The Pile of Skulls

27 November 2019 on Blog, Storystorm  

For five years, I’d been collecting rejection emails in a special inbox folder titled “The Pile of Skulls”. When the total approached one-hundred and thirty, the accumulated despair made me want to give up the writing game for good. Hell, I’d been grinding through local writers’ groups in the Seattle region for so long that I even started my own, which in hindsight, should have been a major indicator that my process simply wasn’t working. My entire approach to the craft needed a complete overhaul. After another rejection from the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshop (though I found out later hardly anyone gets in the first time they apply), I fell down the MaFiA rabbit hole, landing with the Stonecoast MFA program in Maine.

Despite the protests of friends who went professional as “real writers” without MFA degrees, I knew Stonecoast was the right fit for me. After two years working closely with writers like Aaron Hamburger, James Patrick Kelly, and Theodora Goss, my prose skills finally sparkled in a way they never had before.

But the rejections kept coming.

They were higher-tiered this time around, including several letters from managing editors, yet nobody wanted to pay me for my stories and I didn’t know why. Even worse, I’d lodged myself deeper into the “game,” having quit my day job and moved across the country in the hopes that frozen Maine winters would provide inspiration—and isolation—for getting some “serious” writing done. I didn’t have the literal countdown clock that Ray Bradbury experienced when he wrote Fahrenheit 451, clinking ten cents per hour into a “pay typewriter” at the local university while simultaneously sweating his mortgage bills. But trust me, when your bank account keeps dropping each month and you expect your stories to bring in hard cash, you will feel what can only be described as the pinch.

Six different critiques of a time travel short story I’d workshopped, each one turned to a different page, covered my desk as a Maine blizzard raged outside my window. I kept Nancy Holder’s comments front and center. But even with the handwritten guidance of Stonecoast’s undisputed goddess of commercial fiction, the tumblers just wouldn’t click into place. Like many writers, above my workspace I’d posted a motivational question:

Why am I writing?

Sometime during my MFA fugue I’d asked myself that, perhaps during a stint of boredom or writer’s block. It had served as a beacon ever since, the North Star guiding my slipshod boat. Yet, in that moment, I knew this question was wrong. Tearing down the paper, I crumpled it into a ball, and added it to the cliché stash by the wastebasket. I wrote a new question in plain blue pen:

Why am I reading?

For so long I’d focused on climbing the pile of skulls, often while hurdling the bodies of my fellow writers who’d given up, stumbled, or lost their way, I’d forgotten about the most important person in the process:

The reader.

For seven years I wondered why I was writing, and my answers to that question were all wrong. Fighting for a three-book deal, a podcast appearance, or a guest of honor spot at a convention are all terrible reasons to sit by yourself and stare at a tiny screen in the dark. 

I wrote that story because I wanted to know what happened next.

And I sold it.

Jess Flarity reads fiction for Barnstorm and is a first-year literature PhD student at the University of New Hampshire. He graduated from the Stonecoast MFA program in 2018.

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