''
Like many beginning writers, Mrs. Dooley is probably her own harshest critic. She won't let even her husband read her work until it's published.
But those who have heard her autobiographical reminiscences in some of the creative writing courses she's taken over the past few years are impressed with her natural ability.
''She's a very scrappy woman and a very gifted writer,'' says Anne Bernays, an author, who is one of Mrs. Dooley's teachers. ''I remember her reading part of a story in our class, and all the other students in the room were in hysterics. It was so good and so real, and you thought, 'This is a wonderful writer.' I certainly think she's ready to be published.''
To hear Mrs. Dooley tell her own story is to be charmed by her British-born wit and American-bred forthrightness.
''I didn't set out to become a writer,'' she says of her decision to enroll in some evening courses several years ago. ''All I wanted was a college degree.''
''First I had to take some compulsory composition courses, though, and I soon found out that I wasn't very good at taking apart other people's stories,'' she recalls. ''I remember telling my instructor that I couldn't discuss Stephen Crane's 'The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky' from a Freudian point of view because when Crane wrote that story, Freud wasn't in vogue. So the teacher suggested that I write about my own experiences instead. And I found that I rather enjoyed that.''
Since then, Mrs. Dooley has quit her secretarial job and gone back to college full time, majoring in English with a minor in creative writing. With each new writing class has come practical help and encouragement - and plenty of criticism, too.
''The teachers are usually diplomatic,'' she explains, ''but I've had to weather some pretty harsh things from other students. It's good, when it's over, because it's prepared you for the pink (rejection) slips that can come later.''
In one class, a teacher urged Mrs. Dooley to keep a journal of favorite remembrances and gradually to transform these experiences into fiction. ''I started writing about things I remembered at home, from my childhood. After a while I found I was writing in a fiction style. I was writing it out as conversation, rather than an essay, because it seemed more natural.''
Today Mrs. Dooley says she plunges into ''all sorts'' of novels. ''I've come to realize that if you're going to write, you've got to see styles of life that you don't live yourself,'' she says.
Although Mrs. Dooley's No. 1 concern these days is passing algebra (so she can graduate in June), she plans to concentrate on getting published just as soon as she has her degree firmly in hand. She is already reading through small regional magazines, looking for a market for her short stories. ''Before anyone will say to you, 'Would you like to write a novel?,' you really have to have been published somewhere,'' she explains.
Sven Birkerts, another new writer who read his work at the recent P.E.N. meeting, says he's glad to have finally cleared the publication hurdle after 10 years of ''fairly serious, full-time'' writing. Several of his essays now have been published in the New Boston Review, and a long interview with Russian poet Joseph Brodsky ) was recently accepted by The Paris Review.
Mr. Birkerts says he knew he wanted to be a writer ever since he and some high school chums seceded from their school newspaper staff and began to publish an alternative paper for students.
After graduating from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Birkerts worked for a time in a rare-books store near home, then moved to Maine for several years, where he supported his writing by working at odd jobs. He now has a part-time job at a bookstore that allows him to spend his mornings at home writing and his afternoons at work, poring over newly published novels, collections of short stories and poetry, and book reviews.
''In the critical reviews I write, I try to look at the career of some writer , living or dead, who I think is very good and undeservedly neglected,'' he explains.
''I do them when the mood strikes me, and send them out. They usually come back . . . and then after a while they end up in my drawer. Sometimes you don't get any response, and you have to pester the publishers to give you a verdict. And sometimes you get nice rejections - you know, editors will write and say, 'Well, this was an 'almost.' ''
But only half of Sven Birkerts's writing is critical reviews. The rest of his time he devotes to short stories, often taking a week to get one sentence just right. ''With me, it's the first sentence that I wait for, and the rest follows.''
A number of people -- a high school friend who's now an English teacher and aspiring novelist, a fellow bookstore employee, and his girlfriend -- read his work regularly and offer the kind of criticism he says he needs. ''They either correct the excesses . . . or they get excited about the work. If they get excited, that's a tremendous encouragement to . . . keep working. It's the moral encouragement you really need.''
Birkerts keeps posted on annual short story competitions through friends or through reading the Literary Market Place. He says he submits a story to the Massachusetts Arts Council fiction competition each year, and he recently entered the Chicago-based Nelson Algren short story contest. ''It's good when you have a very set deadline to work from,'' he notes. ''I try to keep track of some of the important competitions, and I don't ever let myself hand in the same manuscripts. Every year I have to have something new to say.
''Sometimes it's sort of a discouraging field to be in when you realize that the business is under so much financial strain, that very few first novels are being published. But all the tiny advances you make help. Every time you publish an article or something, it sort of helps.''