I’m working on polishing up a story I wrote more than 30 years ago. It was my submission story for Clarion. (Back then, you only needed to write one.) I workshopped it for years afterward, trying to get it right. I submitted it and got wonderful rejection slips. Gordon Linzner, then editing Space & Time, said it had “powerful images and good characterization.” Even so, it never found a home and I eventually abandoned it.
Now that I’ve fished it out and taken another look at it, the story is nearly ready to submit as it is. Thirty years later, I don’t remember why I gave up on it, but it won’t take much work to get it up to my current standards, applying everything I’ve learned in the last 30 years.
One of the things in the story’s folder is a critique from Thomas Disch, one of my Clarion instructors. It opens with, “You seem ‘heavy’ into urban desolation and the ‘cool’ of street life. Your competition is Ellison. Do you do it better than he does?”
Reading it now, 30 years later, the remark is still crushing. Now, though, I’m mature enough to think, “Of course I wasn’t in competition with Ellison. He was Harlan fucking Ellison. I was a 22-year-old from Flint, Michigan, which was in the midst of the Crack Epidemic after General Motors gutted the town. I saw the devastation firsthand and extrapolated from it, but in no way would anyone ever believe that there was only room for one writer of desolate apocalyptic science fiction or expect a young unpublished writer to unseat its master.”
I’m not sure what Disch intended by the comment. It’s hard to read it as encouragement: “Can you do it better than he does?” “Will you do it better than he does?” or “Strive to do it as well as he does.” I don’t know if Disch was challenging me to outdo Ellison at his own game. I still don’t feel up to that.
Disch continued on to criticize (justly) the way I’d structured the story and the fact that I focused on the story’s witness, not its hero. Of all my Clarion instructors, he was the most helpful when it came to think about how to overhaul the story. He just made it unnecessarily difficult to see past his opening salvo to the help he offered.
In contrast, John Kessel focused on the melodramatics in the story. It was certainly overdramatic — and having that pointed out to me did help. Either Kessel didn’t write me an overview or else I didn’t keep it. My notes on his in-class critique are “some of the writing is quite good, but the explanations are improbable.”
Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm, the program’s final teachers, read both the submission draft and the first revision. They dialed in on the story’s language, editing it as if it was a finished piece. It wasn’t, but I did learn a lot about what they liked in the revision and what they’d preferred in the original.
After Clarion, I worked my way through the creative writing staff at the University of Michigan. My favorite of those critiques is by Tish Ezekiel, who said, “This is interesting — and horrid. I don’t really know where you might send this, but you ought to send it out.”
In all, I submitted the story to eleven magazines before I gave up on it. Five of those gave me comments or personal encouragement. I can’t remember now why I shelved it. But because I’m a packrat and I’ve kept practically everything, I’m going to apply those lessons from long ago to make this the best story it can be.
Then I’m going to ritually burn Tom Disch’s critique.