My Big Little Break: Heather McNaugher

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, Heather McNaugher.

What was the title and genre of your first-ever published piece?

“Looking Down,” poem

Who published it? Are they still around?

The Twelfth Street Review. I don’t think so.

Give us some context: how old were you? How long had you been writing and submitting?

I’d just turned 29 and was working on my Ph.D. at Binghamton. I’d had a couple of poems and one short story published, but they had received standard, fairly impersonal acceptances. This one, however—see answer to question five.

How many times had the piece been rejected?

Miraculously, this was the first time I’d sent it out. So far, that’s the first and only time that’s happened in my career.

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

I’d just gotten back from winter break, so a lot of mail awaited me. This was in, I think, 2002, so when I write mail I mean mail. Also, I’m pretty sure the copy of the poem I’d sent them was type-written on an old Royal manual. The editors responded in kind—they’d hand- or type-written their acceptance, which was the most gleeful and encouraging I’ve received to date. They were just starting out in Brooklyn and they wanted to feature my poem as the opener to the next issue and could I come read it at the launch at KGB Bar that spring?!

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

I am. It wasn’t then, and still isn’t, a typical poem for me—more esoteric and image-driven than my usual personal narrative.

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?

My younger self was a lot more ambitious and engaged than the current one is! She did things like type little poems on an old manual typewriter and submit them, submission guidelines be damned. So, looking back and knowing how much vigor I’d hemorrhage over the years, I guess I’d have my younger self bottle and store some of that promise and hopefulness, that belief that all things are possible and worth trying.