The first short story I ever published was in 1993, in Esquire magazine. The story was called “Pilgrims.” It was about a girl working on a ranch in Wyoming, and it was inspired by my own experience as a girl who had worked on a ranch in Wyoming. As usual, I sent the story out to a bunch of publications, unsolicited. As usual, everyone rejected it. Except one.
A young assistant editor at Esquire named Tony Freund plucked my story out of the slush pile and brought it to the editor in chief, a man named Terry McDonell. Tony suspected that his boss might like the story, because he knew Terry had always been fascinated with the American West. Terry did indeed like “Pilgrims,” and he purchased it, and that’s how I got my first break as a writer. It was the break of a lifetime. The story was slated to appear in the November issue of Esquire, with Michael Jordan on the cover.
A month before the issue was to go to press, however, Tony called me to say there was a problem. A major advertiser had pulled out, and as a result the magazine would need to be several pages shorter than planned that month. Sacrifices would have to be made; they were looking for volunteers. I was given a choice: I could either cut my story by 30 percent so that it would fit in the new, slimmer November issue, or I could pull it from the magazine entirely and hope it would find a home—intact—in some future issue.
“I can’t tell you what to do,” Tony said. “I will completely understand if you don’t want to butcher your work like this. I think the story will indeed suffer from being amputated. It might be better for you, then, if we wait a few months and publish it intact. But I also have to warn you that the magazine world is an unpredictable business. There may be an argument for striking while the iron is hot. Your story might never get published if you hesitate now. Terry might lose interest in it or, who knows, he might even leave his job at Esquire and move to another magazine—and then your champion will be gone. So I don’t know what to tell you. The choice is yours.”
Do you have any idea what it means to cut 30 percent from a ten-page short story? I’d worked on that story for a year and a half. It was like polished granite by the time Esquire got their hands on it. There was not a superfluous word in it, I believed. What’s more, I felt that “Pilgrims” was the best thing I’d ever written, and, as far as I knew, I might never write that well again. It was deeply precious to me, the blood of my blood. I couldn’t imagine how the story would even make sense anymore, amputated like that. Above all, my dignity as an artist was offended by the very idea of mutilating my life’s best work simply because a car company had pulled an advertisement from a men’s magazine. What about integrity? What about honor? What about pride?
If artists do not uphold a standard of incorruptibility in this nefarious world, who will?
On the other hand, screw it.
Because let’s be honest: It wasn’t the Magna Carta we were talking about here; it was just a short story about a cowgirl and her boyfriend.
I grabbed a red pencil and I cut that thing down to the bone.
The initial devastation to the narrative was shocking. The story had no meaning or logic anymore. It was literary carnage—but that’s when things started to get interesting. Looking over this hacked-up mess, it dawned upon me this was a rather fantastic creative challenge: Could I still manage to make it work? I began suturing the narrative back into a sort of sense. As I pieced and pinned sentences together, I realized that the cuts had indeed transformed the entire tone of the story, but not necessarily in a bad way. The new version was neither better nor worse than the old version; it was just profoundly different. It felt leaner and harder, not unappealingly austere.
I never would have written that way naturally—I hadn’t known I could write that way—and that revelation alone intrigued me. (It was like one of those dreams where you discover a previously unknown room in your house, and you have that expansive feeling that your life has more possibility to it than you thought it did.) I was amazed to discover that my work could be played with so roughly—torn apart, chopped up, reassembled—and that it could still survive, perhaps even thrive, within its new parameters.
What you produce is not necessarily always sacred, I realized, just because you think it’s sacred. What is sacred is the time that you spend working on the project, and what that time does to expand your imagination, and what that expanded imagination does to transform your life.
The more lightly you can pass that time, the brighter your existence becomes.