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 (getting close to sold out) conference outside DC on April 27, Ivelisse Rodriguez.
What was the title and genre of your first-ever published piece?
My first published piece ever…or as a for real writer? I am going to assume you mean the latter, so I won’t tell you about my hideous poetry in high school or college journals. My first story publication is a story called “Summer of Nene.” Actually, this is not my first publication, but the first story publication, which is what really matters to me
Who published it? Are they still around?
The story was published in the Boston Review. Yup, they are still going strong!
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.
Let’s see, it was 2005, and that was 14 years ago, so I was 30. I really started writing for real (meaning seriously) in 1997 when I went to my MFA program at Emerson. But I still wasn’t a good writer…that took a long long time.
I dusted off my old Excel spreadsheet with my submission info and the earliest dates I find are in 2004, which seems crazy to me because in my mind, I was trying to publish forever before it happened. (Have I been wrong this whole time? What other incorrect stories have I been telling myself?) So the story had been rejected 23 times, with three really great rejection letters, and it was rejected from the Boston Review(ha!).
Did getting that acceptance feel as triumphant as you'd always hoped? Walk us through the moment when you found out.
I get this weird feeling of peace when something triumphant happens, which is not what most would expect. I would expect to be ecstatic and jumping up and down. While I do engage in that, it rarely feels wholly authentic, and then I think what is wrong with me? But I have come to understood that my excitement comes through as this feeling of peace that permeates through me—like everything is alright in the world (ohhhmmmmmmm).
My story of publication is more than one moment. It all started at VONA. I went in the summer of 2005 to take a fiction workshop with Junot Diaz. I had submitted “Summer of Nene” to get into the workshop, which then led to Junot taking the story to the editorial board at the Boston Review, and voilà that silly rejection was a thing of the past.
Are you still proud of that piece? Have you re-read it recently?
I think it is a great story, but I somewhat feel disassociated from it. It is a story that came out in two sittings, so I almost feel like I didn’t write it. Also, I spent sooooooooooo much more time with my other stories, that “Summer of Nene” is like an acquaintance I met once or twice versus a ride or die bestie I spent years with, like my other stories.
I read it at my book launch. I don’t normally read it. Then I forgot about all the swear words and sex in the story…until, I heard someone gasp in the audience—an older gentlemen. I was like uh-oh, and then I kept going.
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?
OMG, 30-year-old Ivelisse, stop sending out things that aren’t ready! NO ONE is going to take it. No one. And you have just wasted everyone’s time. Also, stop your unhealthy obsession with publication. You should, um, actually be working on your writing.
Girl, your book is not going to get published until you are 42, which is a long, long, time from now. I don’t think I can really tell you to buck up or to skip those years of depression where you shook your angry fist at the universe and decried, “Why did you make me believe I could be a writer when clearly this is never going to happen.” I am going to assume that that was the road you were supposed to take. You are the Sisyphus of the writing world. You are unlucky. Other people are much luckier. Those writing urban legends where someone scores a six-figure two-book deal based on a paragraph they wrote are not going to happen to you. Accept you are on the hard and slow road (but I am so inpatient!). I would tell you all this, but I know it won’t make it better, and I know that you will still be impatient, and still be like, “Oh, come on. Can’t we go a little faster?” So I would tell you all this, knowing it will fall on stubborn and impatient ears.