Memories of Big Brown Envelopes

I mailed off my first story to a publisher today. Yes, I know I said I printed it a week ago. But I woke up the next morning realizing that one scene was completely cheesy and had to be rewritten. And when I took out the cheese I had to think about what to put in instead. It’s good now. (What is the opposite of cheesy? Meaty? Or maybe real, as in “Keeping it real, man.” But that’s cheesy. Never mind.)

Surprisingly, the submission process these days is the same as it was thirty-five years ago. I put my double-spaced manuscript in an envelope, weighed it, stamped it, and mailed it to New York City.

Although it was my first submission, it was a very familiar experience. My childhood was full of these envelopes. My mother is a writer, a very good one. (No, you haven’t heard of her. Getting published is hard, damn it. Especially when you write mainstream fiction.)

When I was a kid some big magazines (Atlantic Monthly, Mademoiselle) still published short fiction, and accepted unsolicited manuscripts. Out would go the big envelopes, and six to twelve weeks later back they would come. Then a new cover letter would be typed, and the story sent on to the next market on the list.

The rejection letters were usually small, and short. Occasionally there would be a brief hand written note.

I’m not sure when my mother stopped submitting short fiction. When I was in college she studied film making and made a short silent film about a writer. The writer, played by a fellow writer my mother met at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, waitressed by day and wrote by night. The most memorable shot was when the camera panned up from her typewriter to the wall above, covered with rejection letters.

“How depressing,” whispered my boyfriend at the screening.
“Those are real,” I whispered back. “They’re hers.”

I should have my own stack of letters soon. They’re the mark of a writer. I hope it helps to know that going in.