One of the toughest questions a writer faces is, “What is your story about?” I’ve awkwardly stumbled through so many answers to this question—with loved ones, with fellow writers, with strangers—until I instituted the policy of not answering it. The answer the question is to diminish the story itself. To say that Moby Dick is about a man obsessed with catching a whale is to reduce it (not that I’m claiming to have written Moby Dick).
Still, it’s a question every author must ask himself or herself. I’ve noticed that most of my stories follow certain motifs: transience, desuetude, drifting states of abeyance. As one who grew up in a small rural town and saw so many putting on Norman Rockwell smiles of good citizenry to cover up any deviant behavior or thoughts, I’ve always been interested in, and sympathetic to, those drastic lunges of what I’ll call selfhood—the daring jail breaks from social norms, whether misguided, doomed, or embarrassing, that are often so necessary for a person to feel alive.
I guess that’s where “The Names of All Things” started. I had moved to Tucson, Arizona, with Heather Mackey, who is now my wife, while she got her MFA in creative writing at the University of Arizona. The Southwest was a new and arresting place for me. I worked all sorts of jobs in a place that didn’t offer many good ways to make a living. One of them was as a substitute teacher at a somewhat sketchy private school for rich, wayward youth. I was struck by how transient and uncommitted the other teachers were, and how the kids, despite regular drug tests, seemed to have been abandoned, let loose upon the world in their privilege or loss of privilege. Let’s just say that these ingredients made it a very dramatic, if not combustible, place in my mind. I wanted to follow one of those combustions in a story.
The other impulse of the story was simply a desire to write about the Southwest in all of it vast craziness and sweeping beauty, to capture its ragged, desultory rhythms, inhabit the burns of its textures, lose myself in what I’ll call its sacred godlessness. This is a spiritual story in its way.
The story underwent many outright revisions and many more tweaks, largely because of the number of times it was rejected. Perhaps those rejections were a good thing. I wish I had an accurate count of the number of lit journals that rejected it, but it’s safe to say 30 or 40 of them. It finally received second place in the Southwest Review’s David Nathan Meyerson Prize for Fiction, and then the Southwest Review blessedly decided to publish it.
The path of most creations has to wend through a dark forest of rejections. I like to think each rejection made the story a little better. Each rejection helped me better answer what this story is about.
And now, since the story has been available only in print, I’ve decided to self-publish it as an ebook. It was a goal of mine this year to learn about self-publishing, and the only way to learn about these things is to do it. Fortunately, I discussed the project with Brooke Warner at She Writes Press, and she guided me to Patti Capaldi, a masterful cover designer, who then found a ragged, moody photo by Alice Grossman, which adorns the cover. I felt as if publishing this piece was an extension of the original creative act, except with the help of others.
Also, kudos to Jim Brown for formatting this as an ebook.
I don’t really expect to make a dime, even though it sells for $0.99. It’s always just nice to have a story in the world, and to work with good people to make it so.