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 Melissa Scholes Young answers.
What was the title and genre of your first-ever published piece?
The first essay I ever published was called “Sleep from the Trenches.” It was a nonfiction humor piece about how I memorized divorce attorney phone numbers from billboards to keep myself awake while I drove to work. Sleep deprivation is real, y’all.
Who published it? Are they still around?
It was for a print magazine, Front Porch, that advertised itself as an edgier Parade. My essay won their Best New Nonfiction Writer contest. It was a huge honor for my first-ever published piece. They even illustrated the piece with a grumpy me in a military hat threatening my sleeping partner while the baby cried. That almost makes up for the fact that they never actually paid me the prize. They went out of business before they could.
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.
I was 26. I wrote the essay in a fit one time when the baby finally slept and I couldn’t. I found being home with a newborn delightfully boring. Motherhood split open my creativity. It was the first thing I ever sent for possible publication.
Actually, I won my first writing contest in third grade. It was a prompt for Mother's Day about why I had the best mom.
I wrote I have the best mom in the world because I have the best dad in the world and the best dad's pick the best moms. The end.
The prize was a $10 gift certificate to the Ponderosa Steakhouse. I've been writing ever since.
Did getting that acceptance feel as triumphant as you'd always hoped? Walk us through the moment when you found out.
I almost missed the moment. I’d written it, submitted it, and stopped checking my email. One afternoon my phone rang and it was the editor giving me one last chance to publish the essay and win their prize. They’d been emailing for weeks. The editor asked me to send them a photo and bio. I had neither. So, I ran out to the front porch (I thought that was very clever considering the name of the magazine) and took a photo. They cut my porch swing out of the picture, but I still have this earnest, I’m a writer, tired grin on my face.
Are you still proud of that piece? Have you re-read it recently?
Every time I clean my office (often, to avoid writing, of course), I come across it. The layout is gorgeous. I still like the pacing of the essay, and I enjoy laughing at my harried former self. Poor thing. I’m so much cooler now.
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?
Keep your guts. Take big risks. Say yes to every opportunity, every writer coffee, every reading, every submission call. Listen to your editors. Be hungry. Be gracious. Send thank you notes. It’s an honor every day just to play in this writing game.
Melissa Scholes Young’s writing has been published in the Atlantic, Washington Post, Poets & Writers, Narrative, Ploughshares, and other literary journals. She is a Contributing Editor at Fiction Writers Review and Editor of an anthology of D.C. Women Writers, Grace in Darkness.
She teaches College Writing and Creative Writing at American University. Her debut novel, FLOOD, is available from Center Street/ Hachette. She lives in Maryland with her husband, kids, and a chocolate labrador named Huckleberry Finn.