I’m stealing a line from Bob Dylan, “Bringing It All Back Home,” because that’s how I feel about the publication of my short story “Before What Came After” in the upcoming issue of Elder Mountain: A Journal of Ozarks Studies. Although, "Slow Train Coming" could also serve. This story’s appearance in a Missouri journal is indeed bringing it all back home – to my home state and to my personal state of writerly balance.
I completed the first draft of “Before What Came After” at least 15 years ago. Back then, it was called “Field Trial.” I wrote it around the same time that I wrote another linked story called “Mumbly Peg,” which was published in River Styx. I submitted the story to literary journals and received several personal rejections from editors. The problem was that, even though the editors unanimously said the story “came close” to being published, each cited drastically different, non-overlapping reasons why it didn’t.
With no consensus, I became increasingly frustrated and the story languished. I fixated on this “unfixable” story. It became my writer’s block. And then I quit writing altogether. I won’t go bore you with the reasons, but this story was a convenient scapegoat. Wordless years went by. I switched from Mac to PCs. Old files on floppy discs and Zip drives became inaccessible. And I lost a cabinet full of paper copies in a basement flood.
When I decided to return to writing more than a year ago, I knew I would pick up where I left off. One of my best friends and first readers still had an old hard copy of “Field Trial.” I retyped it and began editing and rewriting. I have heard alcoholics say that even after they quit drinking, their disease is still in the background doing pushups. My writing ability was doing something similar.
I began to see, finally, what was the essence of this story. Or maybe I just finally grew into the story. Either way, the basic plot did not change, but the telling of it did. I won’t bore you with the many permutations, but one version, set in current times, involved the character Wash recording the climactic scene with his smart phone and uploading it to social media. That version didn’t last, but the new title I had given it, “Before What Came After,” did.
I began submitting this story aggressively, starting first with Missouri-based journals. As a Missouri artist, I want to give my own state first right of refusal. They say all politics is local, and I believe the same should be true for art. The story was rejected by almost 60 literary journals in the past year. I received a precious few personalized rejections from editors who praised how close it had come to acceptance. As the rejections mounted, I began to feel the old frustration creep back in. I wrote a bitter blog about becoming the Chris Crocker of short story writers. You can read that pity party here.
Then came word from Elder Mountain Editor C.D. Albin that he wanted to publish it. He had a couple of suggestions that I agreed with. The revision took two weeks and reminded me yet again that my stories just have to be abandoned because there is always something that can be tweaked.
I am grateful that “Before What Came After” has found a home in a quality journal. I am just as grateful to have pushed through my writer’s block. And, to quote Dylan again (from “It's All Over Now, Baby Blue”) “Strike another match, go start anew.”
Elder Mountain is published at Missouri State University-West Plains and includes high-quality short stories, poems, and works of creative nonfiction and visual art that explores the Ozarks. It also features carefully writing work from all disciplinary perspectives, including anthropology, economics, folklore, geography, geology, history, literature, music, and political science, which is free of common Ozark stereotypes.