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, Randon Billings Noble.
What was the title and genre of your first-ever published piece?
“On Looking” – an essay.
Who published it? Are they still around?
The Massachusetts Review, Volume 48, Number 2 (Summer 2007). They are definitely still around -- and publishing gorgeous work!
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 33 years old. I had been writing essays seriously for about five years. This particular essay had only been rejected once before and it was my 12thsubmission overall.
I was over the moon when it was accepted. It’s the tip of the wedge, I thought. But it turned out to be a very slow-moving wedge – my next essay wasn’t published until two years later (and with more than 70 rejections in between).
Did getting that acceptance feel as triumphant as you'd always hoped? Walk us through the moment when you found out.
Yes! It felt wonderful. I had aimed high and hit the mark. When I got my contributor copies I cleared a shelf on one of my bookcases and turned both copies face out. I later came to call it my Shelf of Accomplishments.
Are you still proud of that piece? Have you re-read it recently?
I am still proud of this piece. It’s a braided essay (which is an unusual form) and it’s about the way we look at animals in a zoo, art in a museum, and people who are, in the moment, not entirely functioning as people – like a nude model in a sculpture class.
I’ve spent some time with “On Looking” recently because it’s included in my essay collection Be with Me Always,which was published by the University of Nebraska Press in March of this year. I sometimes read from it at readings. The part about the nude model makes me blush, but I persevere.
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?
Be bold – and patient. Publishing can be a very, very long game but there are many ways to “win.” Stay playful. Get grit. Ask for help when you need it and help others when you can. We’re all part of a larger literary ecosystem and a rising tide lifts all boats. Work well. Stay honest and open. Keep the faith.