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, writer Geeta Kothari, author of the story collection I Brake for Moose, shares her answers.
What was the title and genre of your first-ever published piece? Give us some context: how old were you?
My first-ever published short story was “Her Mother’s Ashes.” I was thirty years old when it appeared in the Toronto South Asian Review.
How long had you been writing and submitting?
I’d been writing steadily for eight years, submitting my work for four years.
How many times had the piece been rejected?
The story was rejected 37 times before it found its home. My boyfriend was from Canada, and he’d brought back a copy of the journal for me. After the 37th rejection, I decided to change the title and plonk down some money for the postage to Canada.
Walk us through the moment when you found out.
I was living by myself in Pittsburgh in an apartment. I loved that apartment. It had old glass doorknobs, deep closets, and beige wall-to-wall carpeting. I had nothing else to do but work and write. I worked in the living room, and I often spread my printed pages out across the floor to rearrange them. When I opened the letter from TSAR, I was standing near my computer table. I’d rented the computer from the University bookstore to figure out if I’d really use one; few people owned their own computers, and it felt like a huge commitment for someone who wasn’t sure she was a writer. My boyfriend (who later became my husband) was there. We are not the kind of people to jump up and down with excitement, but he did give me a big hug.
Did getting that acceptance feel as triumphant as you'd always hoped?
It felt great. That journal was the perfect place for it, and the editors ended up publishing two anthologies under the same title as my story.
Are they still around?
The journal isn’t, and I think the book publisher has merged with someone else.
Are you still proud of that piece?
It was the first thing I wrote after getting out of graduate school, alone, with no workshop to tell me what was and wasn’t acceptable. Graduate school wasn’t a good experience for me, and to be able to write a story and publish it was enormously validating.
Have you re-read it recently?
When I was putting together my collection, I Brake for Moose, I considered leaving the story out because it was so old, When I reread it, though, I noticed it touched on all the themes that appear in my later writing. I wrote it many years before my mother died, but readers seem to think it was about her. So in a strange way, it sounds more fresh than it really is.
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?
Be choosy about your readers; graduate school doesn’t make you a writer; take a class now and then with a really good teacher; say no to things and people that undermine your self-confidence or eat up valuable writing time; follow your own path; the boost from publication is fleeting. Truly, publication is an external bar, but it’s the internal one that matters the most.
Geeta Kothari is the nonfiction editor of the Kenyon Review. She is a co-founder of the www.novelworkshop.org. Her writing has appeared in various anthologies and journals, including New England Review, Massachusetts Review, and others. Her essay "If You Are What You Eat, Then What Am I?" is widely taught in universities and has been reprinted in several anthologies, including in Best American Essays. She is the editor of "‘Did My Mama Like to Dance?’ and Other Stories about Mothers and Daughters.