Let me tell you a story about persistence and patience.
Back in my early twenties, I wrote a short story called “Elk Talk.” The tale had grown out of an experience I’d had back when I was working as a cook on a ranch in Wyoming. One evening, I had stayed up late telling jokes and drinking beer with a few of the cowboys. These guys were all hunters, and we got to talking about elk calls—the various techniques for imitating a bull elk’s mating call in order to draw the animals near. One of the cowboys, Hank, admitted that he had recently purchased a tape recording of some elk calls made by the greatest master of elk-calling in elk-hunting history, a guy named (and I will never forget this) Larry D. Jones.
For some reason—it might have been the beer—I thought this was the funniest thing I’d ever heard. I loved that there was somebody in the world named Larry D. Jones who made a living by recording himself imitating mating calls of elks, and I loved that people like my friend Hank bought these tapes in order to practice their own mating calls. I persuaded Hank to go find the Larry D. Jones instructional mating-call tape, and I made him play it for me again and again while I laughed myself dizzy. It wasn’t just the sound of the elk call that I found hilarious (it’s an eardrum-shredding Styrofoam-against-Styrofoam screech); I also loved the earnest twang of Larry D. Jones droning on and on about how to do it correctly. I found the whole thing to be comedy gold.
Then somehow (again, the beer may have played a role) I got this idea that Hank and I should go try it out—that we should stumble into the woods in the middle of the night with a boom box and the Larry D. Jones tape, just to see what would happen. So we did. We were drunk and giddy and loud as we thrashed through the Wyoming mountains. Hank carried the boom box on his shoulder and turned up the volume as high as he could, while I kept falling over laughing at the loud, artificial sound of a bull elk in rut—interspersed with Larry D. Jones’s droning voice—blasting through our surroundings.
We could not have been less in tune with nature at that moment, but nature found us anyway. All at once there was a thunder of hooves (I’d never heard an actual thunder of hooves before; it’s terrifying) and then a crashing of branches, and then the biggest elk you ever saw exploded into our clearing and stood there in the moonlight, just a few short yards from us, snorting and pawing at the ground and tossing his antlered head in fury: What rival male has dared to bugle a mating call on my turf?
Suddenly, Larry D. Jones didn’t seem so funny anymore.
Never have two people sobered up as fast as Hank and I sobered up right then. We’d been kidding, but this seven-hundred-pound beast was decidedly not kidding. He was ready for war. It was as if we’d been conducting a harmless little séance, but had inadvertently summoned forth an actual dangerous spirit. We’d been messing around with forces that should not be messed with, and we were not worthy.
My impulse was to bow down before the elk, trembling, and to beg for mercy. Hank’s impulse was smarter—to throw the boom box as far away from us as he could, as if it were about to detonate (anything to distance ourselves from the bogus voice that we had dragged into this all-too-real forest). We cowered behind a boulder. We gawped at the elk in wonder while it blew clouds of frosty breath, furiously looking for its rival, tearing up the earth beneath its hooves. When you see the face of God, it is meant to frighten you, and this magnificent creature had frightened us in exactly that manner.
When the elk finally departed, we inched our way back to the ranch, feeling humbled and shaken and very mortal. It was awesome—in the classical definition of the word.
So I wrote about it. I didn’t tell this exact story, but I wanted to catch hold of that sensation (“callow humans humbled by divine natural visitation”) and use it as the basis for writing something serious and intense about man and nature. I wanted to take that electrifying personal experience and work it into a piece of short fiction using imagined characters. It took me many months to get that story right—or at least to get it as close to right as I possibly could, for my age and abilities. When I finished writing the story, I called it “Elk Talk.” Then I started sending it out to magazines, hoping somebody would publish it.
One of the publications that I sent “Elk Talk” to was the late, great fiction journal Story. Many of my literary heroes—Cheever, Caldwell, Salinger, Heller—had been published there over the decades, and I wanted to be in those pages, too. A few weeks later, my inevitable rejection letter arrived in the post. But this was a really special rejection letter.
You have to understand that rejection letters come in varying degrees, ranging across the full spectrum of the word no. There is not only the boilerplate form rejection letter; there is also the boilerplate rejection letter with a tiny personal note scrawled on the bottom, in an actual human’s handwriting, which might say something like, Interesting, but not for us! It can be exhilarating to receive even such a sparse crumb of recognition, and many times in my youth I’d been known to run around crowing to my friends, “I just got the most amazing rejection note!”
But this particular rejection letter was from Story’s well-respected editor in chief, Lois Rosenthal herself. Her response was thoughtful and encouraging. Ms. Rosenthal liked the story, she wrote. She tended to like stories about animals better than stories about people. Ultimately, however, she felt that the ending fell short. Therefore, she would not be publishing it. But she wished me good luck.
To an unpublished writer, getting rejected as nicely as that—from the editor in chief herself!—is almost like winning the Pulitzer. I was elated. It was by far the most fantastic rejection I’d ever received. And then I did what I used to do all the time back then: I took that rejected short story out of its self-addressed stamped envelope and sent it off to another magazine to collect yet another rejection letter—maybe an even better one. Because that is how you play the game. Onward ever, backward never.
A few years passed. I kept working at my day jobs and writing on the side. I finally did get published—with a different short story, in a different magazine. Because of that lucky break, I was now able to get a professional literary agent. Now it was my agent, Sarah, who sent my work out to publishers on my behalf. (No more photocopying for me; my agent had her own photocopier!) A few months into our relationship, Sarah called me with lovely news: My old short story “Elk Talk” was going to be published.
“Wonderful,” I said. “Who bought it?”
“Story magazine,” she reported. “Lois Rosenthal loved it.”
A few days later, I had a phone conversation with Lois herself, who could not have been kinder. She told me that she thought “Elk Talk” was perfect, and that she couldn’t wait to publish it.
“You even liked the ending?” I asked.
“Of course,” she said. “I adore the ending.”
As we spoke, I was holding in my hands the very rejection letter she had written me just a few years earlier about this same story. Clearly, she had no recollection of ever having read “Elk Talk” before. I didn’t bring it up. I was delighted that she was embracing my work, and I didn’t want to seem disrespectful, snarky, or ungrateful. But I certainly was curious, so I asked, “What is it that you like about my story, if you don’t mind telling me?”
She said, “It’s so evocative. It feels mythical. It reminds me of something, but I can’t quite put my finger on what . . .”
I knew better than to say, “It reminds you of itself.”