I entered my Covid cocoon in mid-March, with no idea when it would end. I told myself I would need to hibernate for at least a year and a half, with January 1 marking the halfway point. I can bear most things if I know they will end — thus the sudden release of tension with the election results.
Now, with the promise of a vaccine, I may be able to emerge in spring. If that’s the case, my hibernation is already well past the halfway point. This is reason to celebrate, to be sure, but I’m worried I won’t be ready in time. Many of my friends spent the early Covid months cleaning out their closets and file cabinets. I haven’t touched mine, although I’ve wasted hours looking for things obscured by the surrounding mess.
What kept me from decluttering? For one thing, I haven’t had as much free time as I expected. Covid workarounds slow me down. With many of my usual pursuits going digital, tech issues have multiplied, and I’m my own IT person. I thought the pandemic would give me more time to accomplish my goals, but it feels like less.
It’s possible the goals themselves are the problem. Cleaning out closets feels pointless with the world spinning out of control. I have larger goals, but I haven’t met those either — and truth be told, I wasn’t meeting them pre-pandemic either. I can’t blame that on Covid — or even on Trump, although I can blame him for my binge watching of MSNBC.
So here goes. What I’d most like to accomplish is a substantial piece of writing. I’ve published hundreds of articles and reviews, and I’m proud of my work, but my dream would be publish a work of fiction.
I’m not a newbie to fiction. Years ago I placed a couple of short stories in a local publication. But short fiction is hard to sell — or even give away — so I spun more tales around the same motif. I honed them in workshops and stitched them into a collection. I studied how to market a short story collection at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. [Note to aspiring authors: in November the festival began offering workshops online.] And then I put my stories into one of those overstuffed filing cabinets, and there they sit. I haven’t produced any new material lately, although I’ve outlined a couple novels.
So what am I waiting for? Do I expect a publisher to come to me? Freud might have the answer to that, and it’s probably about fear of rejection. That leaves posthumous publication. That may sound ghoulish and seem unlikely, but it wouldn’t be unprecedented.
In her lifetime, Emily Dickinson published only seven poems. The remaining 1,768 appeared in print after her death and spawned a cottage industry — you can buy a mug with her mug. The reclusive Dickinson was probably glad not to read the reviews. I’d like to think she foresaw what her legacy would be and never gave up hope, “the thing with feathers.”
I wonder if the same could be said of Mary Ladd Gavell, who died of cancer in 1967 at age 47 without having published any of the short stories she had stashed in a drawer. I doubt she expected her status to change after her death, but it did, thanks to a series of developments right out of a novel.
A native of Texas, Mary Ladd worked as a writer for the War Production Board in Washington, DC, where she met and became friends with Helen Perry. In the 1950s, Perry became managing editor of Psychiatry: A Journal for the Study of Interpersonal Processes. When Perry quit that job, she recommended as her replacement her friend Mary, who had married Stefan Gavell, a former Polish Air Force officer. Mary Ladd Gavell’s life was busy with two young sons and her work at the scientific journal, but she made time to write short stories if not to market them. After Gavell’s untimely death, Perry suggested that Psychiatry publish one of her short stories as a memorial. Thus “The Rotifer” came into print, which qualified it for inclusion The Best American Short Stories in 1968.
Fast forward three decades to 2000, when John Updike chose “The Rotifer” as one of The Best American Short Stories of the Century. Next, improbably enough, enter my mother and father. My mother participated in a book group that discussed stories from that anthology. When it was her turn to present a story, my mother drew “The Rotifer” and put my dad to work researching the author. My father became curious about Gavell’s story and managed to track down her husband.
Impressed with “The Rotifer” — a masterfully crafted story — my father asked the widower for permission to contact publishers about the whole drawerful of stories. My father’s efforts didn’t succeed, but soon after, a literary agent took up the cause. The result was that Random House published I Cannot Tell a Lie, Exactly and Other Stories in 2001. It garnered rave reviews, 34 years after Mary Ladd Gavell died unpublished.
In the acknowledgments, Stefan Gavell credited my father: “To Jack Star, the Chicago writer and editor whose enthusiasm for ‘The Rotifer,’ for Mary’s style of writing, and for her gift of storytelling prompted his exclamation, ‘She deserves to be published,’ and propelled his sustained efforts to this end.”
My dad is gone, so I’ll have to channel his enthusiasm and be my own cheerleader if I want to get published. Or maybe I’ll decide it’s not worth the effort. Some things are more important. I value my relationships over my writing. And when I’m gone, my loved ones would undoubtedly appreciate it if I cleaned out those closets and saved them the trouble.