Tomatoes, Stories and the Future of this Newsletter
It’s canning season, which means I spent most of last weekend ladling stewed tomatoes into jars and raw-packing diced ones. After a long day’s work, I took the freshly sealed jars down to the cellar and arranged them on shelves lined with ancient contact paper and felt an immense sense of satisfaction: 39 jars full of locally-grown tomatoes preserved and ready for use whenever I want, and they’ll last me until next August.
When I started this newsletter just over a year ago, I had a fully stocked file folder full of stories that were polished and ready to publish. There were about thirty-seven of them, enough to publish one story per week for nine months. At the time, thirty-seven weeks was a long way off, a problem for future me.
Well, now I am living in that future. I have to write new stories to publish here, and I’m working on some. The trouble is, that developing stories takes time. Someone once said that you should put your story in a drawer and revisit it months down the road. I cannot remember the source of this quote, but I have found it to be pretty good advice. When I let something sit for a while, its flaws jump out at me.
But how do I let things sit when I’m trying to publish once a week?
So, with my cellar bare, I’m at a crossroads. What am I going to do with this Substack? I started it because I always found submitting to literary magazines to be a chore. Lit mag editors expect you to read a few pieces before submitting, which is fair enough, but given that getting published is a numbers game, reading lit mags can eat up a lot of time. Often, when I did read them, the stories didn’t impress me that much, and I felt less motivated to submit.
Last summer, while at a Twins game, I told all of this to a friend, and she said, “Isn’t it their job to decide whether your story is a fit for their magazine?” And perhaps she had a point. The ugly truth is that while editors can offer you their guidelines (which, let’s face it, are often extremely vague, sometimes verging on word salad) they don’t know what they want until they see it. They know what they don’t want; for example, don’t submit your Christian romance stories to a horror journal. But that x-factor, that je ne sais quoi, that intangible thing that makes them say ‘yes’ to a story -- they only see it when your story is in front of them. That is probably why their guidelines are so opaque in the first place.
Anyone who knows how to build a website can launch a literary journal nowadays. Is it really that prestigious if someone sitting in their kitchen in Lanesboro wants to put my story on their website? Is that really more valuable than someone clicking the heart button on Substack? Moreover, many journals like these don’t last long. Several of the stories I’ve published on this Substack previously appeared in journals that have gone dark, are on hiatus, or have disappeared from the web altogether.
Then there are the more elite journals, the ones that come out of university MFA programs. Some say editors of these journals tend to publish their friends, and there’s a citation for that claim somewhere, but I’m not going to look for it now.
Am I shooting myself in the foot by writing that? Did I shoot myself in the foot by starting this newsletter in the first place? I don’t fucking care anymore. Writing, and success therewith, should be about talent, not playing a game of hopscotch in which landing on the wrong square means pissing off certain people and destroying your career forever. (And before you say “That’s every industry,” let me just say that I think you can work in semiconductors and say “We should change the way we make semiconductors” without people getting into a tizzy.)
And anyway, more and more writers, whom I respect, are coming to Substack.has a Substack. has a Substack. Junot Diaz said on Facebook that he’s in talks with “the Substack people.” And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of lesser-known people with amazing newsletters: , , -- and there are so many more!
But still, there’s the lingering question: what am I going to do with this newsletter, going forward? A weekly publishing schedule and the creative process don’t always get along. However, I don’t want to abandon my audience here or mothball this newsletter. I think I’ve concluded that I should let go of the idea that this will help my career in any way, and just publish whenever and whatever I damn well please. That might mean I publish more essays in addition to stories or publish short stories weeks or months apart.
I want everyone who subscribes to, reads, likes and leaves comments on this newsletter to know that I appreciate you all. I know you have a lot of other things that vie for your attention and I’m grateful for the few minutes you spend with me each week. I may be venturing out into the wilderness now and making irregular stops along the way, but I hope you’ll all continue on this journey with me.
Just as soon as I figure out where to go.