Well, it happened.
Almost 2 months into the summer, and I finally finished revising a chapter. The reason it was difficult (minus all the other bouts of mania I’ve chronicled since graduating) was because it was a chapter that I submitted as a stand-alone piece to an essay contest at the Iowa Review (this year’s was judged by one of my favorite writers, Jo Ann Beard). I didn’t make it to the final round, and so JoAnnsies still doesn’t know I exist, but I got a fairly lengthy–as rejection letters go–paragraph from one of the editors saying how much potential she thought the essay had.
When I tell most people that I got a handwritten rejection letter, they don’t quite understand why I look like a seven-year-old with a new Super-Soaker 200. I then explain that literary journals receive endless submissions, most of which don’t even get a second glance. You get an impersonal form letter thanking you for trying, and that’s it. So, if some flesh-and-bone hand takes the time to put down their mug, pick up a BIC pen and write, “no, thanks” on your rejection letter, it’s like receiving a silver medal.
Whenever I receive one of these not-quites I immediately stick it to my fridge.
The note from Iowa Review said that my essay was surprising and powerful, but needed “a revision or two” more. They also asked to see that next version. Being that I had already spent a year revising this piece, I had no idea where to go, and the fact that they want to see another version amped up the tension even more. I was in that trap where it made total sense to me. I couldn’t see the forest for the trees, or the tree from the forest, or however that impregnable phrase goes–I mean that I felt like a forest fell on top of me and the only way to break free was to cut my legs off with a dull Swiss Army blade.
In Letter to an IC-5, I mentioned that I was disturbed by researching acid reflux. Well, the reason wasn’t because I’m a hypochondriac who gets nightmares when he sees the words “Deep Vein Thrombosis,” but because I was researching it for the essay–called “What is in the Filling” and is about what we put, keep, and can’t keep in our bodies. Communion, indigestion, family reunions, and a girlfriend that wouldn’t kiss me–somehow that all fit together in my head, but not on the page.
An excerpt from the new-and-hopefully-last-but-probably-not revision:
So, it is about the taking in of things. In this hospital, there are now files, images of my guts documented in the attempt to understand what I’m made of. There is a hollow, scraping feeling inside my gullet, as if I’ve swallowed and torn out a sword. I run the tips of fingers over my ribcage, wincing, and look down at the easily torn paper barely covering the bed I’m sitting on. I am not empty, but the feeling is one of a mass exodus. The prognosis is not so much that I’m choosing the wrong things to be full of, but that my body doesn’t quite understand what to do with it all. I am obedient in that I eat to live, but, like my father before me, obedience won’t keep you standing or keep you from stopping altogether.
It also has something to do with cups; with chipped Pyrex lips, and what kind of liquid will pass over its jagged edge—wine, spit, the burp of death, what else? In elementary school—and middle even—my answer to the question, How did he die? was always: “He swallowed glass.” My father’s cup had broken, and he drank it down.