My First Time (Revisited)

smntmanl

It was my great pleasure to guest-post at The Quivering Pen, a fantastic site for writers (and readers) curated by David Abrams (himself an excellent reader and writer: check him out, here).

***

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Sean Murphy, author of the just-published novel Not to Mention a Nice Life. Murphy has been publishing fiction, reviews (of music, movie, book, food), and essays on the technology industry for almost twenty years. He is an associate editor at The Weeklings, where he contributes a monthly column. He writes regularly for PopMatters, and his work has also appeared in Punchnel’s, The Village Voice, AlterNet, Web Del Sol, All About Jazz, The Good Men Project, Elephant Journal and Northern Virginia Magazine. He is the recipient of a Noepe Center for Literary Arts Writer Residency. Murphy’s best-selling memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone: A Memoir for My Mother was released in 2013.

 

All My Firsts

Let’s talk about the first.

There’s the first story I wrote. (Original story: fifth grade; vaguely plagiarized ones where, looking back and with apologies to Edgar Allan Poe, imitation was the sincerest form of flattery: third and fourth grades.)

There’s the first “adult” book I read. (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, fourth grade. Huge mistake. Having seen the movies and read some comic book treatments, I thought I was ready for the real thing. It took me more than halfway through to understand Frankenstein was not, in fact, the monster.)

There’s the first success. (Being asked to compose and recite an original poem for an eighth-grade student assembly.)

There’s the first readership. (A series of features I wrote for my high school newspaper. For a teenager, a printed byline is as close to the big-time as it got, at least in the old-school era before social media and blogs.)

There’s the first publication. (A poem in my college literary magazine.)

There’s the first “important” publication. (A short story in another, better-known literary magazine.)

There’s the first in a series of unfortunate events. (Also known as writing workshops, wherein the cocky writer’s work gets, well, workshopped. Hilarity does not often ensue.)

There’s the first in a longer series of ceaseless rejection. (No comment necessary.)

There’s the first short story I knew would make me famous. (It’s still unpublished.)

There’s the first attempt at a novel. (Also unpublished. Fortunately, for all involved.)

There’s the subsequent, earnest attempt at a first novel. (Still a work-in-progress. Sort of.)

Nothing especially unique or noteworthy, right? All of these events or experiences were stepping stones most, if not all, writers will recognize and relate to. There is an evolution comprised of myriad firsts (and lasts), but what separates all but the most successful and/or lucky authors is what happens after the familiar epiphanies of the apprentice have occurred and it gets to the eventual, inevitable matter of perseverance.

The “first” that was, if not unique, for me the most formative and indelible, involved rejection and resolve.

Let me tell you a story: a famous writer saw a first chapter of this aforementioned novel. Famous writer picks up phone (people still used phones in those days) and tells unknown writer that he loves the material and wants his agent to look at it. Agent receives chapter, loves it too, and asks to see entire manuscript on an exclusive basis. Unknown writer thinks: this is it, the big break, the moment of truth, and other clichés. An entire summer passes, which is unfortunate. It happens to be the same summer unknown writer’s mother—who has been battling cancer for five years—begins to lose her final battle. By the time unknown writer’s mother passes away, the novel, the agent and the famous writer are about the farthest things from his mind. On the day of mother’s funeral, unknown writer makes the ill-advised decision to check his email before leaving the house. He sees the overdue email from agent. Something tells him not to open it, but of course he has to; according to logic and everything right in the world, not to mention the imperative of Cliché, this is the perfect time to see he’s about to be represented and eventually published, and this is the miracle he’ll employ to overcome his grief, and he’ll dedicate this book to his mother, without whom he could never have written it, or written anything.

Naturally, the email is, in fact, a rather terse (but apologetic) rejection.

And this unknown writer, in spite of himself, looks past the computer, looks beyond his disbelief, and looks out to whomever or whatever may be listening (or orchestrating this test of faith) and can’t quite believe hearing the words, in a voice that sounds a lot like his: “Is that all you got?”

No, this is not going to be the final, unkindest cut, the sign that failure is inevitable, the signal that it’s better to move on to other things, the message that it’s not meant to be. I’m not doing this, he thinks, because I want to, or that I hope to prove anything, or become famous (he has put away childish things). I’m doing this, he knows, because he doesn’t know what else he could possibly do with himself. He does it, he finally understands, because there’s nothing else he could imagine himself doing. And that the only failure is to stop. To be afraid, to give up.

It wasn’t the first rejection, obviously, and while it may be the biggest, it wasn’t the last. In addition to death and taxes, writers recognize at some point, however resignedly, that rejection will always be on offer, for free, forever.

And ultimately it mattered only in the sense that it didn’t matter. Or, it mattered a great deal in the sense that it was not enough to dissuade or discourage him from stumbling down a path he made up as he went along; that revealed itself only when he looked back on another piece of writing and thought: Good thing I didn’t stop.

This was the most important first, the first day of the rest of my life.

My novel Not To Mention a Nice Life is now available.

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“My First Time”, via The Quivering Pen

NTMANL

It was my great pleasure to guest-post at The Quivering Pen, a fantastic site for writers (and readers) curated by David Abrams (himself an excellent reader and writer: check him out, here).

***

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Sean Murphy, author of the just-published novel Not to Mention a Nice Life. Murphy has been publishing fiction, reviews (of music, movie, book, food), and essays on the technology industry for almost twenty years. He is an associate editor at The Weeklings, where he contributes a monthly column. He writes regularly for PopMatters, and his work has also appeared in Punchnel’s, The Village Voice, AlterNet, Web Del Sol, All About Jazz, The Good Men Project, Elephant Journal and Northern Virginia Magazine. He is the recipient of a Noepe Center for Literary Arts Writer Residency. Murphy’s best-selling memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone: A Memoir for My Mother was released in 2013.

All My Firsts

Let’s talk about the first.

There’s the first story I wrote. (Original story: fifth grade; vaguely plagiarized ones where, looking back and with apologies to Edgar Allan Poe, imitation was the sincerest form of flattery: third and fourth grades.)

There’s the first “adult” book I read. (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, fourth grade. Huge mistake. Having seen the movies and read some comic book treatments, I thought I was ready for the real thing. It took me more than halfway through to understand Frankenstein was not, in fact, the monster.)

There’s the first success. (Being asked to compose and recite an original poem for an eighth-grade student assembly.)

There’s the first readership. (A series of features I wrote for my high school newspaper. For a teenager, a printed byline is as close to the big-time as it got, at least in the old-school era before social media and blogs.)

There’s the first publication. (A poem in my college literary magazine.)

There’s the first “important” publication. (A short story in another, better-known literary magazine.)

There’s the first in a series of unfortunate events. (Also known as writing workshops, wherein the cocky writer’s work gets, well, workshopped. Hilarity does not often ensue.)

There’s the first in a longer series of ceaseless rejection. (No comment necessary.)

There’s the first short story I knew would make me famous. (It’s still unpublished.)

There’s the first attempt at a novel. (Also unpublished. Fortunately, for all involved.)

There’s the subsequent, earnest attempt at a first novel. (Still a work-in-progress. Sort of.)

Nothing especially unique or noteworthy, right? All of these events or experiences were stepping stones most, if not all, writers will recognize and relate to. There is an evolution comprised of myriad firsts (and lasts), but what separates all but the most successful and/or lucky authors is what happens after the familiar epiphanies of the apprentice have occurred and it gets to the eventual, inevitable matter of perseverance.

The “first” that was, if not unique, for me the most formative and indelible, involved rejection and resolve.

Let me tell you a story: a famous writer saw a first chapter of this aforementioned novel. Famous writer picks up phone (people still used phones in those days) and tells unknown writer that he loves the material and wants his agent to look at it. Agent receives chapter, loves it too, and asks to see entire manuscript on an exclusive basis. Unknown writer thinks: this is it, the big break, the moment of truth, and other clichés. An entire summer passes, which is unfortunate. It happens to be the same summer unknown writer’s mother—who has been battling cancer for five years—begins to lose her final battle. By the time unknown writer’s mother passes away, the novel, the agent and the famous writer are about the farthest things from his mind. On the day of mother’s funeral, unknown writer makes the ill-advised decision to check his email before leaving the house. He sees the overdue email from agent. Something tells him not to open it, but of course he has to; according to logic and everything right in the world, not to mention the imperative of Cliché, this is the perfect time to see he’s about to be represented and eventually published, and this is the miracle he’ll employ to overcome his grief, and he’ll dedicate this book to his mother, without whom he could never have written it, or written anything.

Naturally, the email is, in fact, a rather terse (but apologetic) rejection.

And this unknown writer, in spite of himself, looks past the computer, looks beyond his disbelief, and looks out to whomever or whatever may be listening (or orchestrating this test of faith) and can’t quite believe hearing the words, in a voice that sounds a lot like his: “Is that all you got?”

No, this is not going to be the final, unkindest cut, the sign that failure is inevitable, the signal that it’s better to move on to other things, the message that it’s not meant to be. I’m not doing this, he thinks, because I want to, or that I hope to prove anything, or become famous (he has put away childish things). I’m doing this, he knows, because he doesn’t know what else he could possibly do with himself. He does it, he finally understands, because there’s nothing else he could imagine himself doing. And that the only failure is to stop. To be afraid, to give up.

It wasn’t the first rejection, obviously, and while it may be the biggest, it wasn’t the last.  In addition to death and taxes, writers recognize at some point, however resignedly, that rejection will always be on offer, for free, forever.

And ultimately it mattered only in the sense that it didn’t matter. Or, it mattered a great deal in the sense that it was not enough to dissuade or discourage him from stumbling down a path he made up as he went along; that revealed itself only when he looked back on another piece of writing and thought: Good thing I didn’t stop.

This was the most important first, the first day of the rest of my life.

My novel Not To Mention a Nice Life is now available.

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Pas de deux: Outside the Text*

 

Il n’y a pas de hors-texte

–Jacques Derrida

An elderly man, thinking about nothing in particular, walks casually down the Champs Elysees, as he has done countless times, on his way to meet an acquaintance when he experiences a sudden, familiar sensation—a vague remembrance:  recherché du temps perdu, when he was a much younger man, a boy even—and he finds himself automatically reciting, like a child memorizing a psalm, those profound lines he had first encountered in his youth (which now seemed like so many lifetimes ago):  “nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada…” and as he whispers these reassuring words, undesirable images begin to crowd his aging mind and he is startled to find that the defenses are not as quick in coming:  this was not as he had trained and mastered himself to be—or not to be—he thinks, and before he can suppress it, a quick, shrill laughter escapes him, coming from he knew not where; somewhere deep, somewhere he did not until that moment know existed and as he stands motionless on the familiar Parisian street with the mild breeze blowing the leaves delicately over his freshly polished shoes, for the first time in his extremely secure life, he fears, or rather, he entertains the fear that his fac—his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s were not intact.

“It shall pass,” he murmurs, closing his eyes and deciding that the only reasonable course of action is to remain calm and try to think about nothing

but he can’t stop shaking, in spite of himself.  “Well no wonder I am trembling, the snow is falling down like I have never seen it before, and here am I, totally unprepared for these wretched conditions.”  He sighs, looking at his silk trousers and sports coat, which were offering pitiful protection from the shrieking wind.  “Why did I not hire a cab, and now it is so late,” he thinks, looking wistfully ahead at Izmailovsky Bridge, its enormous frame scarcely discernible in the distance:  no more than a mile away, mockingly close, and yet such a far walk in this frigid, filthy slush.  And so our hero resolutely exhales, deciding that it was all for the best, after all, and that all the wrongs would soon be righted.  And with this conviction, he begins walking again

gazing up at the wall of ice that surrounds him on all sides, and above it all, Mont Blanc, its solemn sheen glistening:  silence.  Then there is a noise behind him and he looks at what appears to be the figure of a man running toward him, descending the mountain with superhuman speed, covering in seconds the ground it had just taken him nearly two hours to traverse, and he thinks desperately:  It is me—it is for me that he is coming.  He prepares to flee, but realizes that if he moves quickly he will lose his footing and topple to his death among the icy crags.  He watches the distant form sprinting toward him and is surprised by the indignant fury he suddenly feels—unsure how his emotions had so quickly changed from one extreme to the other, because he is now ready, and welcomes the confrontation as he stands rooted to the spot, all thoughts of flight extinguished.  The creature approaches and stands in front of its adversary, towering over him.  It says nothing, but stands silently with a malevolent grimace, apparently waiting for a response to its unheeded appearance.  The elder man measures his opponent and feels a lifetime of dialogue welling up inside him, and speaks thus:  “Devil, you dare to approach me…I had hoped this moment would never come to pass; in fact, I must confess that I have meditated less frequently than I care to admit about its inevitability.  But this is insignificant, because you do not exist and therefore cannot threaten me.”

The creature receives this and responds bitterly:  “You know very well of my existence, doctor, as it was you who created me.  I live and I think… and that is why you fear me!”

The elder man breathes deeply, drawing himself up to his full height, and looks up at his enemy.  “You say I gave you life,” he hisses.  “Very well.  Undoubtedly, I have the power to take that which I have so rashly bestowed…”

“You have run doctor, and I have followed.  Verily, I have followed you to the ends of the earth.  And now you shall satisfy me.”

The elder man hears this and then the harsh, hollow laughter, and realizes wearily that his powers are waning, and that he may have only one remaining chance to escape.  “If I close my eyes and ignore it, it will disappear,” he thinks.  “And when I awaken again, he shall be gone…”

After what seems a lifetime of vacuous silence, he opens his eyes and

there is nothing there; nothing at all but darkness.  He feels a faint sickness in his heart—on account of the dampness of the catacombs.  “Now if only I might find my way out of this cave, so that I may return to the carnival and those that await me there…”

“But you cannot leave—not yet!” a voice calls out behind him in the still, dark air. “You have not yet tasted the Amontillado!”

As the elder man turns the opaque air is suddenly illuminated, revealing a hooded figure, which holds a torch in one hand and a bottle, raised expectantly, in the other.  “Come, let us sample at once.  I believe it to be an excellent vintage, but you must inform me if I have been duped!”

The elder gentleman assesses this development and feels a sluggish panic overcoming him as he stares at the uncanny presence before him:  a garish red mask draped over its face, a ridiculous costume capable of frightening only the young or the feeble-minded. Yes, the disguise, in and of itself was so preposterous and unoriginal it could only evoke laughter, yet, as is the case with all successful ruses, it was the identity which the mask concealed that inspired fear in the heart of the elder gentleman.

“Excuse me, let me pass,” he says, invoking the authoritative tone he has relied upon in so many previous formal lectures, readings and personal confrontations.  But the stranger, unabashed, steps in front of him and blocks his way.

“I cannot allow that,” the costumed man cries, throwing the bottle forcefully against the wall, where it crashes in a crimson spray.  “Not until you answer me one question.”

Now the elder man is extremely nervous:  that strange foreboding he felt earlier— which seems somehow to be playing itself out in such an inconceivable fashion, even as he wishes against it—has him at a loss for the first time in what seems like several lifetimes, but he realizes he has only one chance and struggles to maintain his composure.

“I am a busy man…what is it I can do for you?  Be brief please.”

The unidentified man snickers and stands closely until his face is inches away.  “Look in my eyes,” he says, reaching out.  The old man tries to step away and feels himself being grabbed with an agility and force that has long since become a shady memory of a distant past.

“Mon frère,” the older man starts, reeling inwardly at the unthinkable subservience of his tone and amazed at the sound of these simple, but scarcely recognizable words of gentility—the common courtesy he was once taught to value and had chosen to shun—these words which he has not uttered in so many lifetimes.

The stranger takes hold of his arm and with one hand reveals his grinning, leering face.  “Look at my eyes and tell me who you see!”

And the older man cannot resist and he looks, and sees, and calls out urgently in a voice very unlike his own:

“For the love of God, Montresor!”

“Yes,” the other replies, nodding his head.  “For the love of God,” and he kisses the old man on the lips and then disappears

in the bright and suddenly crowded Parisian street, he is quickly lost among the throng of university students.  Presently, a colleague and dear friend approaches and sees the older man sprawled out on the pavement, staring blankly at the sky.  He bends down and calls out in alarm:  before his eyes his mentor seems to have transformed into a gigantic insect.  He rubs his eyes and the bizarre miracle passes as abruptly as it came, and once again he is looking down at his comrade, who seems to have aged several years and looks pitifully defenseless, supine on the cobblestones.

“Qu’est-ce que passe, mon ami?”

And the old man awakens from uneasy dreams and gazes up at the familiar face, hearing the undisguised contempt of his voice:  “Hypocrite lecteur!–mon semblable, mon frère…” while        

he looks up and it seems there is a mirror being held over his face:  for a moment he sees himself, but then the image moves and he fancies he can see not one, but many figures huddled around him, tittering and pointing.  Despite this humiliation, he finds it oddly comforting that every one of their faces is obscured:  he looks at their clouded, blank visages and welcomes their undeniable nonexistence.  “It is nothing,” he thinks calmly. “All nothing at all.”  But then before his eyes the men surrounding him begin to twitch and shake and amidst the sudden, horrible laughter he watches as their true, real identities are revealed to him and he must confront this irreversible reality as he feels himself slipping into the heart of an immense darkness.

       ***

When he opens his eyes he is staring expressively at the world around him:  at the verdant trees which loom overhead, and the inestimable expanse of lucid skies that stretch up and away from him.  He hears strange birds calling, and he can somehow understand this other language and in the last moment he comprehends how simple it all actually was, and how it could have been for him.  But he sees that the wall before him is too high.  In his youth he could have scaled it easily:  now he is old and too mired in his soft flesh to master this ivory wall, this wall which he can only lie and look up at—the infallible fruit of a life’s labors—all for naught as he fades away into the nothingness that he always desperately feared would be waiting for him.

 

*This short story, an exorcism of sorts, was first written in 1994, when I was struggling to determine if I wanted to continue staggering up that ivory tower, theory books in hand and deconstruction in my head. It’s too romantic by more than half to imply that this piece, conceived and written in one single burst of inspiration, effectively provided me with direction, a divine intervention of sorts. The writer saved by his muse, exiled to the oft-fallow fields of creative writing instead of the more secure environs of academia. It’s more than half-true, but it took a while longer for me to make my decision. That day came when I found myself able to write fiction again, and it gradually dawned on me that the decision had already made itself. (More on that HERE.)

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