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Sunday, October 4, 2009
The Kindest Cut by Shirley Wetzel
I was born in Comanche, Texas, but I soon got bored and hopped a train bound for Key West three weeks later, accompanied by my mother and big sister. My dad was in the Navy, and we bounced around the country, finally settling back in Texas.
I started writing as soon as my fingers could hold a pencil, and have never stopped. Most of what I wrote was for my own amusement, but a few years ago I decided to get serious and started submitting personal essays, historical stories, and such to magazines, newspapers and anthologies. To my amazement, I sold most of them. My first love, though, is mystery. Last fall my first mystery short story was included in A DEATH IN TEXAS, published by L&L Dreamspell. I love to travel, and have seen a lot of the world, including Thailand, where I lived for two years, Guatemala, where I worked on a Highland Maya archaeological excavation, Turkey, Peru, and various parts of Mexico. My current work in progress is a mystery titled A Death in Comanche, and it's been in progress a loooong time. I write book reviews for overmydeadbody.com, and sometimes for Mysterious Morgue. My blog address is http://swetzel.wordpress.com
The Kindest Cut by Shirley Wetzel
I always wanted to be a writer, someday. All through my school days, college years, and working life I wrote essays, poems, and stories, then filed them away, waiting for the day when I really became a writer. I won contests, impressed the kinfolks with my recording of family stories, and amused my friends and co-workers by writing short stories, usually mysteries, using them as characters. Decades went by, and still I was not a writer, according to my personal definition. I took writing classes, thinking this would finally qualify me to be a "real" writer. I studied writing markets, read numerous "how to be a writer" books, and read voraciously, especially the books of successful writers that I admired. What I did not do was submit anything. It was just too frightening to send my darlings off into the cruel world, where surely they would be summarily rejected and I would be exposed as a no-talent hack. No, someday I would be ready to join the fray and take my chances – just not yet.
There was one market I wanted to break into over all others. Back in the day when newspapers were still worth reading, the Houston Chronicle had a Sunday magazine that featured personal essays pertaining in some way to Texas. I read each essay carefully, even typed them out to get the rhythm of the pieces I liked, and thought "I can do this!" I wrote my own essays, then put them in a drawer. Not yet …
Finally my fiftieth birthday loomed on the horizon and I realized, ready or not, it was time to fish or cut bait, do or die, publish or perish – just do it.
And I did. I pulled out my favorite piece, the story about my aunt and uncle, a love story with tragedy and triumph that illustrated the strength of the human spirit and the power of love. I polished it until it gleamed, put it in an envelope, said a few prayers and incantations, and sent it on its way. A few weeks later my stamped, self-addressed envelope showed up in the mailbox. It was too thick to contain only an acceptance letter. With trembling hands, I opened it, trying to steel myself for my first rejection. At least I'd tried!
I pulled out the manuscript, looking in vain for the form letter I knew must be there. Had it been so awful the editor didn't even bother to do that much? Then I looked at the first page and saw hand-written notes in the margin. The editor, Ken Hammond, had obviously taken the time to read every word. It was a rejection, for sure, but by the time I finished reading his encouraging, helpful and kind comments I felt anything but rejected. He said that the story was heartfelt, beautifully written, but just not quite what he was looking for. Best of all, he encouraged me to try again, and enclosed the writers' guidelines. He didn't say "who do you think you're trying to fool," or "don't bother me with this tripe again," or any of the other awful things I had feared. He thought I was a writer. And just like that, I knew I was one, and I began acting like one.
I took that essay and shortened it and re-worked it, submitting it to a column in the newspaper called Among Friends. A couple of weeks later I was checking my e-mail, browsing through countless spam and boring work memos, when I came across one from the Chronicle. The editor liked my story, and because my uncle was a World War II veteran and that was part of my essay, she wanted to run it in the Memorial Day issue.
As soon as the essay was published, I started getting calls from friends and neighbors and every relative in the area telling me how much they liked the piece. I even got a few calls from total strangers complimenting my story – I had FANS! This author business was heady stuff. I started submitting more of those pieces that had been gathering dust in the bottom drawer, and writing new ones. Some were accepted, some were not, but it was all grist for the mill.
That was several years ago. I still drag my feet, still fear rejection, but I no longer doubt that I AM a writer. There was one big disappointment, however.
I kept submitting essays to State Lines, and Mr. Hammond kept turning them down, always gently and with encouragement to try, try again. Finally the day came when he said "this is it, I like this one, if you can just tweak it a bit I want to print it." I think he was just as happy as I was that I was finally achieving my dearest goal. It wasn't even one of my more heartfelt family tales, but the story of a girl, a gun, and a squirrel named Squeaky. Mr. Hammond said he didn't usually print stories about animals, but there was something about this one … A few weeks later, I got a letter from him. I tore it open, expecting it to be the final acceptance of the story. My heart sank when I read his words. The Chronicle was "undergoing changes" and the Texas Magazine was no more. He apologized for not being able to print my story, thanked me for my submissions, and wished me well in my writing.
I was disappointed, but did not give up. I wished that I could thank Mr. Hammond for his gentle and positive rejections, and one day I got that chance.
It turned out that he lives near one of the members of my writers' group. I told her my story, and she brought him to the launch of our anthology, A Death in Texas, which contains my first published mystery short story. I gave him a copy of my essay.
A few weeks later, he sent me an e-mail:
What a personal and emotion-touching essay you wrote with "The Kindest Cut." As I read it, I found myself hoping that essay would be printed in State Lines, even though I knew it would not be. That's a tribute to your skill and honesty.
As for your kind words about my rejections, thanks you. …You are a writer, indeed …