These days I take rejection as validation: I’m in the game, I’m doing what writers do, and good for me for trying. Rejection of a piece should never be taken as rejection of the whole writer.
Eric Bosse’s story collection, Magnificent Mistakes, was published by Ravenna Press in the fall of 2011. His stories have appeared in The Sun, Zoetrope, Mississippi Review, Exquisite Corpse, Night Train, The Collagist, Wigleaf, and several other journals and anthologies. He teaches at the University of Oklahoma and lives in Norman with his wife and kids.
Book: Magnificent Mistakes
Story: “Mallard” in Wigleaf
How Eric Bosse Became a Writer
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Eric for saying yes!
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
When I figured out that being my high school freshman football team’s fourth-string quarterback put my odds of playing in the NFL at basically nil, I had to do something else. Actually, I’m not sure I ever wanted to become a writer, because writing was something I always did. People hesitate to say “I’m a writer” because it sounds arrogant or pretentious, I gather; but, if you write, then by definition you are a writer. And I made stories and poems as soon as I could write sentences. Even before I knew how to hold a pencil, I moved through the real world and the worlds of my imagination simultaneously and more or less constantly. I don’t know that I ever had imaginary friends, but I imagined countless adventures and conflicts with people I knew and with characters from books and TV shows. As a child, I was my own mobile 3-D cinema experience. Later, when I dropped out of high school football, I detoured into acting, took theater classes, auditioned for plays, and began an independent course of study in cinema. But by college, I found acting classes less engaging than English and philosophy. I kept acting but ultimately switched to the English major not because I intended to leave theater but because school was a pastime and lit classes amounted to an interesting hobby. I wrote a lot of terrible poetry in those years, which I mistook for great. But no one ever published it. After college, I fell into journalism to pay the bills. Over time, I grew less satisfied by acting in plays. Even when I acted professionally, acting began to feel like the equivalent of playing guitar in a covers band. I eventually figured out that I was a bad poet, but I didn’t have the stamina for novels. And I didn’t have the technical skill to make movies. I was a writer without a genre, I suppose.
A video reading of “Seagulls”
2. How did you go about becoming a writer?
In the eighties and nineties I churned out mountains of bad poetry and volumes of intense personal journal entries. Then, around 1998 or 1999, I joined Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola’s glorious online writing workshop. There, I fell in with a lively, committed group of flash fiction writers. We spurred each other on, and I discovered I had a knack for compression and vivid imagery. I sent out a few flash fictions, got published, and gradually expanded my work into short stories. I considered flash fiction the “basic unit” of my stories, and you can see that at work in my book. Even the longest pieces are broken into fragments that have their own shape and momentum. Hopefully they work cohesively, as well.
For any aspiring writers who may read this, one obscure masterpiece that uses flash fictions within a larger narrative is Oz Shelach’s “novel in fragments,” Picnic Grounds. I learned a lot from that book. And from Ernest Hemingway and Yasunari Kawabata, too.
But maybe that’s not what you’re after. In my more-or-less daily practice, I got up early, before my wife, and tapped out story after story. I read a lot of magazines and online journals. I started following writers I admired. I went deep with a few (the usual suspects: Hemingway, Vonnegut, Tobias Wolff, George Saunders, Stuart Dybek) then gained an appreciation for the more densely packed stories of Alice Munro and the rich and varied worlds within books by Andrea Barrett and Jim Shepard. I can’t say precisely how these writers influenced me, but whenever I found myself in a jam while working on a story I’d ask what one of them would do in a similar situation. I still do that. It’s a crutch, but it helps. Also, if I just don’t feel in the right frame of mind to write, I start by reading poetry. Good poetry. That almost always works to get me going. I rarely experience writer’s block; but I go through phases when I’m terribly undisciplined. I have to somehow trick myself into writing. Once I start, I don’t stop until I’m out of time.
As for getting published, I sent out my best work as many as thirty, forty, even fifty times—starting with the top tier magazines and working my way down through print and online journals. I did that until each piece got published or I became disenchanted with it. Or both. I try to gauge whether a story fits well with a given publication, but that’s guesswork. I don’t devote a lot of time to fiction market study. I learned from running my own online journal that a rejection really should not come as a blow to the ego. As an editor, I turned down countless excellent stories because they didn’t quite align with my aesthetic for the journal. These days I take rejection as validation: I’m in the game, I’m doing what writers do, and good for me for trying. Rejection of a piece should never be taken as rejection of the whole writer. That’s the best advice I can give to a beginner—well, that and don’t pay for grad school. There are enough fully funded slots in MFA programs that if you don’t get one this year you should keep trying until you do.
I mentioned Zoetrope: the writers there helped immensely. Closely studying published writers I admired helped. I had one close reading relationship with a peer in grad school, but that faded when I moved away. I have yet to find a true, long-term mentor—an expert reader who believes in me, actively reads my stories, and tells me honestly what works and what doesn’t. I was certain Kevin Canty would become that for me when I went off to grad school, but he went on sabbatical for my first year and we never quite clicked when he came back. Kevin’s a good guy. I admire his work. And he may be the published author out there with whom I—well, my stories—have the most in common. But whatever makes for a good mentor -and-writer relationship, I have not found that. It feels like a myth to me now, one that I may never live. But who knows? I may not be easy to get along with. I’ve got that fatal combination of shyness and confidence that people often misread as arrogance. I’m probably the most neurotic, self-critical person I know; yet I come across as…well, that’s purely speculation. Whatever I am—quiet loner or asshole, or both—I’m kind of out here on my own, as a writer. Which is fine. Kathryn Rantala at Ravenna Press has proven very supportive these past few years, and the book has begun to reach a few readers. That’s all the validation I need.
My acting experience feeds into my writing career in a productive way. It’s been twelve years since I last did a play; but, now that I’m doing a lot of public readings (about 30 in the past year), I can use those theatrical skills to pull off a more dramatic and hopefully engaging reading than your average writer. We writers are often, by nature, quiet, shy, reclusive. And I am. But when I go on stage or walk up to a mic, I know how to perform. So, in that sense, I’ve drawn upon the contributions of a host of mentors and teachers who helped me. My high school forensics coach, Gaye Brasher, has probably done as much for my writing career as anyone else. And the great, under-appreciated theatrical director Murray Ross in Colorado Springs cleared the way for me to find myself over and over again in the plays he directed. It’s strange to make the connection now, as I write this, between acting and writing. I understand characters and character development and even dialog thanks to the theater. Oh, and I had a good friend, Paul Vaughn, who collaborated with me on a few super-low-budget movie projects (see below). He was great. He kept me honest. And I did my best work when I wrote with Paul firmly in mind as my reader. Unfortunately cancer took his life a few years ago. Fuck you, cancer.
MOCK: The Ultimate Mockumentary
4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?
Well, I can’t get over what Jean-Dominique Bauby did in his memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Bauby suffered from locked-in syndrome when he wrote the book, meaning he couldn’t move his body at all. His mode of communication with the world was an eyelid. Someone would read the alphabet, in the order the letters most frequently appear in the French language, and Bauby would blink when he heard the letter he wanted next.
But it’s not the first-glance inspirational value of his triumph that I take to heart. In fact, I suspect taking inspiration from that struggle is one of the crude luxuries of able-bodied privilege. What inspires me still, after five readings, is Bauby’s evocation of the sensual and emotional details of a life and world from which he was almost entirely removed. I don’t know how factually accurate his memoir is, but the fullness with which he imagines and records his story devastates me. In a good way. So I hold that in mind sometimes when I write, as a kind of ideal to strive toward.
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
I should write that letter. Now that I’ve become a parent and launched an actual grownup career (I’m a professor—well, a “lecturer”—and for the most part I teach essay writing rather than creative writing), my time and energy for writing have dwindled. Writing these answers has tripled my output for the week. (Did I just type “output”? I’m getting sloppy in my old age.) But in my letter to an imaginary aspiring writer, I would assure that writer that she is in fact a writer, and that her self-doubt is simply a byproduct of the task of writing. (Did I just type “byproduct”?) In a letter to just such a writer, Charles Baxter identifies feelings of inadequacy as “the black-lung disease of writing.” Self doubt is a professional hazard: you will write, and the world will remain indifferent. You will fail. You will learn something new, try something new, and you will fail again. You will feel like an imposter. And this will happen to you again and again and again. And along the way, if you can remember to be kind to yourself and others, you’ll hopefully lead a life worth living. Maybe you should not gamble your entire financial future on the chance that you’ll spit out a bestseller sooner or later. But if you want to write and you care enough to do the work of discovering your blind spots and improving your vision, then don’t give up. And don’t expect success. Redefine success so writing will be its own victory. Each draft is a triumph, even the one where you botch the whole thing. Every rejection is a badge of honor. And every publication is a major milestone along the road. The road to what? Keep going. Find out.