The following is a guest post from the wonderful John McNally, who was probably wondering if I was lying about SSM as he was the first author to send me his guest post, over a month ago now. I love this post. While I wasn't doing a lot of drinking while an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in the late 80's, I was spending a ton of time wandering the stacks of the Rackham Graduate Library looking at literary journals:
When I was an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University in the 1980s, I spent a lot of time drinking. A lot of time. But I also spent a lot of time writing, and while working on a story in Morris Library, I would wander the stacks, pulling literary magazines off shelves and piling them up around me, like a fortress around my legal pad and pen. Whenever I was stuck on a story, I would pick up a magazine and start reading it. At that time, I didn’t recognize any writer’s name; I was just trying to learn about writing short stories, and I was eager to start submitting to these strange magazines that came in a variety of shapes. I liked the typewriter font of The Wormwood Review, but they published only poetry, and I wasn’t a poet. I liked the weird covers of The Mississippi Review and the stateliness of The Hudson Review. There was even something appealing about the ugly orange covers of the old Virginia Quarterly Review. A few magazines I became obsessed with, like Beloit Fiction Journal, whose first issues had just come out, and Sou’wester, published by SIU’s sister school in Edwardsville. In other words, I loved them all – the slick-looking ones and the ugly ones alike, the perfect-bound and the saddle-stapled. More importantly, I loved the thrill of discovering new stories.
In Sou’wester, I remember reading the work of a relatively unknown writer named Robert Wexelblatt, who went on to publish a few books of fiction. I discovered Kent Haruf’s beautiful and chilling “Private Debts/Public Holdings” in Grand Street, and I discovered Dan Chaon for the first time in Ploughshares when I read his story “Fraternity.” Andre Dubus often published in Crazyhorse, so I would return to that magazine again and again. Other writers I remember stumbling upon? Eileen Pollack in an issue of Prairie Schooner with mice on its cover. Elizabeth Jolley and Alice Munro in the old Grand Street. Bob Shacochis in The Missouri Review. Tom Perrotta in Columbia Magazine. I remember finding in TriQuarterly a story by David Ordan whose title changed the way I thought about titles: “Any Minute Mom Should Come Blasting through the Door.” Wow! I had to read it. I would make photocopies of my favorite stories and hand them out to friends who might like them, and I would make my own private anthologies of my favorite stories.
As I said, I drank a lot when I was an undergraduate, and I blew off a lot of classes, but one of my fondest memories of those years – and one of my fondest memories of trying to become a writer – was reading all of these great stories for the first time, finding them in the library stacks, and it felt like some kind of great secret that I knew about that my other classmates didn’t, and it was my secret key to unlocking what I was going to do for the rest of my life. And so when my students now come to me and say, “Where should I send my work? Could you help me put together a list?” I tell them that they should be going to the library or looking for journals online, and that they should be reading, reading, reading, until they find magazines and journals for which they’d sacrifice something in their life to be in.
John McNally is author of five works of fiction, including the story collections Troublemakers (U. of Iowa Press) and Ghosts of Chicago (Northwestern U. Press). He’s also author of The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide: Advice from an Unrepentant Novelist. A book on craft – Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Fiction Writers – will be published in the spring of 2013 by University of Iowa Press.