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 we’re pleased to be speaking with one of the featured authors at our upcoming conference in Pittsburgh on October 26, Monica Prince.
What was the title and genre of your first-ever published piece?
My first published piece that was distributed beyond my college campus was a creative nonfiction essay titled “Seasonal.”
Who published it? Are they still around?
Madcap Review, bless them. They are still around! They published two more of my nonfiction pieces, actually.
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 had just graduated from grad school with my MFA in poetry, actually. I was twenty-five; it was July of 2015. The nonfiction editor, a colleague of mine from grad school, solicited a different piece from me, but I was prouder of “Seasonal,” and she agreed once she read it. Evidenced by my MFA, I’d been writing for a long time by then (almost two decades) but I didn’t start actively submitting until after this piece was published. I had never submitted this piece to any journal. It was my first non-academic nonfiction essay, and it was one of the most honest pieces I’d ever written, so I was really afraid of people reading it. Even though I loved the piece, I was really scared that getting it published would devastate my ability to get a job or keep publishing. Clearly that’s not true!
Did getting that acceptance feel as triumphant as you'd always hoped? Walk us through the moment when you found out.
So the editors emailed me one evening saying “We love this and we want to put it in our next issue!” And at first I screamed, like, YES! I finally did it! But then I realized what it would mean: hundreds and potentially thousands of people reading about the worst five months of my adult life. The likelihood that my parents and siblings and relatives and close friends would read it. I thought briefly about asking for a pseudonym, but I remembered in college how my professors reminded me that writing had as much to do with courage as it had to do with fear. If I was going to stand in my truth and maintain my integrity, which looks like owning my experience so that others can feel safe to do so, too, then I was going to let this essay into the world. Maybe if I published it, I wouldn’t need to relive it anymore. And surprisingly, that’s been true.
Are you still proud of that piece? Have you re-read it recently?
I still think it’s one of the best essays I’ve ever written. Next to “Quit Smoking,” which Madcap Review also published about two years later, it’s a piece I think of as something that demanded to be written. (I realize I’m being vague about the subject matter, but I want you to go read it!) I actually haven’t read it in a few years now, and I think that’s because the person who needed that essay (twenty-five-year-old me) is long gone.
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?
Beloved—breathe. You are bound for a greatness that you will frequently question, but keep saying yes. You will start and stop projects, you will withdraw submissions, and you will suffer greatly, thinking you will never live up to the people you’ve always admired. But that’s the price of being a raw nerve, remember?
In three months, you’ll be at a writing residency that will give you the groundwork for three of your most important projects. In a year, you’ll be working five jobs in your field and wildly in love. In two years, you’ll be wildly heartbroken (again) but about to start your dream job. In three years, you will publish your first chapbook, become an editor of an internationally-recognized online journal, and get your first poetry collection accepted under contract. In four years, you will be wildly in love again, but this time you will be doing your dream job—teaching the best students on Earth and reading the best work ever written—and performing choreopoems all over the country.
You think everything will always be terrible and hard to do. That’s not true. You think no one understands your writing and that performance, though as natural to you as breathing, might not sustain you. That’s not true either. If you feel like you cannot believe in anything right now, believe in this: you have never been one to quit breathing. And writing—that has been your air for so long. How dare you deny your lungs the luxury of your creativity?
Breathe. You are so afraid that you might be excellent. You already are.
Born and raised in Colorado by Guyanese parents, Monica Prince writes choreopoems and performance poetry. Her debut poetry collection, Instructions for Temporary Survival, won the Discovery Award for an outstanding first collection by the publisher, Red Mountain Press. She is the managing editor of the Santa Fe Writers Project Quarterly and the author of the chapbook Letters from the Other Woman. Her choreopoem, How to Exterminate the Black Woman, will be published by [PANK] in spring 2020. She teaches activist and performance writing at Susquehanna University in central Pennsylvania.