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, Lilly Dancyger.
What was the title and genre of your first-ever published piece?
My very first published pieces don’t have very interesting stories behind them—I was on the student newspaper in college and published there a ton, and I also had two internships (at a feminist magazine and a local newspaper) where I also published a lot. After I finished the newspaper internship I freelanced for them for a while. But the first published piece that really felt like a “break” was a feature article I wrote for New York magazine called “The Long, Slow Death of Mars Bar.”
Who published it? Are they still around?
Specially, the Grub Street vertical of New York magazine’s website. And yes!
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 22 and had just graduated college. I’d been writing since I was a teenager and publishing through internships and the student paper for the last year or so, but this was the first piece that felt like I was breaking through, like I could be a real freelancer and a real writer. I wrote the piece specifically with New York magazine in mind, and was lucky enough to have them accept it so I didn’t have to shop it around.
This piece was really important to me because the closing of Mars Bar was a big deal—it was an infamously grimy, rough dive bar in the East Village, one of the very last of its kind—and it was getting coverage in a lot of outlets, but I had a personal connection to it and felt I deserved to write this piece. I grew up in the East Village and had been going to Mars Bar since I was 15. I had a personal connection to the place, and to what it meant for the neighborhood to lose an institution like that. So to get to be the one to tell that story felt really important and special. I didn’t trust some transplant who’d never heard of Mars until it was closing to do it right.
Did getting that acceptance feel as triumphant as you'd always hoped? Walk us through the moment when you found out.
Mostly, yes! I’d originally pitched the print editor (I’ve always believed in aiming high), and he was interested but wanted a draft on spec. So I wrote the piece and sent it in… And then I woke up late one afternoon a few days later (this was the summer after college graduation, remember) to an email from him saying he’d passed it on to the web team and they liked it so much they just put it right up!
So there was a flash of disappointment that it hadn’t made it into print, but that was immediately tempered by the fact that not only was it accepted for web, but it was already up, live, right there! I stumbled into my roommate’s room and said something to the effect of “holy shit, my Mars Bar piece is up on New York magazine’s site!!!!”
Are you still proud of that piece? Have you re-read it recently?
I am! I hadn’t re-read it until these questions prompted me to do so—there are a few spots where I laughed at my own earnestness, but mostly I can see in reading it how hard I was trying to do a really good job. It also helps that I’ve since switched gears and I write more personal essay and memoir now, as opposed to features, so my feature-writing voice probably hasn’t changed as much as it would have if that had been my focus all this time. But I’m still proud that I got to tell the story of the end of this important place in such a big venue.
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?
When I was starting out I was really concerned with collecting bylines from as many high-profile publications as I could, which has had its benefits for sure, but if anything I would tell myself to slow down sooner, and identify a few outlets I really vibed with to build relationships with. The best writer-editor relationships are the ones that develop over time, where you earn the editor’s trust and eventually you can come to them with your weirdest ideas and they’ll trust you to execute them. That has more lasting value, I think, than checking another big name off your wish list.
Lilly Dancyger is a contributing editor at Catapult and assistant books editor at Barrelhouse. She's also the editor of BURN IT DOWN, an anthology of essays on women's anger, forthcoming from Seal Press in October. Follow her on Twitter here.