There, in a back room, while waiting to see if I’d be accepted into the University of Iowa or some other school with a Creative Writing department, I wrote stories every morning.
Everybody was warned not to bother me. I was an artiste!
I had to yell at a younger brother or two, to get my point across, but, big self-important bully, I did.
After my writing session, I’d sit at table, drinking coffee and visiting with my mom. There I worked out the Jumble, which is a newspaper puzzle with scrambled words. My younger brother George could just look at them and tell me the words, but I had no such skill.
And after the Jumble, I’d walk downtown, along the old main street, still at that time a two-lane highway running through the middle of the town. Of course, later, our little town was deemed insufficiently interesting, and the highway routed around the south edge, and our town withered further, but this was back when we thought ourselves important because the highway ran through town.
Downtown, I’d fetch the mail from the post office. On an exciting day, I’d find the new issue of Writer’s Digest, with new clues for breaking into the big time like F. Scott Fitzgerald. On other days, one of my short stories would be returned from a magazine, with a little printed slip.
These polite notes are called “rejection slips”. An entire legend has built up about these small slips of paper. I’ve heard of writers who papered the bathroom with them.
Would you do that?
I didn’t think so.
It would just be too disheartening.
But on the other hand, I didn’t throw my rejection slips away, because these are the only acknowledgements that the stories had actually been seen by someone at the magazine. We don’t know, really, whether the stories are read, of course. Maybe they have a fifteen-year-old mailroom boy whose job it is to open incoming envelopes, put the manuscript in your self-addressed, stamped envelope, add the rejection slip, and set it into the “out” box.
It could be that way. How would we know?
Of course, short stories, even then, were swimming upstream, against the tide. Once upon a time, before radio had stolen stories from print, and long before television stole stories from radio, there were lots of printed stories. First they appeared inside newspapers, at least we’re told that’s where Dickens and Sherlock Holmes stories first appeared. But in this country, after newspapers and the pony express had developed, magazines evolved. Big magazines, with pictures like Life and Look and Saturday Evening Post. And little magazines with pulp paper like Black Mask and Analog and Wild West.
This expanding market for stories, especially the easily-printable “short” stories, created a new artform, and this new artform gave high-school and college teachers an easy way to teach literature. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that I thought short-stories wonderful, even in those latter days when paying markets had shrunk to a spare handful of magazines, mostly snooty magazines like Atlantic and New Yorker and Esquire.
So, I wrote the stories. I sent them out. They came back with rejection slips. Bummer.
One day I was fed up, and I got an idea.
I typed up a new story. It was very short, only about five pages long. It was in all the correct form, typed just the way you’re supposed to do, with the title and author and margins and everything. The name of this story was “Tale of Quacking Duck.”
The only thing was that the entire story consisted only of the word “quack.” It had paragraphs and sentences and dialog, all correctly formatted, but only using the word “quack”. For example, a few paragraphs might look like this —
Quack quack quack quack, quack quack quack. Quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack. Quack quack.
“Quack quack quack quack quack,” quack quack. “Quack quack quack quack quack quack?” Quack quack quack quack quack quack.
“Quack quack,” quack quack, quack quack quack quack, “Quack quack quack quack quack, quack quack!”
“Quack quack,” quack quack.
Quack quack quack quack quack quack quack, quack quack quack quack quack quack quack. Quack quack. Quack, quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack? Quack quack quack quack. Quack quack quack quack quack.
I kept a carbon copy, and mailed the original, with a stamped, self-addressed envelope as is proper, to the New Yorker.
Then I waited.
Sure enough, about three weeks later, in the post office box I found my returned manuscript.
Sure enough, it had a rejection slip.
But for the first time ever, there was a hand-written note on the rejection slip. This was a new high! I’d actually received a written note from one of the guys who’d read my manuscript.
“Nice try,” it said.