A Small Press, Some Big Dreams, and a Dash of Courage

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This is really a story of two stories. I’ll start with the first:

A while back, my father and I sat down so he could hand over to me (and Sam Eckenrode) the small press he established years ago, Cimarron Books. This had been his baby for what felt like eons to me, and he had tended to it for countless hours over weeks and months and much, much longer, ensuring he did everything right to make it succeed. Eventually, he gave me a bunch of manila folders and papers and a thumb drive with all the most important computer docs: the ISBNs, various colored and black-and-white logos, registrations and files and records, and it was a big kind of gift, the kind that feels both delicate and heavy in your hands, the kind you know you must handle carefully.

I knew I had a lot to learn. I wanted the first book I published as editor of Cimarron Books to be my own book, so I could learn how to be an editor and learn what it takes without possibly botching someone else’s manuscript and dream. I can see now that I had no idea how challenging it would be.

But what book of mine? I had no idea. I figured the answer would become clear in time.

The second story:

Last spring, I wrote the first draft of a very short manuscript that defied any category I knew. I called it: 36 Things You Don’t Know When You Are Sixteen. It was one of those rare pieces of writing that feels like it falls onto the page, as if it didn’t really come from me but more through me, as if I had no choice but to write it.

I worked on it over weeks and months, still unable to say exactly what genre it was. What if this became the book I published?, I wondered, but because it didn’t fit neatly somewhere, I didn’t know whether to really do it.

Still, I worked on it. I took out some things from the 36-item list; I added others; I rearranged the order, trying to determine what made most sense, what order would convey an arc of sorts. In other words, over months, I did the more tedious and meticulous work (that I happen to love) of making my little manuscript all hold together. I changed the title over and over until it finally felt right as 52 Things I Wish I Could Have Told Myself When I Was 17

And then I played the what if game. What if I chose to publish this book? What would people think? What if they didn’t like my mini-book, or didn’t understand it? Fear made me pause. 

But since I was playing the what if game, I fooled around with online design tools and tried to make a decent cover for the book, just in case. I also tried—quite unsuccessfully, I might add—to do the formatting. I had not anticipated how hard any of it would be—both technically and design-wise—to lay out a book. It seemed that with every page and every nut and bolt I needed to use to get a book built, there was a new set of decisions I had to make, and I didn’t have most of the answers. Still, I wasn’t committed, so what did it matter?

Then, one day, not so long ago, the latest issue of the Writer’s Chronicle came in the mail, and in it was an article by the writer George Saunders. He talked about deciding, after many years of trying to emulate other writers’ voices (he called this “plodding up Hemingway Mountain” and later “Carver Mountain, Chekhov Mountain, Babel Mountain”) before finally giving up and writing his own way, a way which didn’t seem like anyone else’s. He wrote, “I looked over and there was this little. . . . shit hill. . . . And I thought: ‘Well, o.k.—it’s a shit hill, but at least it’s my shit hill.’” His words made me think about how what I wrote didn’t look like what I typically saw out there, but it was what I had wanted to write—felt moved to write—exactly as it was. It was my own voice, and it was own little manuscript, and on that day, I decided I wasn’t going to let fear hold me back.

And so on that day, I decided to commit to publishing 52 Things I Wish I Could Have Told Myself When I Was 17 under Cimarron Books. With that commitment came the easy decision that if I was going to really do this, I needed to, as they say in the South, “hire it done,” meaning I had better hire a fabulous designer. I did just that: Peter Barnfather took my idea and my pitiful little book-cover rendering and transformed it into something else, something I love. He did the layout and all the formatting, and I trusted his expertise to figure out all those design decisions that had stumped me. I’ve faced other bumps on the road to birthing this little book, ones I won’t go into here, but I wanted to learn about the publishing industry, and I definitely am—the hard way but also a great way. 

52 Things I Wish I Could Have Told Myself When I Was 17, the first Cimarron Books under my editorship, comes out today in paperback and on Kindle and other ebook formats.

My official book launch event is The Book Cougars podcast (!!!), which you can listen to here.

If you read The Going and Goodbye, this book is not that kind of book. This book is what I am calling a little gift book meant to inspire at any age. Here’s the book’s description:

If you’ve ever wanted to go back in time and talk to your younger self—to give advice, to say what you wish you had known then that you know now, to promise that even when it gets bad, it will get better—then this book is for you. If you are still young enough that most of life’s lessons stretch ahead in front of you, then save yourself a heap of trouble and read what’s on these pages. 

I wanted to be proud of the first book I published for Cimarron Books. I wanted my father to be proud. 

I am. Let’s hope he is.


To learn more about 52 Things, click here

Book launch event: The Book Cougars podcast

The George Saunders’ excerpt is from The Writer’s Chronicle, September 2018, page 42.


Stories and Poems and (Forthcoming) Books, Oh My!

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When I was in graduate school and studying fiction, I had to turn in a story to the class, but I didn’t want to turn in something I had already written prior to the semester starting, so I wrote a new piece. I called it “Claims College.” It was different from any short story I had ever written in that, instead of being all serious, it had a dash of my humor. (Graduate school is supposed to push you out of your comfort zone, right?) It was about a married guy, Nathaniel, who decides that when he goes to an insurance work conference, he wants to have sex. And not with his wife. 

I hadn’t intended it to be funny at all, but then these characters (Octavio, Maggie, Tammy and Bridget) appeared and took on a life of their own. I like it when that happens. I let them tell their own story, and I wondered along with them: Would Nathaniel have the guts to make a conquest? What woman would he hit on, if any? And did he really want to have an affair, or did he want something else?

I didn’t know, at least not until I finished writing it.

Eventually I sent “Claims College” off to several literary magazines and waited. Most of the time (99% of the time, in fact) rejections come as form letters, but one—which came from a reach magazine for me—gave me a no along with feedback: “We really enjoyed this piece,” they wrote. “The interesting setting of this insurance conference, the memorable Octavio, and overall, the prose were impressively crafted.” But, they said, the story needed another rise in tension. 

I went back to my story, I read it again, and I realized they were spot-on. I revised it again and again, adding more tension exactly where they had said it was missing. What a gift that feedback was, so rare but so helpful. I also changed the title to “Trying to Grow.”

A few months later, Platypus Press asked me to contribute a short story to their Shorts (digital-only fiction) series. I sent them three stories, including “Trying to Grow.” I was sure Platypus Press would pick one of the other two, but they chose Nathaniel’s story. And now it feels like we—Nathaniel and I and all the other characters—have found the perfect home.

You can find out more about “Trying to Grow” here.

In other exciting publication news—a new book and a poem:

I am so thrilled to announce that on November 27, I have a new book coming out called 52 Things I Wish I Could Have Told Myself When I Was 17, which you can read about here. My next blog will be about the origin story of 52 Things, and how this book almost wasn’t, until I got fear out of my way. 

And last but not least, I have a new poem up, “Immigrant,” which you can read here. Thank you, Antioch University MFA’s Lunch Ticket staff for selecting my poem to be featured in a Spotlight.