My Big Little Break: J. Robert Lennon on His First Publication

In My Big Little Break, we ask authors to talk about the first piece they ever had published, how it felt to finally break through, and what they’ve learned since then. This week, J. Robert Lennon, author of the recent Graywolf book Broken River, shares his answers. 


What was the title and genre of your first-ever published piece? Who published it? Are they still around?

The earliest one I can find is a short story called “Zamboni Dreams,” in Distant Place Quarterly, which is indeed a going concern. However, my bio in that issue says that I have a story in Agitations. So, I guess there was an earlier one? Agitations was a short-lived magazine out of Lost Creek, Wyoming. Also, all these proper names are made up, because I don’t want anyone to read these stories ever again.

Give us some context: how old were you? How long had you been writing and submitting? How many times had the piece been rejected? Anything else we're missing.

24, probably? I started writing seriously in college and began sending things out as soon as I graduated. I submitted to various places in the year after college, then kept at it into and through grad school. I was relentless and probably a little obnoxious about it, to be honest. I had a big chart on my bedroom door, a grid, with the names of like thirty magazines on one axis and my twenty or so stories on the other, and I just X’ed out each combo as it failed. I had address stamps, preprinted labels, the whole nine yards.

Did getting that acceptance feel as triumphant as you'd always hoped? Walk us through the moment when you found out.

It was 25 years ago, so I don’t remember at all. But I am sure I was very excited. I probably found an opportunity to mention it to literally everyone in my program several times.

Are you still proud of that piece? Have you re-read it recently?

Jesus, no. 

Now that you've been doing this for a while, collecting plenty of rejections and acceptances along the way, what advice do you wish you could give your younger self?

Do what you did, but don’t be a dick about it! And don’t worry so much. Failed writing really is useful—it’s not just pacifying bullshit.


J. Robert Lennon is the author of two story collections, Pieces For The Left Hand and See You in Paradise, and eight novels, including Mailman, Familiar, and Broken River. He teaches writing at Cornell University.