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, Andrew Ervin, author of “Bit By Bit: How Video Games Transformed our World,” shares his answers.
What was the title and genre of your first-ever published piece? Give us some context: how old were you?
The first thing I ever published was a review of a cassette by a Hungarian jazz singer for an English-language newspaper in Budapest. The editor changed everything I wrote, but it had my name on it and I got paid 2,000 Forints, which was worth about $20. That was in December 1994. I was twenty-three years old and had been in Budapest for six weeks. The first fiction I published came many years later in a short-lived literary magazine that was named night rally, after an Elvis Costello song.
How long had you been writing and submitting?
Starting when I arrived in Budapest and continuing after I moved back to the States in the spring of 1999, I attempted to publish a story called “Diz Lives” that I had written in my one and only undergraduate creative writing class during the fall of 1993. For years I sent it out and it got rejected. I sent it out again. I got rejected again. Then it got rejected some more. And again and again. I kept at it, though, and kept working it. Contrary to the tangible evidence appearing in my mailbox, seven years after the initial draft, I continued to believe in that story.
How many times had the piece been rejected?
“Diz Lives” had been rejected by twenty-four magazines by the time I went to the Borders in Philadelphia to hear Michael Chabon read from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. That had to be the fall of 2000. While waiting in line to get my book signed, I spotted the first issue of night rally. I didn’t know J. Robert Lennon’s work at the time, but he was in it. I mailed the editor my story along with a self-addressed stamped envelope.
Walk us through the moment when you found out.
My wife and I lived on the ground floor of a house in the Manayunk neighborhood of Philadelphia, where we shared an AOL account. A few weeks after that Chabon event, I got an email from the editor telling me she wanted to publish the story. More than anything else, I remember reading the email a few times to make sure it said what I thought and hoped it did.
Did getting that acceptance feel as triumphant as you'd always hoped?
What I remember most clearly is the sense of relief. The best thing about that acceptance was that I didn’t need to keep working on “Diz Lives” any longer. It was out of my hands. That remains true of everything I’ve published since then. The best thing about publishing something is getting to forget about it and focus on new projects.
The part that felt extraordinary, though, was when my two contributor copies arrived in the mail. That was the exciting part. The story appeared alongside some posthumous work by Andy Kaufman, who remains one of my creative idols. In an entirely indirect and random way, Chabon helped jumpstart my life as fiction writer, so I have to thank him one day.
Are they still around?
No—they didn’t last long. There might have been a third issue, but I’m not sure.
Are you still proud of that piece?
I’m not sure if I’m proud of the story itself, but I’m proud of the writing and rewriting I did, of getting rejected so many times and for so many years and continuing to work on the story long after any reasonable person would have thrown it away.
Have you re-read it recently?
Not recently, 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?
There’s no way my younger self would accept this advice, which I also give my students: don’t get hung up on getting published. Sure there’s a real joy in seeing one’s work in print, in knowing it has a public existence, but—to me— that’s not the point of writing. I invested so much anxiety in desperately trying to get published and I see young writers doing the same thing all the time. Now, I write for myself, for the quiet time alone trying to make sense of what I think and what I think I think. The time spent writing is the reward.
Andrew Ervin is the author of a collection of novellas, Extraordinary Renditions, and the novel Burning Down George Orwell’s House. His most recent book is Bit by Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our World. He lives in Philadelphia.